One would never guess that sometimes I’m still afraid of the dark. But courageously, I sleep in it every night. After all, sometimes it’s comforting.
It’s something I don’t completely understand about myself. Sort of the way that in the face of tragedy I tend to disassociate, because I often live in a different realm anyway and it’s easy to occupy one world while another, not entirely separate from it, is healing. And yet when I was 14 I stayed up three consecutive nights feeling ripped open about sex trafficking, immersed in emotion–angry streaming tears and unimaginable pain as I screamed at God… all pathetically unhelpful of me.
That strange contradictory combination is sort of how it is when I try to think back to how it felt to grow up, like all little girls, with unachievable standards of beauty–and how it still feels now. I didn’t grow up pretty. I am not being modest. I suppose I must have been pretty once, before the age of six, back when people would stop my mother in the street and exclaim, “Your daughter is gorgeous!” and “I’ve never seen a child so pretty!” But something must have happened after that, because I was very clearly the opposite of pretty, until recently–maybe around 18 or 19–when I was suddenly pretty again. (Or so I was told.) And when the compliments commenced once more they were startling: “siren beautiful” “regally beautiful” and of course the awful, racist “exotically beautiful”–possibly the only I could never stand. Some of them were downright unbelievable, “curves like the ocean with glory like fire.”
It’s difficult to evaluate what this must have done for me. There is, and always has been, a good portion of me that never cared. Or, to be clearer, I didn’t care destructively. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dressing to appeal to other people until we begin to aim for the impossible, or to please people who don’t matter, people who hurt us, rather than the ones who are important in our lives.
“Nahida,” my friend says, “you’re so beautiful and brave.”
Beautiful and brave. I’m glad you think so. You’re the only one I care about. You, and her, and her, and him. Friends, because I love you. What do I care to impress strangers on the street, who couldn’t know? Who couldn’t possibly know that sometimes–sometimes–I’m still afraid of the dark? But you, you know me, and I know you too. Someone who cries when she hears poetry and reads about quantum physics knows what she’s talking about.
But even so I know I’ve gotten here somehow through some journey, at this point at which I am content only with people who matter to me, because I remember not being content: I remember meticulously taking my own measurements. B cup. 93 pounds. 32-23-32. BMI 18.8. I remember examining my face in front of the mirror–and, in what may have been disturbing terms, deciding that parts of me were pretty.
When I was young(er) I read a retelling of Sleeping Beauty–and I can’t remember the title of the exact novel–but there was an idea along the lines of, “Each fairy had given her hair like the sun and eyes as blue as sapphires and lips as red as roses and blushing cheeks and a voice that rivaled music, but they all forgot to make her pretty.”
In a way this was how I felt: even with rather large eyes, thick abundant hair, a slender jawline, thin chin, eyebrows that I’ve never had to pluck or fix, long eyelashes, and the shape of my lips, somehow none of it fit together. And I had actually taken the time to decide this. While I may have never been addicted to chasing beauty, I know I must have come pretty damn close.
I did fine without too much effort, but the extravagant compliments required effort. I am not, and probably never will be, the kind of woman who can roll out of bed and look “regally beautiful.” And I don’t have the patience, or the time, to look “regally beautiful” every day. I’d much rather be insightful than beautiful. Passionate. Imaginative. (I used to be “kind and artistic” but that was soon replaced by “total bitch.”)
Sometimes the light is clear and fitting, and I happen to pass by a mirror and the creature I see is almost ethereal. But those are little accidents, like how some mornings you wake up and your hair is darker and your skin is brighter and your eyes are deeper. And tragically, you are still thinking in negatives, because that is how you have been conditioned to think–to find any flaw to fix.
A couple of weeks ago the feminist blogosphere was mildly amused with the Miss Universe pageant costumes and commenting enthusiastically about which costume was the most outrageous. I have never actually watched a Miss Universe pageant and had no idea they involved costumes, which makes them a hell of a lot more interesting than just the usual evening gown and bikini competitions. (Even though a couple of them were kind of racist. Seriously wtf Miss Canada?!) Everything that ever needs to be said about pageants has pretty much already been said, and I don’t have much to contribute. I’ve more against the way that pageants are framed and focused on (and the question of who participates and by what standards of beauty they are judged […white]) than the theoretical idea of pageants. (Oh, and those pageants that claim to consider “inner beauty” especially with a religious twist are just plain disturbing: as though anyone could judge such a thing! Human beings would reduce beauty to judge it. Yet another way to shove complex women into compartments and to trivialize the ramifications of such judgments. How do men judge the “inner beauty” of women anyway? “Obedience is beautiful”!)
But what it did make me think about was competition between women, especially involving appearance, and how it tends to exist in solely our heightened imaginations. In movies, in beauty pageants, and in sitcoms. When I actually go out I don’t care about looking better than other women. I just want to wear what I want, perform femininity the way I choose, and feel comfortable and beautiful by my own definitions. When I am actually competing in other areas, I am competing against everyone in my field–not just against women. But such constant bombardment of not only standards of beauty but behaviors in relation to beauty no doubt have an affect on how we perceive ourselves and other people. Youbeauty recently published this article about the proposal of being able to sue your employer for “looks discrimination” (but centering around men, of course). The suggestions are that attractive people make more money, and if you can prove that you’ve been discriminated against for being conventionally unattractive you should be able to take legal action against such an injustice.
I have difficulty viewing the question of whether we devalue people based on their conventional attractiveness and what this does to our psychology as a valid issue for the concerns of feminism. There are Big And Important Feminist Issues to be discussed, and it’s strange to acknowledge that this is one of them. Which possibly makes it a little bit more lethal. In reality, the underlying factors of who is considered conventionally attractive involve race and class and ability, and while we can pretend to be above judging ourselves harshly and destructively based on whether we feel we are conventionally attractive–most of us mere mortals are not. And that has serious consequences, from reduced pay to the feeling that we are unworthy of love.
Months ago I found myself watching an episode of Tyra during which a woman reported that someone came up to her on the street and told her that her hair made her look like she belonged in a circus. And that fact that it’s often brought on by people who believe their opinions on others’ appearances matter and that they are entitled to being catered to makes it even more a feminist issue in falling in line with the same mentality of obnoxious men you’ve just met who believe they are entitled to being thanked for their insufferable compliments. That either you owe them something for it, or that they have any right to your life or your attention.
Essentially, there is value in examining whether we make ourselves “aesthetically pleasing” for ourselves or for other people–and to what extent this becomes a violation of our bodily autonomy. Which I’m guessing is pretty quickly. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point when appearance doesn’t matter, but maybe we can reduce the number of injustices we commit against ourselves and against other people; maybe we can correct ourselves when we’re wrong.