the family beauty

Bear’s grandmother looked like a movie star when she was young. You should see the pictures! There’s one of her perched on a rock in her bathing suit, and it looks like she was posed there by a famous photographer. Everyone always comments on it. “Wow!” we say, “You were such a beauty!” And she sort of chuckles and looks away.

The story goes—she got selected as the prettiest girl at the local fair. I always imagine a dour panel of older male judges, shuffling through the cotton-candy eating crowd, hands behind their backs, in gray linen suits, sizing up the young women, looking for the prettiest one. They must have known immediately, when they saw her. Maybe she was laughing with her head thrown back, her hair lustrous in the sun.

“She was so beautiful!” we exclaim, looking over the old photos. Now she’s 95—a pert, tiny, stooped woman with a ready grin who thought Obama was cool long before the rest of us knew his name. She laughs a lot, reads a lot, and grows a wild garden in her backyard.



I sometimes wish that I were beautiful just so that it could be my legacy. How cool, for my great-granddaughters to be able to find the photos of me tucked into some ancient hard-drive and ooh and ahh over how stunning I was? They would be proud to come from me. I sometimes wish that I were beautiful so that it could be a part of my family’s story. Beautiful women always seem to get a mention. There is a certain familial boasting that happens. We have good blood. Good genes. We make strong men, pretty women. 


Looking at the pictures of Bear’s grandmother as a young woman, it’s easy to get caught up in her loveliness and fail to notice that she is hardly ever dressed up. She is wearing hiking clothes and a bandana. She is getting her hands dirty. She is busy, active, always outdoors. She went to college at a time when women didn’t, and she studied biology until they wouldn’t let her anymore because women weren’t supposed to do lab work.

It’s easy to think that every woman wants to be told she is beautiful, or was beautiful when she was young, before she was a 95-year-old matriarch. But when you look closer, my husband’s grandmother doesn’t seem that interested in the compliments. She brushes them off, a little awkward. She wants to talk about something else. She likes to tell the story of her climb up the mountain, instead of the one about the fair.

And I wonder if maybe it’s annoying to have everyone want to talk about the same thing. About how you look. Even when they’re saying, “You were SO gorgeous!” I wonder if it’s a little frustrating sometimes, for people to comment on your appearance when you’ve worked hard to live such a robust, thorough, brave life. When there’s a lot more going on.

It’s so automatic for me to long to be better looking. Wouldn’t everything be better then?

It’s a lazy desire, really.

We get distracted by beauty so often, and that makes sense, but it would be a waste to let it make us miss the point: you should try to live an awesome life.

You only get one.

And maybe you are beautiful, and maybe you aren’t. Maybe you are just fine looking. Maybe you are not beautiful to most people and stunning to some. Maybe you are pretty to most people and gorgeous to one or two. Maybe you like what you see in the mirror some days, and others you are totally exasperated, because,give me a friggin’ break, here! No one’s hair should be legally allowed to do that! Or you just get annoyed at how weird your chin is. Or whatever. But ultimately, your legacy should be about what you do. What you made of your life. The path that you bushwhacked and the epic journey you took.

I’m glad I’m a writer. I want to leave my own story behind, not the one people decide for me later, off-handedly. Oh, yeah, she was a little crazy…Not the prettiest, either… 

I look at the photos of Bear’s grandmother, and she is truly beautiful, but when I listen to the way she talks about her life, I am reminded to re-focus. To work hard. To make my own story about myself. And when I mention her to other people, I tell them that she has a sharp, scientific mind, and she always has. That’s an unusual trait in a person. Sort of like striking beauty. But potentially even more fun.



This piece appeared originally on The Frisky, for my Mirror Mirror column, and also on XoJane, just for fun. 

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Is there a family beauty in your family? Is there an older woman you really admire for doing something awesome with her life? I’d love to hear about her.

Unroast: Today I love the way I look in pretty much all sleeveless dresses.

