Dear Lily June,
I have a complex relationship with cameras and selfies, in no small part because I have a complex relationship with beauty.
I have a complex relationship with beauty because I’ve never found myself beautiful.
I have a complex relationship with that fact because, as a feminist, I’ve never found finding myself beautiful necessary.
I have a complex relationship with beauty because I’m surrounded by a culture who finds finding beauty almost the most important thing.
I have a complex relationship with beauty because, while I can reject the pursuit of beauty intellectually, emotionally it still sometimes hurts in some ugly place inside to feel ugly, physically.
I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that my mother never thought she was beautiful.
I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that she had one crooked tooth, and as a result, never smiled open-mouthed for pictures (until decades later, when she had her teeth straightened to all look exactly the same, straight out of a toothpaste commercial).
I wonder how impacted I’ve been over the years by the fact that I never saw her look at herself as if she were beautiful.
I wonder how impacted I’ve been over the years by the fact that I don’t remember my mother ever describing me as beautiful (nor, to be fair, ugly). As far as I remember, I was treated like the daughter Emily in Thorton Wilder’s play, “Our Town” who plies her mother to answer the question of whether she’s pretty, to which her mother, in exasperation, cries, “You’re pretty enough for all normal purposes.”
I’ve never felt as beautiful in my life as I did when I was starving myself as a teenager, trying desperately to weigh as much as my naturally thinner mother.
As beauty seems to me a fragile bird, I try to cage instead vulnerability–equally fragile but more honest about the brokenness in its wings.
I justify this with Emerson, who writes, “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful.” I read “intense light,” though, metaphorically–like a thing becomes beautiful because you’ve shown a light on it–put it under scrutiny.
I justify this with Keats, who puts it more succinctly in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn:” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
But then, these are the words of men.
They were not raised like me, a girl coming of age in America in the 1980’s and 90’s.
They did not, on the one hand, feel ugly when they watched their favorite film at 12, The Truth about Cats and Dogs, portray Janeane Garofalo as the “ugly” character, and Uma Thurman as the “pretty.” (Your mother, LJ, resembles the former far more than the latter.) And they did not feel shamed alongside Garafalo’s character when she was taught–by the man she’s attracted to, no less, the man to whom she pretended to be her “pretty” neighbor–that even her approach to judging herself was ugly.
That character mansplains, “You know how someone’s appearance can change the longer you know them? How a really attractive person, if you don’t like them, can become more …ugly; whereas someone you might not have even have noticed, that you wouldn’t look at more than once, if you love them, can become the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” Then he refuses to talk to her until she prostrates herself in apology in the film later.
But what else can you expect from a romantic comedy?
And when I was a little older, a teenager, there was Ani Difranco, singing to me in “32 Flavors”, ” God help you if you are an ugly girl / ‘Course too pretty is also your doom / ‘Cause everyone harbors a secret hatred / For the prettiest girl in the room.”
I felt ugly for agreeing with her then.
And I feel vulnerable for admitting that even today, I still agree.
And I feel even more vulnerable for admitting that I have compared myself with Ani Difranco, visually, as I do almost every other woman I encounter.
And I have always found myself–in comparison with the singer behind the album Not a Pretty Girl–lacking. And as I do with thin chefs, I find myself judging her sincerity.
But then there’s your father, Lily June, who claims he fell in love with me at first sight, standing by our apartment’s mailboxes after returning from an academic conference in Savannah. I remember–down to the sweater I no longer fit in, but which still hangs in my closet just to punish me–what I was wearing.
A demisexual, I had only believed in love at first sight if you spied a doctor without borders digging a child from Ghana a well full of clean water.
This is the man I made propose to me twice, because the first time he tried, I was sitting on our kitchen floor in Alabama, eating a plate of cold leftover ham in only one of his t-shirts and my underwear. (Another story, for another time.)
When he tells me he finds me beautiful, I do not accept it. I tolerate it, waiting impatiently for the compliment portion of the day to be over.
It feels disquieting that his real name is the same as that of the character from the film referenced above, who finds a woman beautiful just because he wants to be near her, and not vice versa. And from the first night your dad came over to my apartment, reading poetry to me, I’ve wanted to be nearer to him than I could ever explain. He was the only man I would see. He is the only man who makes me feel seen.
And then there’s you, Lily June, a girl coming of age in the 2010’s. My daughter.
And there’s the voice of Naomi Wolf in my head, screaming from The Beauty Myth, “A mother who radiates self-love and self-acceptance actually vaccinates her daughter against low self-esteem.” And I’d never considered myself to be an anti-vaxxer.
And there are these bloggers I admire, talking about putting down the camera with their kids to take snapshots with the heart-memory; talking about the kindness we associate with inner beauty, what we collectively, as a society, pretend to care more about than appearances. But maybe that’s unkind of me. Maybe believing inner beauty is the only beauty that matters is the standard to which we all, really, aspire, even if, in practice, in front of a mirror, we might each judge our reflections more harshly.
Certainly, sweet baby, this is what I aspire to teach you as your mother–that your actions matter more than your appearance, and they will determine whether you have skin-deep beauty or down-to-the-bone ugly.
Certainly, sweet baby, I swell with a beaming pride as I tell you you are pretty, and you prance around our apartment sing-shouting, “I pretty! I pretty! I pretty!” As you demand to wear a pink robe (“obe! obe!”) just like me. As you grab the camera from my hands, so anxious to take the selfie of us together that my lips are still pursed in the double-you of the word, “Wait!”
As you, Lily June, wait for nobody.
- [Garofalo] By Geoff Carter; re-cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 07:39, 25 January 2011 (UTC) – cropped from http://www.flickr.com/photos/beatnikside/2814283867/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12801985
- By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51947299