My parents’ bedroom is still and dark. The curtains are drawn. The air conditioner moans its cold breath through steel grates. Would you please just come see her now? My father has been asking me this since this morning, and now he’s exasperated. I stand, thirteen years old and sullen, just inside the doorframe, my fingers toying the knob.
There’s a mound on the bed, buried under a quilt. The mound is my mother.
“Hi,” she says, and I force myself closer. The air is bitter, pharmaceutical. In the glow of her alarm clock, I can make out her face. There are purple-black circles under her eyes, bars of tape across her nose, holding down a mottled patch of gauze. It looks as though she’s been punched, or pushed from a moving car. But these are wounds of her own choosing—the blood-fringed blooms of a wish long-delayed.
This morning, a surgeon took a scalpel to my mother’s nose, paring down skin and cartilage, chiseling its tip to an upturn. She’s longed for this transformation since she was a teenager, when she’d catch her reflection in profile. She’d press her finger to her nose and turn sideways, imagining away the hump along its bridge. Her eyes were golden-brown with copper flecks; her hair fell over her shoulders in glossy sheets. But none of this could cancel out her nose, that mountain casting its ruinous shadow across everything.
Before she shared with me these feelings—and her plan to excise them surgically—I had no idea my mother could be anything but beautiful. Her beauty was the beauty of air: simple, factual, impervious to scrutiny. It was the beauty I returned to every day, melting into her side as she rubbed my back. It surrounded me and filled me, and I knew it not in parts, but as a whole.
Now, looking down at her, I scrutinize. I don’t care that her nose has filled her for years with shame. I don’t care that she’s struggled for decades to make this choice. My mother has betrayed me, but I can’t say how yet. Something important has been stolen from me, but I can’t yet say what. I’m unsure how to orient myself to this bruised woman, victim and perpetrator of her own pain, subject and object of my loss.
I fall back on the greatest power I know as an adolescent girl, which is to say nothing. I turn and walk out of the room, determined to punish her with silence.
My mother’s mother, my Grandma Charlotte, was not just beautiful but a beauty, her beauty crystallized in noun form. In the late sixties, she worked in the ladies handbag department at Bergdorf Goodman, a beaming model for the alligator clutches. In my twenties, as an underpaid editorial assistant at a New York publishing house, I sometimes stole away on my lunch hour to head to Bergdorf’s, inhaling the expensive air as I wandered among silk-draped mannequins. Looking for what? Some assurance, I think, that this beauty was part of my lineage.
When I was young and we visited my grandmother, I’d watch her get ready in the morning, a process that took over an hour. I can see her now, seated on a tufted bench, while I perch on her hamper, studying. To be in this bathroom is to witness a solemn ritual of womanly alchemy, and I know not to disturb. The room smells of cold cream, powder, waxy lipstick florals. My grandmother goes about her work with practiced gravitas, unscrewing tops, spreading creams across her cheeks, painting her lips and lashes. She adds layer over layer, pigment upon pigment; her face brightens, transforms from plainly pretty to magnificent. The final touch is her wig— lustrous, with regal streaks of black and silver—which she lifts like a crown from its Styrofoam bust. She fluffs it with a comb, then stretches it over her head. She leans into the mirror, dabbing her lips with a tissue—then steps back to examine her work. Satisfied, she walks out the door, tapping me jauntily on the head as she passes.
This, I learn, is how a woman comes to life. I want to be as beautiful as my Grandma Charlotte one day—to walk away from my mirror as bright and alive.
I am fifteen and getting dressed to go to my friend Rachel’s house, where there will be boys and Cure CDs and bodies that stop just short of touching. It’s 1991, and I’ve perfected my look: ribbed tee-shirt and jeans, motorcycle boots, red lipstick, hoop earrings.
I see something troubling in my mirror, and it’s not my nose, which has always been straight and small. There’s something new in my reflection, sticking out sideways from my upper thighs, so that my jeans poke outward in fatty pyramids. I poke at the pyramids; they are solid and real. I push them back with the flats of my palms; they spring outward again. Yesterday, each plane of my being eased gently into the next. I was a streamlined column, a marble kore. This protruding new geometry fills me with a shame I can hardly bear.
I pull out a black cardigan and tie it around my waist, so that the sides fall around me like curtains. For the next weeks, months, three years to come, each time I wear jeans, I’ll also wear this sweater wrapped around me. It looks, I hope, like a casual last-minute grab—I’ll just tie this around me in case I get cold! But I never get cold, and the sweater wouldn’t help much anyway. The sleeves stretch with each tying, and the fibers thin with each wearing, until it’s no longer a sweater, but a misshapen talisman of my own self-loathing.
At some point—from Seventeen magazine? from a classmate?—I discover there’s a name for these mounds: saddle-bags. Now, when I look in the mirror, I think of bulging satchels, a lumbering horse. Sometimes, I imagine burning the mounds away. I picture a flame, a flare, a slow collapse into liquid. I melt into the pain, and the freedom.