And here is a cake pic!!! Send me yours soon! This is Gaby. We met through this blog and then in person and she is awesome. She made the cake:



Kate on July 11th 2013 in beauty, family, feminism

31 Responses to “the family beauty”

  1. Mandy responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 10:23 am #

    I think that’s why I enjoyed martial arts training so much (or one of the reasons). It was the first time I completely forgot so be self-conscious, and didn’t really care how I looked.
    It was about what I could do, not whether or not I was pretty.

  2. Janet T responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 10:43 am #

    My grandmother worked full time until she was 80, then she retired- for about a year- and then went back to work part time until she was 95. She was smart and kind, and lunch at her house was a 7 course meal, even if it was just for 3 people. I am the youngest of 22 grandchildren- and she never forgot my birthday, or the birthday of my 2 children (I cannot even tell you how many great-grandkids there are, over 30) she was once the grand Marshall of her town’s founders day parade. When she died at 103, her body gave out, but her mind was still sharp. Now my Auntie is on the same path. If you want to see her, better give her 2 months warning, and even then she will have to cancel her plans. She will be 94 this year. These women offer such inspiration to me.

  3. onebreath responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 10:46 am #

    My thought is that it must be frustrating too, to be described in the past tense as a beauty, somewhat reinforcing of the primacy of youth in our society. I noticed that when you wrote about her mind, you switched to present tense (“she has a sharp scientific mind”). I don’t know if it was intentional, or if I’m reading WAY too much into it, but it felt noteworthy to me. By looking beyond her physical beauty, you acknowledge the enduring unique and positive qualities she possesses now and in the past.

  4. Danielle responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 11:47 am #

    ‘She was a little crazy…Not the prettiest, either’ – my tombstone epitaph.

    My gran has 5 sisters. They mostly photographed well, but to hear them tell it, their lives were hard, with their appearances bringing no relief. “I worked like a man!” is a popular sentiment uttered by almost all of them. And they did: shake-blocking, cooking in logging camps, living in isolated resource towns…

    When I was a young teen I complimented an aunt on her appearance in her wedding portrait (taken circa 1950). I didn’t know real people could look like that, and certainly not my prosaic-seeming relatives: that red lipsticked, dimpled, big eyed movie star thing! Yet I perceived that my aunt almost seemed off-put by my compliment, as if my surprise/enthusiasm indicated that I thought she was not beautiful currently. My family is also a bit reserved, so perhaps she was also embarrassed that I was so enthralled by an old pretty picture. She had a stronger sense of self than “Yeah, I was beautiful once.”

    (I love that when you know someone’s story it can make them beautiful.)

    Have you ever read the big lush novel ‘Prince of Tides’? It’s a great flu read or beach read (and I mean that as a compliment to Pat Conroy. It requires a leisurely yet focused attention). Anyhow, there’s a character in it (Tolitha! How do I remember this? Oh the misc. tidbits that clog up a brain) who basically fits the bill of being a beauty, and with a lot of compelling storied-stuff going on. In the book she is an old woman, but she got her youthful kicks doing things like traveling through the Khyber Pass disguised as a man. She scolds her grandkids to be brave and interesting, the haters be damned. She also has little use for decorum, and cultivates many vices, contrary to notions of what an “old woman” is…

  5. Kate responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 11:53 am #

    YES. I was thinking about this. I always think about this, when people compliment older women– it feels like they’re complimenting a different person almost. I always tell my grandmothers that they’re beautiful right now. Because they are. And, of course, they’re interesting, first. Maybe I should’ve addressed this more in the piece!

  6. Kate responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 11:54 am #

    Loved this comment. I want to know your family!

    And thank you for the book recommendation. I am writing it down. Maybe I can read it while breastfeeding soon? I’m not sure how that works yet, but it seems like it might be able to involve a good book.

