At 2 am this morning I gave up the battle with insomnia after lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, my thoughts racing.
It was time to acknowledge that sleep was again elusive, a fickle lover for at least the next few hours.
My thoughts kept getting ensnared in a topic that I have known for weeks that I really need to write about.
Not going to be easy.
Not going to be pretty.
I actually brought the box of tissues with me to the keyboard before I even put the jazz on, before I even struck a key on the keyboards.
It is time to get real about beauty.
I should preface this with the disclaimer:
I can only speak for myself.
But something tells me that I am not alone in this deeply ambivalent battle with my own self-esteem. The woman in me lives in lifelong tension with the feminist in me and is locked in a battle with who society tells me to be.
No one ever seems to win here.
There is no lesson that an American girl learns so deeply, so thoroughly, at such a young age than the lesson that to be beautiful as it is defined in magazines, television shows, movies, books is to have value, is to be lovable, is to be worthy.
If we do not live up to this image—and almost none of us are thin enough, white enough, blond enough, blue-eyed enough, curvy enough (but not too curvy)—we enter a lifetime of struggle with cultural norms, insecurity and battles with our self-esteem.
I have never fit the cultural norm for beauty at any point in my life. As a child I was never the thin, blue-eyed, blond angel with gorgeous ringlets who knew when to talk politely and when to keep her mouth demurely shut.
By the time I was a pre-teen, I had accepted that I would never be more than “pretty on my good days.” I never blossomed into a swan. In my head, I was already ugly, fat, “too” smart, not one of the cool kids, “other.” We plant low self-esteem and body dysmorphia early in our young, oblivious to the consequences.
Even as a child, and certainly as a teenager, I asked hard questions, cared deeply about social justice which baffled the people around me, asked “why” a few too many times. I was called “hard-headed,” “opinionated,” a “bitch” more times than I could count. The implication was always that had I been beautiful, I might be forgiven these offenses but that because I wasn’t, I was fair game as an object of ridicule, able to be dismissed or more often, put firmly in my place. And the more that society, that the people around me, tried to take me down a peg or two, the angrier, the louder, the more oppositional I became. By the time I was 15 or 16 I was so heartily sick of being told that I would be prettier if I “smiled more”, if I was more “polite”, if I was more “nice” I thought I would explode and burn the world to ashes.
In college, I spent four glorious years saying “fuck you” to society’s norms, kept my hair short, stopped shaving, wore black and gray every day and enjoyed the fact that other women didn’t seem to care if I wasn’t a 5’11”, size 0 supermodel with perfect breasts, perfect skin, naturally straight white teeth and a body that a sack of potatoes would look good on. They seemed to like that I was smart, that I was passionate and opinionated. I was able to tune out societal standards of beauty. I could rock myself in college and never sleep alone if I didn’t want to. Intellectually at least, I learned that I was still lovable, still fuckable, at least by other women, just as I was.
And I still mostly, at least intellectually, believe that. Hell, I’m a good feminist, I practice what I preach here. I dress for my comfort, I could care less about make-up and I am apparently missing whatever part of the X chromosome carries the gene where a woman instinctively knows how to use a blow dryer and a lash curler and use accessories with the skill of Coco Channel.
I turned 50 this year and have been learning the hard way that being a middle-age woman is as big a societal offence as being an angry, opinionated, challenging teenage girl. I have apparently committed the crime of aging as a woman. And the societal sentence for this heinous crime is invisibility, to become unseen, to become desexualized, to be seen only as a mother, or a crone, but not as a woman or even a full, complex human being. This has been a harder pill to swallow than I anticipated.
If I am completely and totally honest with myself, I must admit that there is still a deep hidden part of me that still desperately longs to be beautiful. Some days even I can’t define what I mean when I say the word beautiful. I know I don’t need or want to look like a runway model but I would be lying if I didn’t admit at least to myself that I want to be seen by others, by the world, as worthy, lovable, alluring, sexy, interesting, intriguing, smart, compassionate, funny– all at same time. Beauty doesn’t mean to me at 50 what it did at 7, or 16 or 25 but it still just as evasive, still just as much out of my reach as it always has been. And I hate that it still matters to me. I hate that it still impacts my feelings of self-worth, my self-image.
And that is my hard truth about beauty.