On Having and Losing Beauty

“You don’t have to be pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”’-Diana Vreeland

My sister was an adorable child. She had gorgeous blond curls that bounced around her face. When she smiled her mouth extended horizontally and her whole face changed shape. In a radical effort to show all her teeth she tensed every muscle in her face. The expression brought a whole new meaning to turning a frown upside down. Adults loved her, they praised her on her curls and were constantly affirming her adorableness. I stood next to her with brown straight hair and a cut that was aptly nicknamed after a mushroom. I went through a very long phase in my life where I only wore ‘boy’s’ clothes. I wanted to play in the dirt the way my friends who were boys did. I wanted to have what they had, the carefree sense that comes with knowing that your appearance is irrelevant. Next to my sister, I learnt what I was missing and what I was expected to be: cute.

Long before I could understand what it meant, I, like most young girls, was learning about the politics of beauty. It comes as no surprise to me now that this became evident so early on in life. In fact, it’s now clear to me that it is impossible for females to avoid this reality, because our bodies occupy it. Beauty is a currency that is owned by women and defined by men. Just like any other currency it can be bought, traded and stolen, and just like many other contexts women are commodities and men profit.

Most women do not acknowledge the separateness of their beauty or its impact on their lives until they’re much older. As is true with many things in life, we often do not recognize the value of what we have until it is gone. It was when I lost my beauty that I realized the separateness of this force from my individuality and how much these external standards informed the space I took up in the world.

Up until my years in university if anyone had asked I would never have used the adjective of ‘beauty’ to describe myself.   I had started off life as a tomboy and I had grown into an awkward body, much of which needed fixing in order to measure up: teeth straightened, contact lenses acquired. I suffered from anxiety, battled with depression, and lacked confidence. After my first year of University, it seemed that quite suddenly I noticed a change. My braces had finally been removed, I stopped wearing my glasses, and I started wearing makeup. When I walked through the courtyard at school people seemed to notice me. Guys would look me in the eye as I walked past, and girls would run their eyes up and down me quickly.   People would ask me things, and talk to me as I was buying tea at the cafeteria. As I became more comfortable in my ‘new skin’ I began to realize the power of this currency. I felt as though a magnetic force field had surrounded me and was now pulling people towards my centre. I became popular, I became more confident, I became a leader, I became more of myself, I became desired. This, I thought, must be what it feels like to be a woman. This, I imagined, is what it feels like to be seen.

Five years later I developed adult acne. All of sudden the force that had been pulling people to me was gone and only an insecure shell of a human remained. My face was constantly red and inflamed and I fell into a deep depression, I stayed inside, I hid, I once again became invisible. Suddenly much of my political power had been ripped away from me. Suddenly the space that I occupied no longer aligned with the beauty standard assigned by males. In straying from that standard I lost a number of advantages that I had previously enjoyed.

I no longer felt the same power in influencing men or gaining the respect of other women. I no longer had confidence not only in terms of my appearance but also my competencies, friendships, and love. I was lost because the world told me I was no longer beautiful and the rules told me I was less without prettiness.

I think most women go through this feeling of disenfranchisement at some point in their life, when they feel they lose grip of beauty as a means of social currency. Usually it is when they begin to age and they realize society no longer values them as it used to. I learnt before most, the ephemeral fleeting nature of beauty. I learnt that it was a false construct that would arbitrarily be assigned to me, or taken away, and that if I was going to be happy, I was going to have to learn to live independent of it.

I don’t owe beauty to anyone. Before I understood that beauty was a social currency, I was free from the arbitrary standards, independent of the male definitions that constrained me. I fit into my own definition, I played sports, I had a strange haircut, I wore tear-away pants. I was free from any obligation or expectation to appeal to someone else’s ideal. Instead of painting myself to be seen by others, I learnt to let myself be seen, without affirmation, without doubt, without shame. Beauty may come and go, but I won’t let my body be marked by it. I won’t allow my worth to be defined by it, for the minute I do, I am paying a price for femaleness and the money is going into a man’s pocket.

 

Cardboard Kingdoms

I remember building cardboard kingdoms in fourth grade. We watched a movie where power was erected through stones and mortar and maintained by the guillotine, and then our teacher instructed us to build our own. So I ate up my rice krispies and stashed away its box. Until one day I had collected a considerable pile of trash, not unlike the rocks and mortar that built a moat around privilege and wealth and refused to let anyone else enter.

The edges needed to be ridged so there were spaces to hide the weapons, and the princess could be protected. There needed to be a bridge that could lower and rise to carefully control the flow of entry.  There are some for which the doors are open and others that will never see the other side of the lifted planks.

In hindsight I think I would have been better served recycling the cardboard, finding a park and sitting down to share my rice krispies. That’s the thing about power, it looks good from the outside, but once you step in and the moat is surrounding you, you are alone. That is when you realize that your prize is made of garbage and when it rains the entire structure will turn to pulp.

photo source: https://unsplash.com/search/castle?photo=5YtjgRNTli4 

Floating On

I nestled my chin into my jacket as the cold air whipped against my skin on my bike ride to work, when I saw him out of the corner of my eye.  He was making his way to the office in the opposite direction.  Despite all our failings and my better judgement I could not help but wonder why our paths continued to cross.  I looked away because I couldn’t stare rejection in the eyes, because I was scared.  So I squinted with intent focus and felt my legs go weak with heaviness, as I softly whispered to myself just keep going.  Once the figure had passed in my periphery I let out a sigh of relief, and everything became easier: movement, breath and being.

Rejection was behind me and I could move forward.