  7. Gaby responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    Yay! I made the cake gallery! Man, I could go for some ice cream cake again now.
    I was just telling M exactly what you’re saying about beauty being totally relative. In fact, all of those other qualitites and achievements can make someone beautiful. Beauty is the entire person. Everyone will be beautiful to someone, being the standard kind of pretty is not a prerequisite for being loved!
    I’ve felt the same way too, kind of awkard and embarrased when I’ve been told I should model, basically it’s just what people say to skinny women, in fact it doesn’t even say anything about my face or anything other than being able to fit into specific sizes. And I don’t really care about that.
    I’ve noticed I feel most confident when I am doing something I feel is important. When I get inolved in politics, like when I’ve protested for something I believe in, when I stood in Houston with planned parenthood, they put me up on stage to be on tv and I wasn’t nervous! I was thrilled! When I travel to new countries and meet people and experience cultures, it doesn’t matter what I look like, it matters I”m there and I feel like a sponge just absorbing everything (I’m in the midst of planning Turkey and Greece, can you tell I”m excited?!)
    I feel amazing when clients are blown away by the job I do, I love when they appreciate it! And I especially like when I bake something yummy and everyone devours it, mmmmm cake!!

  8. beachmama responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Have you seen this 3 minute clip yet? Dustin Hoffman comes to the most touching realization about what he’s missed out in life by seeking mostly “beautiful” women . . .

  9. Karolina responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    Great article! You are so lucky to know her! A great great-grandmother to your little girl:)

    I have the honour to come from a family of wonderful, strong women. My mother is the smartest and most wonderful person I know. My grandmothers are also great and have had fascinating — both pursued “manly” carriers in very hard times (Stalinist Poland!) and have great family life at the same time; one became a nuclear physicist and a played a big part in the Solidarity movement which resulted in the downfall of communism in our country, the other became a great pediatrician and managed and, among other things, went for a few years (with my grandad and my infant mother)to work as the only doctor in a remote village in the Polish mountains.
    My four great-grandmothers, all with completely different social backgrounds, all had fascinating and great lives. One risked her life during World War 2 by hiding Jewish families in her house from the Nazis and by helping her husband with teaching at the secret university during German occupation. Another (whose mother BTW was one of the first female students of the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts), managed a theatre for children, and when right after WW2 her husband was captured by the communists and kept for 8 years in prison, managed to support her two young sons by making dolls by hand. Another’s sharp wit, great humour (in spite of the hardships of her life) and no-nonsense attitude is still a source of many family stories 25 years after her death. Recently, documents we got supported the truthfulness of a legend that she single-handedly SCARED OFF an officer of the secret police who came for my granfather (she is refered to as “a frightening old lady who refused giving information, mocked the officer and refused to go to the militia station”)!!! Unfortunately, I knew only one great-grandmother, who also had a hard, but good life — and her stories and her smile will remain with me forever.

  10. Kate responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Damn. These women in your family are so very, very awesome. I loved reading about them!

  11. Kate responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    People keep sending me this! I guess I need to watch it! :-)

  12. Kate responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 4:20 pm #

    I ALWAYS appreciate your perspective on beauty– you make me think every time.

  13. Vicky responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    As I’m getting into my 40s, I realise that all young people are beautiful in comparison to older people. I’m also realising that asa woman I’m becoming less visible. I’ve never been a great beauty, but some days this feeling of losing part of my identity – my youth, i suppose – panics me. I also know that personally I’ve been treated unkindly and professionally unfairly, because of it. On other days, I couldn’t care less and refuse to allow other people’s ideas of ‘beauty’ to affect me. I suspect it’s something that I and many other women will always feel ambivalent about. I’ve been thinking starting a blog about women and the ‘loss’ of youth (and supposedly, therefore, beauty), but not sure if I can stomach it….

  14. Katie responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    Great post! Really enjoyed the story of Bear’s grandmother. She sounds like an amazing woman…and I bet she has some amazing stories.

    As someone who has been “exotic” and “beautiful”, I can see the burden of having those titles. Personally, I felt very trapped by those images. I couldn’t be anything else, other than what I happened to look like. It’s not even about the individual, but what people see.

    Don’t get me wrong: I like to dress up, make myself pretty etc. But I like being so much more than that too. Even if I have a bad hair day, or get into some horrible accident, who I am fundamentally deeply inside me isn’t changed.

    We are all so much more than what the world thinks we are. Sometimes we just have to tell them Hey this is who I am! Take your preconceived notions and shove it!