In college, I retire the waist-sweater, having discovered another fix to the problem of my thighs. It starts with skipping breakfast. At 10 a.m., I eat a Nutri-Grain bar. For lunch, yogurt and an apple. Dinner, a plain bagel, salad with vinegar. “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips,” a high school friend once said to me, and now this phrase is my guide.
The pyramids retreat, and then more of me retreats—belly, breasts, arms, rear—until I’m like one of those cubist sculptures formed of negative space. A quick-witted upperclassman takes notice of me and then claims me as his girlfriend, turning me with his eyes and hands into something holy. It’s the artistry itself that starts to occupy me, this shaping of my body through my own knife-like will power. Inside me, always, is a radiating hunger: it moves from my core to my chest to my head, a dull throb punctuated by sharp pangs. I find it increasingly difficult to concentrate. And yet, I welcome these sensations—savor them even, stirring inside me like a magic elixir.
When I come home for fall break, my parents eye me during meals, exchange concerned glances across the table. “You are way too thin,” my mother says, and her words slip off me. I understand that my parents’ worry is real, because I know they love me. But their love now feels flimsy next to the force of the adult world I’ve left them for, whose rules I’ve absorbed as my own—whose rules have left their mark on my mother’s face, making it even harder for me to hear her.
The semester passes, and I whittle myself down further. Beauty rises up in the curved bowls of my hips, the arches of my ribs. I am a petal floating in wind. Or a sylph, with insect wings.
If you came of age a middle class white girl in the 1990s, as I did, then you came of age staring at Kate Moss, the “waif” model whose twiggy arms set the beauty standard of an era. “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” Moss famously once said. When I first hear these words, I vow never to forget them.
But a woman can’t go on forever quoting Kate Moss—not if that woman discovers other sorts of thinkers, like Naomi Wolf, whose book The Beauty Myth shows how our culture fosters physical preoccupation as a form of social control. Or Audre Lorde, who proclaimed, “If I didn’t define myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Or Adrienne Rich, who argued that. “Like other dominated people, we have learned to… internalize men’s will and make it ours.”
Once I read Adrienne Rich, I can’t unread Adrienne Rich, and so now when I lower my spoon to the bowl of ice cream there are two voices in my head: the voice of Moss, and the voice of Rich, whispering to me that “woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected.” I lift each bite to my lips in delicious protest.
But in the shower the next morning, I lather my skin with peach-berry body wash until I’m ripe and delectable. I draw my silver razor up my legs, run my hands over my slick, slender thighs, feeling them in my palms like an eager and very pleased man.
But also as myself—for aren’t I, too, pleased?
It’s in this way that a woman can become folded over onto herself. And then folded again.
I’m forty-three years old. I’m a mother of three. I’ve returned, in fits and starts, to healthier dimensions. And I’m still trying to figure out how to unfold myself.
In the mornings, I slide a brush over my eyelids, transforming skin and capillary to shimmering gold. I make trompe l’oeil arches of my eyebrows, clamp a curler over my lashes till they bend toward the sky. I swipe concealer under my eyes, glaze my lips with plasticine gloss. Painted and polished, I feel ready to face the day.
My youngest, who’s four, has been slipping into my bathroom. She stares up at me. Can I touch this? she asks. Can I try that? When she reaches for my moisturizer, I dab a tiny glob on her palm. She cups it in her hand, a magic pearl, and then touches it to her cheek. She reaches into my cosmetics drawer and pulls out clacking fistfuls, lining up her specimens like gems. She drags her fingers across an eyeshadow. What does this do? she asks. How does that work? She’s so insistent, so desirous, and really, what’s the harm? I hand her my palest blush, and she brushes it onto her cheeks in little doll circles. I pass her my clearest lip gloss, and she dabs it on her mouth, a small wet blotch. Finally, she has me lift her onto the counter so she can see herself.
She smiles into the mirror, and the blotch spreads. “Am I pretty now?” she says, and I feel an invisible fist has punched me in the stomach.
Beauty is only skin deep. Beauty comes from within. Beauty is as beauty does. Does it matter which of these clichés I summon as I pull my daughter close and hold her tight? The words dissipate in the perfumed air, lost among the tubes and compacts and brushes.
Most of us don’t conform to the ancient Greeks’ elusive “golden ratio” of beauty. Most of us spend our lives feeling not beautiful, or just shy of beautiful. This is exactly where our culture wants us, for we’re most vulnerable—and profitable—when we teeter right on this edge, always searching for the thing that’ll get us to the other side.
There’s no limit to the ways we can burn or melt or carve ourselves away to get at beauty. There’s no limit to the acids and lasers and scalpels we can aim at our flesh, or the surgical vacuums waiting to suck us away. There are so many ways to erase the shameful signs of our thinking and living.
There’s no limit to the ways we can plump up the different parts of ourselves. The lips, the cheeks, the chin, the breasts, the ass, the calves.