As I approached the pedestrian bridge I  shifted my path around a pickup truck.  I watched as men with large steel toed boots and offensively orange jackets closed the blades of their industrial cutters around the fragile necks of the secured locks that adorned the bridges rails.  Orange jackets and armoured men nonchalantly breaking commitments pledged by strangers.  They worked with a detachment and finality that could cut through more than metal.  As I rode by, I slowed, sensing their purpose was larger than the assignment of lightening the bridge.  They were making space for new love.

I looked down and I saw the ducks.  They bobbed as the water drifted them downstream, currents keeping them together or bringing them further away from the others around them.  They surrendered themselves to the waters and spun along with the flow, wanting nothing more or less than to be, and to move on.

I suppose it’s time to focus my eyes on the road ahead, find some protective gear, and let the river take me where it chooses.

Shame

she was all too familiar
with beauty
she had been admired before
en masse

she had felt all the eyes
land on her cheekbones
felt their gaze on her body
rubbing her up and down

with their stare
she had felt the intense
power and vulnerability
in her beauty

felt the reductiveness of it
as her insides
melted away
from irrelevance

she had also known
how it felt
to lose beauty
to crave invisibility

to feel judged
to feel undeserving
of skin
or space

she had known
the experience
of occupying
a female body

and so she
knew shame.

Photo Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/lIYhwFaWfY4

Potential Energy

I feel all the potential energy of the world crowded up inside my heart like the potential energy of a leaf falling from the height of a cloud.  How at the top it is light but when it lands the whole world will shake.  All of the what ifs and could haves are settled inside of me, building up energy from being contained.  They sit there waiting to fall.

Photography by Ileana Skakun: https://unsplash.com/search/heart?photo=dNjMqj4emkc

You are Love

Putting pen to paper
I bring life and shape
To this void
Sending a message
As old as time
I am reassured
That those who need it
Will hear it
You are kind
You are loved
You are needed
That is my purpose
That is my pride
That is my work
Messages of love
And notes of solidarity
Sent into the ether
To be grabbed by those
Who hear then
Feel them
Need them
It’s my love letter
To the world.

Mother

Sitting here watching 
the birds resting on the rocks 
the rocks nestled in the water
the water kissing the shores
the shores leaning on the mountains
the mountains reaching for the sky
the sky holding the clouds
the clouds cushioning the sun

how beautiful this world is 
how fortunate I am to be on it

with my feet grounded in the earth 
I too am resting on the rocks
nestled in the water
kissing the shores
leaning on the mountains
reaching for the sky
cushioned by the clouds
brought to life by the sun

she is the strongest force 
of unconditional love
mother earth

in her presence I am never alone.

The Thing Is

The thing about you is that
You're a runner
Your legs are long and spindly
And your body built for moving fast
You have no patience, no time
For slowing down and staying a while

Which is why when you turned on your pillow
Looked me in the eyes and said
"I really really really like you"
I knew you had fallen fast
But that you may never fall deep

The thing about us is that 
We were only ever in passing
Our story was a treat
You wanted to keep tasting
Because it was so sweet
But it would never keep us full

The thing about me is that
I don't know if I'll ever be full
I have a deepness inside 
That may be infinite
I'm not sure because I have yet to find the bottom

So the thing is
This was never meant to be
But it still means something to me.

Twinkles

The skyline is lit up like the stars it hides. So instead of looking up we are looking forward.  Instead of staring with our heads tilted wondering about humans’ place in the world and the vastness of the universe, we marvel at our own work and the vastness of ourselves.

We are disillusioned.  We are so small. If you need proof, think of all the lights you cannot see, the ones that find their home beyond our world. Not the ones stitched together with bricks and mortar and illuminated by electricity. Think of the stars.

When I see the buildings twinkle, I know they are only the charm of an imposter. They’re winking at us. Pleased and proud, like the fraudulent jeweller, they have us fooled.

Recipe for a Girl

I came home for the weekend, it was my first year of University and I was stressed, anyone could see it. It was difficult to conceal my pores had reacted to my clogged up brain by clogging up themselves. My facial expression was constantly concerned, resembling that of a maniac. My movements were erratic and always rushed, and my eyes were sunken into a face that had lost all of its roundness and no longer portrayed the innocence of plush cheeks and wide bright eyes that I had once been praised for. Now I was skeletal. Everything extraneous, the pieces that made up the essence of my former self had been sacrificed. My mother saw me and my look of concern was reflected in her eyes, it was her overwhelming anxiety and narrative of the “worry list” that had developed my perpetual unease. She knew that this was the person she would be greeting when I phoned her last night with a wavering and frustrated voice.

She began describing all the medicine that she had been preparing since I had hung up the phone the night before. “Here, I have butternut squash soup, which I know is your favourite, and I made quinoa and roasted vegetables. And I know you haven’t been eating meat but I made some beef stew because you need to make sure you are getting enough protein, but I also made some lentil burgers in case you don’t want the meat. There’s brownies and ice cream for desert and I bought your favourite type of popcorn. The soup is actually a new recipe, I found it online….” And so it went on, while I silently screamed for help, she continued on in the only way she knew how, presenting me with what I hated the most, the substances that shackled me. Food was my oppressor and her way of showing love.

She never said anything about my size, weight or appearance. She only spoke in the measurements of recipes. She never knew that I was stricken, starving, causing myself such damage. She never asked. Instead, she gave me pies.

She understood pies, in order to create them successfully you just needed to follow the directions, obey the amounts and the stirring tactics and sure enough you would create the expected and satisfying product. With her daughter she had also followed the recipe: help her with her homework, push her to get straight A’s, keep her from risky situations, and be sure she never defies you or authority. She had done everything right, worked to mould the perfect little girl, but the soufflé fell.

So she turned away and kept to the recipes she understood.