  15. A responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    Over the last few months I’ve met some women that my husband works with for the first time, and all 3 have made the comment later to him,’I can’t believe you have such a pretty wife. I didn’t expect your wife to be pretty.’
    I pondered this for ages each time, wondering who they were insulting! Were they saying he’s not good looking enough for me or that I’m not intelligent enough for him?! I found it so strange because to us we are great together, we like eachothers looks and brains.
    I’ve been lucky, I never had any issues with my looks when I was younger, but after 3 kids things are changing. My body isn’t the same anymore, my looks are starting to fade. But I’ve got so much more than that to offer.

  16. A responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 6:08 pm #

    I really liked Vicky’s comment above. I’d be very interested to read a blog about the loss of beauty as you age. Sometimes when I’m out I see gorgeous young girls with their flat stomachs and gorgeous tanned skin and it almost hurts to look at how beautiful they are.

  17. Courtney responded on 11 Jul 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    Lovely cake, but your story nearly brought me to tears. You make such amazing points here. I have also seen pretty women complimented and over complimented about their looks while their amazing accomplishments went totally ignored. Loved this story. New fan here!!

  18. Barbara responded on 12 Jul 2013 at 1:27 am #

    So sweet about Grandma, Kate. You are right about her: sharp, curious, always interested in knowing and in doing. The things that matter. She was ahead of her time in so many ways. And she still is!

  19. Adey responded on 12 Jul 2013 at 2:03 am #

    I think there’s much more I can say here about expectations caused by other’s assessments of looks or my beautiful mother and grandmother and certainly about how many other traits I’d rather be remembered for than my appearance. But it’s 2am and I just don’t have it in me right now!

    Therefore, I’ll just add that I think this may be my all time favorite ETDC post ever! I don’t usually comment on this blog, instead just reading regularly and lurking :) But Kate, I loved how you drew out this story and turned on its head in the most fantastic fashion. Thank you :)

  20. Abby responded on 12 Jul 2013 at 3:25 am #

    I’ve been lucky to know some amazingly kickass ladies in my life. For me, one of the most beautiful was someone I never got to know.

    My grandma Dorothea died before I was even born, and I didn’t know too much about her until my grandpa moved in with us a few years back. That’s when I started to learn about her so much more, and she became not just a photo but a fascinating person.

    She was beautiful when she was younger…but when I learned about her, her beauty wasn’t what they remembered. They remembered her as kind, and loving, ridiculously stubborn with a wicked sense of humor. They remembered that she sang. And what I didn’t know until a couple years ago was that she had been hospitalized for post-partum depression and attempted suicide, decades before people even knew what it was or actual treatments were available. When she became pregnant again, with my father, she chose to have him anyways…a risk a lot of her family didn’t approve of. She was braver than I think I could ever be.

    She’s a woman who left a legacy of beauty and kindness and enduring strength. It might be vain of me, but I am incredibly proud when people say I remind them of her–my eyes crinkle like hers did when I smile, and I sing a lot, like her. I think the biggest compliment my grandfather ever gave me was telling me that I was a lot like her.

  21. Katy responded on 12 Jul 2013 at 5:11 am #

    Loved this article. Brilliant. So important and exactly what I want to teach both my son and daughter!

    I’m almost (physically) beautiful but not quite, and I think, so is my mother. But she wasn’t that bothered that I could tell. She’s always been much more focused on her achievements and goals. And consequently, I think I am, too…..but, I have not been immune to the kind of thinking that says I would be happier if I could just figure out how to achieve “beautiful” with less of the effort. I work on it though, and as I get older (40 next year), I’m getting better at it. …Then again, I do look in the mirror some days, or at photos, and think eugh! Hideous! And this will sound terrible, but I’m quite arty and aesthetically conscious (of all things) so sometimes I think that makes the awareness exaggerated for me. As I said, I work on it all the time and I do think I’m making some ground. My 5yo daughter has inherited all of the beautiful genes, physically speaking, and I’m conscious of finding the right balance with her. I put a lot of emphasis on commending her on her efforts. Anyway, she’s a gutsy, spunky little thing, probably destined to be bossing people around so I’m not too worried about her confidence yet. Time will tell, but I’ll be keeping my eye on it….

