First, winner of the bra giveaway is M, from comment #51! M, please send me an email and I’ll hook you up! HAHA! Sorry.
I was hanging out with my mom and her friends from high school the other day, and they were like, “Are you going to write about this?” Because people always say that to me. And then they said, to each other, “She’s going to write ‘They were so old! It was kind of sad. They seemed to be trying to look good, but they were just so old and sad…’”
In reality, I thought they were awesome. Fantastically witty, playful Jewish women who do voices and gesture big and tell lots of jokes that start “So a rabbi and a priest were on a plane…” I got that wonderful feeling that I want to always get—that one that goes “God, I have a lot to look forward to.”
But anyway, we started talking about body image, because my mom was like “so Kate is writing this book about body image!”
And I was like, “Um…sort of. But we definitely don’t need to talk about that.” Because it is embarrassing to just start talking about how I learned to hate the way I look. And how I got two nose jobs. (For some reason, writing about it feels completely different.)
I like the part of the story where I start this blog and start to feel good, but it takes a while to get there. Which is what makes it a story, I guess.
But my mom wanted me to talk about body image. She’s got to be proud of me, she’s my mom.
And we all ended up in this big conversation about beauty and everyone was talking about how hard it is to convince yourself that you look good, especially if your mom told you things like “honey, you should really go on a diet.” And how it continues to be hard for a very long time. Maybe your whole life. How do you even get to that place, where you feel beautiful?
I think you have to work on it, like anything else, I said.
Some of the women seemed a little skeptical, and I was embarrassed. Here I was, telling a roomful of fifty-somethings to “work on it.” I had this niggling, jittery sense that I was forgetting some critical piece of the puzzle.
I looked down at the tablecloth. I muttered something about self-acceptance being a journey. And then I remembered.
“It’s not just about feeling beautiful,” I said. “It’s about letting yourself be ugly, too.”
And everyone looked at me. Because that maybe sounds stupid.
Sometimes I think letting myself be ugly is one of my biggest accomplishments. Which makes it sound like I will most likely not go on to win the Nobel Prize at anything (remains to be seen! You never know!).
As a kid, I thought that I was gorgeous, in part because girls were always gorgeous in books and movies, so I figured that was an important part of the whole girl thing, and I figured that I was probably the real deal. Even little girls in books are often described as beautiful. Beautiful is a sizable part of being sweet. Of being saucy. Of being a girl sleuth. And of course I could picture myself as a saucy girl sleuth, both with and without the floppy hat.
So it was a serious invasion, defeat, and colonization of my entire identity when it occurred to me that I might not be beautiful after all, and later, when I realized with dawning horror that everything was definitely wrong with the way I looked.
(run, innocent blue Kate! source)
The main problem with beauty for girls is that it gets conflated with just about every other good thing. Even the nerdy smart girls we gratefully identify with in our favorite books get played by typically lovely actresses with shiny hair, slender limbs, and delicate, even features. It’s OK to be endearingly dorky, as long as you can transform into an angelic vision of ideal femininity the moment you put on a prom dress!
We love it when beautiful, famous people tell us that they were an outcast, a dweeb, a rebel. Look at them now! It’s all so sweet and humanizing! They might even be people, too!
But what if you take the beauty out of the equation? What if the nerdy girl is truly awkward-looking? What the spirited, impertinent girl is also very fat? What if the gentle, sensitive girl has a big, beaked nose, and lots of acne? What if none of these characters have clear, pale skin, round eyes, and hair that ranges between white blond and shimmering chocolate brown?
Well, then that’s real life.
But so many of us go into it poorly prepared. We go into it hoping desperately to look like the girl who was made for a prom dress. We go into it panicking at our faces in the mirror, our alien bodies with their strange, maverick goals involving the sprouting of thick arm hair and the inappropriate placement of fat in areas where Taylor Swift would never dream of having any. We go into it already fighting a losing battle that will involve overfunded armies of cosmetics and a legion of too-expensive haircuts. Eager, helpless belief resembling religiosity in the endless litany of rules concerning how we should and shouldn’t look. The never-ending string of almost-diets. The persistent, perfectly audible voice that presides over all things food related, and murmurs immediately after, “You shouldn’t have eaten that. You really shouldn’t have eaten that. Now you can’t eat anything tomorrow. If you have any self-respect.” And then, when you eat just as much the next day, it’s reading off this prepared speech about how your lack of self-control is obviously the reason why you suck so much, in general.
