My sister was the pretty one, the showstopper, the great bright hope of the family. Like my parents, she scrambled her way onto the stage. She was just like them, the best of them, their trophy child. Everywhere we went people would praise her for her gorgeousness, her wittiness, her charm. If anyone addressed me at all, it was to admonish me to strive to be just like my sister, or inquiries as to how I might support my sister on her glorious life path.
Pretty belonged to my sister. I concerned myself with cultivating an inner world that was often the only safety I had. It made me appear Arctic to outsiders. My inner world had light, heat, pockets filled with secret joy quite capable of seducing the anger that broiled beneath my cold. I never remember thinking “I wish I was prettier,” although “thinner” bubbled to the surface on a daily basis. There were comments on my skin coloring, the ruddiness that prompted my father to ask if I’d put on rouge. No one used words like “pretty” or “beautiful.”
When I was 12, my parents took us to meet an old friend from the university theater department where they met. He had explicitly asked to meet my sister and myself.
I remember him as grey and thin, handsome in a way my twelve-year-old brain couldn’t parse. He wore jeans, which impressed me. I think his name was Richard. When he saw my sister and me, he gasped.
“Drama queen,” my sister whispered to me.
I didn’t really understand what that meant. I asked him what one was. My sister elbowed me in the ribs, hard. He laughed.
My parents left us alone with him for a full five minutes. He took us both in. “You’re beautiful,” he said, looking back and forth at my sister and me. “You’re both just beautiful.” My sister, the designated extrovert, asked him about theater programs or some crap. I stood by, waiting for him to launch praise on my sister like every other adult.
He didn’t. Instead, he turned to me, stepping sideways to block my sister out of the conversation. “I am amazed by you and your sister. But you – you are really beautiful, the absolute best of your father.” I waited for him to follow this with some admonishment to cut back on the sweets or to get more exercise, just like every other adult I encountered. It never came.
Our parents collected us, asked us what we thought. “He acted like he’d expected us to have extra heads or something. Like he was surprised we were normal.” My sister then told them about his exclamation of “beautiful” but left out his specific interest in me. No one had ever called me beautiful before. I guessed his proclamation had something to do with him being a drama queen.
National Geographic was the subversive force that sneaked in under my parents’ radar and derailed my adoption of American beauty norms. Around 1989, the magazine ran pictures of some African tribe filled with fat, muscular women, even fatter than me. They had strong leg muscles, were carrying a lot of heavy stuff; their naked bellies round, huge, triple rolling. The caption stated that in that tribal culture, the fatter the woman, the more beautiful. It bolstered me while waiting for my doctor’s appointment, soothed me during the traditional abuse that followed.
That article prompted me to look closely at what made beauty beauty. What I learned is that the only culturally universal standard for beauty involves symmetry. All humans like eyes, ears, noses that line up correctly. Fat or thin, tall or short, dark-skinned or pale, kinky darkness or blonde hair – those choices are social, not biological. This triggered an avid pursuit of understanding sexuality, to see where beauty and sex met. I pored over ancient issues of Playboy and Cosmo at the county library. I learned about how weight gain works by reading every article I could printed in JAMA, situated as close as I could to the giant unabridged dictionary. I discovered how very much we don’t know about, especially when it comes to obesity in children. I reached two life-path developing conclusions well before my 18th birthday: the first, I couldn’t help what I was. Who I was, and what I thought, I might have choices about. But what I was was beyond my control. The second: that sexual attraction had no relationship whatsoever to beauty. What was and wasn’t beautiful had nothing to do with me so I might as well turn my attention elsewhere.
With this knowledge, I went about my remaining childhood detached from beauty. Occasional attempts to make myself more attractive for the benefit of someone else’s attention generally failed, so I stopped bothering. I wore what felt good more than what looked good. When I did wear makeup, it came from a place of sensual pleasure in stroking color across my lips, in delight at the way perfume could alter my mood. My parents shoved me onto a stage often enough that I developed a vocabulary in beauty, in entertaining others by appearance alone, through rapid-fire use of language, deft performance, stuffing my athletic physical will into a more acceptable gender role. All the while, I knew in my gut that this self-decoration was futile – and that the futility was in itself a positive thing.
When a boy in my class asked me if I considered myself pretty, I blew his mind. “Depends on where I am. In the US, I’m not pretty at all. In other places in the world, I’m absolutely beautiful.”
I refused to ask him why he wanted to know. Those conversations always led to a path of questions about my fatness, as though my non-beauty was voluntary, something I could help.
My twenties had nothing to do with beauty. They had to do with sexuality, agency, my refusal of my own fertility. Despite giving myself a path out of one of the most painful and aggressive traps for women that overculture has, I was trapped in other ways, on levels beyond beauty obsession, by a need to compromise my beliefs with those of my parents. Only later in life have I come to understand that the only thing compromised was me.
In that ingénue age, I was sexy, openly fantasized about by men and women. It made both parents feel threatened, especially since my sister had lost her luster. Boyfriends were much too quick to propose. The large, strong, curvy body and the sharply educated mind made most of these men want me for the mother of their children. I found this assessment deeply unflattering.
No one thought I was beautiful. This did not bother me. I know the difference between desire and beholding.
I became beautiful on a Tuesday afternoon in September in 2006. I was walking from work to the train station when the wave began. Complete strangers started telling me I was beautiful. At first, it was a rangy black man, older – I’d seen him street preaching from time to time. “Damn girl, you pretty. Just beautiful!”
Then it was a woman, white, blonde, a bit older than me. She just stopped, dazzled. “You are really lovely!”
In my walk from 9th street to the train station on Nicollet mall, one person on every block commented on my suddenly bestowed beauty. No one at work had commented on anything different about me – it was business as usual. I even leaned against Neiman Marcus and watched one person walk away, just to see if this was just part of a flash mob.
My looks had not changed; the usual measures would have indicated I was, according to most current cultural standards, unattractive. Nothing about my dress differed from what I’d been wearing daily since I started to work for that company: on that day, I wrapped myself in a belted trench coat that did nothing to disguise my size, wearing the black flared pants and the heeled boots used to signal a sense of responsibility to the rest of the downtown community. I wore my hair pulled back, low. The fashion choices signaled “another worker,” not “check this out.”
The comments have followed me ever since. I respond by saying “Thank you,” although sometimes I forget that others might hear it as immodesty when I respond, “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
I became beautiful through no will of my own. It has nothing to do with my sexuality. It has nothing to do with my attractiveness. I still get stopped by strangers, sought out by people who see me once or twice, asked about my eyes, my hair, the way I can sometimes move my body like a much smaller woman.
I wonder how long this will last. Maybe age will be included in that shifting perception.
For now, I am a beautiful woman. I’m okay with that. I’m just as okay with being not-beautiful; I know how all that stuff works already. I’m sure it will pass.