  22. May responded on 12 Jul 2013 at 5:38 am #

    Brilliant post and so glad I stumbled on to your refreshing blog! I absolutely love cake and often cannot resist the temptation!

    I am lucky to be able to say that I come from a family of ‘iron’ willed women who were absolutely beautiful in their youth….much more affecting when my culture is one that prefers males to females….and almost ironic that my generation has been swamped by female descendants. Though I do think that beauty can be a very subjective definition. Have a beautiful day!

  23. Terri responded on 12 Jul 2013 at 10:14 am #

    This was a great piece. However, there is one thing that bothered me about it throughout the whole thing and it has absolutely nothing to do with your writing. I can’t help but feel sorry for your husband’s grandmother when everyone say’s, “You were so beautiful.” They say it as though it’s a different person and she is no longer beautiful today. Though, it’s meant as a compliment, I see it as an insult. I wish people would instead say, “You were and still are a beauty.”

    I kind of feel the same way about TV and magazine makeovers. The before photos are never that bad and actually quite endearing, but then the after photos are always so beautiful to the outside that they say, “Wow, you look like a completely different person.” Again, while I know it’s meant to be a compliment I can’t help but feel bad for the person with the make over. I feel like they must be thinking, “But I don’t want to be a completely different person” or was my “Before really that bad.”

  24. Laura responded on 12 Jul 2013 at 9:46 pm #

    Kate, you *are* beautiful (I’ve seen your pictures). And you are living an awesome life (I read your blog). And those wildflowers are beautiful too. Why are we (I) so hung up on “beautiful” vs. “pretty enough for all normal purposes?”

  25. Kate responded on 12 Jul 2013 at 10:11 pm #

    Good question.
    I think maybe it has something to do with the fact that “extremely beautiful” is often described to us (or implied) as the BEST thing a girl or a woman can be. Even if we know this isn’t really the case, it still might seem like it would be better to be even prettier.
    Also, there is this cultural push toward exceptionalism…I want to think about that more, though.

  26. Kate responded on 12 Jul 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    I think for me, though, my insecurities have always been more about fear of being truly unattractive than about not being gorgeous enough. In my darkest moments in front of a mirror, I tend to think, “Oh my god, I’m irredeemably ugly,” rather than “Well, I’m pretty, but I wish I were stunning!”

  27. LassLisa responded on 13 Jul 2013 at 3:03 am #

    The women in my family don’t really talk about beauty. We talk about kicking butt and being loud and getting our way. We talk about how the main trait for a man to marry in to the family is “humility” (not true, though the husbands play along at least for a minute or two).

    Something about it has always given me the feeling that if what a person is noticing about me is my looks, I need to talk more (or more loudly). I want to leave an impression that’s active and of my choosing, not one that’s passive. Maybe Bear’s grandmother had some of the same feeling when complimented on her looks.

  28. Laura responded on 13 Jul 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    @Kate — oh yes, the cultural push toward exceptionalism, which teaches us to ignore that which is truly exceptional in the small and “ordinary.” One problem I see is that this makes us define beauty in comparison to others who must, then, be not as beautiful or more beautiful than we are. We think of it as a commodity, which then we must pretend is scarce (much like diamonds). It’s insidious. And I think the last thing we should do is be hard on ourselves for being affected by it.

    @LassLisa — your family sounds wonderful.

  29. Mindy responded on 13 Jul 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    I loved reading this article, and the comments… and I had to respond to you, Kate, that yes, breastfeeding is a great time to read books. I read oodles of big fat books while breast-feeding. :)

  30. LassLisa responded on 15 Jul 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    @Laura – we have our flaws. For instance a tendency to be loud, and contrary, and honestly somewhat bullying. But at least it’s a different set of values than media / society as a whole is putting out – provides some contrast. And for me it provides a reminder that ‘society’ isn’t a monolith; we all have our own influences.

  31. Eat the Damn Cake » i think i finally don’t care as much about the way i look responded on 03 Oct 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    [...] that, holding my own baby? And for a second I wish that I looked different so that there could be this awesome legacy of my youthful beauty for Eden to look back on one day. She’d be like, “Wow, my mom was so gorgeous!” And she’d [...]