Ugh, what a prison being a girl can be.
What a colossal, constant trap.
I felt like I’d stolen the key off of one of the wardens, the day I looked in the mirror, felt massively unattractive, and didn’t give a shit.
The day they told me I needed another nose job. A third one, because he’d messed up the first and then the second hadn’t fixed it. The day the NYC surgeon in his glassed office overlooking the world told me that I was pretty enough anyway, but that it would really “help.” That I should sign up now. And I said no and then I left feeling utterly ugly and weirdly free. I walked fifty blocks, reveling in my freedom. I felt like I could walk anywhere. I am ugly, I thought. I have a big, ugly nose, and it doesn’t even matter. I am awesome.
It’s not that I’m really ugly. That’s not even the point. The point is that we’re taught that these ideas are so essential. Beauty, ugliness. They are the things that are supposed to be us. They feel so large sometimes that there isn’t room for the rest. Beauty, success. Ugliness, failure.
God, I’m thankful for the ugly days when I am busy with my life. When I catch a vaguely disappointing glimpse of myself in the subway window and keep feeling good anyway. When I look bad in everything I try on and I am in love with this chapter I’ve just written. When I am full of my own potential, and the promise of the rest of my life, and the knowledge I’ll acquire, and the sense that I’m making progress, and if anything, the clumsiness of my appearance is sort of compelling. I am a quirky, interesting woman. I look quirky and interesting, too. I have a nose that wouldn’t give in. I have a lot of other stuff going on.
“Oh, honey,” said one of the cool, Jewish women in her low, droll voice, “I’m all over that. I can feel ugly just like that—“ she snapped her fingers.
“No,” I said, my voice going high and excited like a little kid, “It’s about it not mattering. So that it’s not all about beauty, about having to be beautiful, to feel beautiful. Because you might keep thinking that beauty is the really important thing. And the really important thing is liking yourself.”
OK, honestly, I’m not sure if I said all of that just that way—I have a terrible memory and I am probably much less succinct in person. But that was the gist.
And that is the gist here, too.
It’s not just about beauty—it’s about letting yourself not care about beauty. It’s about being comfortable with the occasional ugly day. About taking the corrosive, toxic helplessness out of unattractiveness and replacing it with moving on. It’s about the fact that everyone has ugly days, where nothing looks right and it’s impossible to imagine that it ever did or ever will, but they don’t have to mean anything more than not looking good.
Because there are women detectives who aren’t ridiculously hot and there are nerdy girls who look awkward in a prom dress but kick ass at physics. And there is so much more to being alive than being pretty. Holy shit, there’s so much more. All of it, actually. All of the rest of it. Adventures and passionate love and brilliant research and delicious food and the steady struggle and satisfaction of getting better at something, and impacting other people’s lives and creating something new and cool. Rollercoasters. Waterfalls. Those awesome old falling-apart globes that they sell at flea markets.
I am ugly, I thought, on my fiftieth block. I can be anything.
I am not ugly. I am, like most people, a combination of a lot of things. Sometimes I look great, sometimes I don’t. I’ve spent a lot of time wishing, even as I was doing other things, living my life, that I would look better. And now, after a great deal of consideration, I think I’d rather care less. I’d rather allow myself to feel ugly, to feel unattractive, to be non-attractive, to operate without beauty, to be in my clever, self-directed body without being afraid of it, to write another chapter and admire the mind that puts these words on the page. What a cool mind. Watch what it does next.
(bring it on, subway window! source)
* * *
How do you handle an ugly day?
Unroast: Today I love the way I feel in slouchy pants.