The white fantasy of thinness—a fantasy that in lingering ways still holds me in its clutches—is just one of countless fantasies that oppress. This is because, as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom points out, “Beauty isn’t actually what you look like” but “the preferences that reproduce the existing social order.” Beauty ideals may vary from culture to culture, but in their ruthlessness, they’re alike. Women from India to Nigeria to South Africa have ravaged their kidneys and scarred their faces with bleaching creams, grasping at the fantasy of lighter skin. Asian women have taped, glued, and surgically re-configured their eyelids for the fantasy of rounded eyes. Black women like Shatarka Nuby, a 31-year-old Florida resident, have died for the fantasy of a curvier backside, poisoned by illegal injections of Fix-a-Flat tire sealant and superglue.
Beauty, I’ve come to believe, isn’t a physical ideal. It’s the promise of power, for which we cede what power we already have.
There are attractive counterarguments to this perspective. The other morning, I went for a run and listened to Oprah interview Lady Gaga, who shared how unbeautiful she felt as a child, and how she struggled with depression. She recounted a particular trip to the drugstore makeup aisle. “I experimented with color, and I looked at myself in the mirror, and I literally made myself. I invented Lady Gaga,” she said. “When people would say, ‘Oh, the makeup, there’s too much makeup. It’s over the top, blah, blah, blah,’ I would be like, ‘This is my life force. This is what helps me fly.’”
On mile three, my blood coursing with endorphins, I was right there with Lady Gaga, cheering her on, cheering on all women who claim their right to present themselves how they want. By god, I thought, I will go ahead and wear my golden eyeshadow, and I will do so wholeheartedly! For what has feminism fought for if not the freedom of women to live as they choose.
But this feeling always subsides—because in the end it’s not choice that preoccupies me, but time. The twenty morning minutes fussing with my face, the twenty nighttime minutes fussing more. I think about the hours I’ve sat waiting for nail polish to dry, or pondering the calories in a Clif bar, or wandering the aisles of Sephora. I think about all the time my husband spends, comparatively, not focusing on his appearance—reading, working, planning, executing, dreaming. It’s then I understand that I’ve been prettying the boat instead of rocking it.
What else, throughout history, might women have created with all our blending and composing? How many symphonies and Sistine chapels? What glimmering empires? Which mathematical theorems might we have scrawled across chalkboards, our gray hair wild and flying.
I’m thirty-two and pregnant with my first child. My stomach grows, and my hips, my breasts, my thighs. How strange, how freeing, to feel in my stretching flesh not shame, but possibility.
We decide not to find out our baby’s sex before birth. My husband and I know that for years to come, our child will be pounded by the hammer of gender—but for now we can live in blissful uncertainty. The growing being in my womb is not female or male, but mystery and infinitude, as elusive in its accretion as a swirl of stars in the sky.
But while I revel in the unknown, my aunt complains that she can’t pick out a gift without knowing the baby’s sex. My mother, in a peculiar line of thinking I’ll never understand, suspects I actually know the sex of the baby but am withholding this information to torture everyone in our family. Meanwhile, I paint the nursery walls pale yellow and pile the closet shelves with cream-colored onesies. I purchase gray chevron bedding and a mobile of velveteen circus animals. In the evenings, I sit in our brand-new yellow rocking chair, leaning back into the gentle embrace of neutrality.
Then, one winter afternoon, my daughter announces herself. My aunt sends a bright pink box of hair bows. Someone sends a pretty silver brush and matching mirror. The world begins to shape my daughter in its image.
Is it possible to give voice to what I felt seeing my newborn daughter’s chest rising and falling, or the soft, wet pink of her gums? Or what seizes me, now, watching my son sleeping, his slack parted lips and eyelids with their filigree of veins. Or what I feel when my youngest dances through space on her soft, squat legs, her head thrown back in wild joy.
Impossible—blood-boiling—to imagine this flesh starved or sliced or pumped up or sucked down or frozen or seared or told over and over and over again that it isn’t worthy. I stalk back and forth in front of these bodies. I’m desperate to protect them, head to toe. I feel this need like a crazed animal.
On my older daughter’s eighth birthday, a friend gives her a book called Strong Is the New Pretty, filled with photos of girls captured in moments of joyous bravery. Ava, age seven, cannonballs into a snow pile. Syd, age eight, happily maneuvers a bulldozer. That evening, my daughter and I lie under her comforter, flipping through the photos, reading their accompanying quotes. “Look at this girl holding a snake,” I say. “Look at this one running across a field in a cape!”
My daughter is now ten. Like all children, she has fears, but I think she feels a fierceness coursing through her. She spars with her brother on the couch, eyes narrowed. Last week, she bounded out of her room with leggings tied around her chest like an archer’s harness. For Halloween, she was a winter warrior, with sheepskin boots and a sack of arrows on her back. Lately, she’s been showing me her muscles, rolling up her sleeves and flexing her biceps.
Mostly, I’m heartened by this fieriness, and how it might sustain her through adolescence. But I wonder, too, how much progress there really is in the swapping out of prettiness for strength. It requires a lot of strain to always appear strong and fearless—to always have something to prove. Sometimes I worry that strength has become just one more female performance, revised and updated for our “woke” world.
Maybe what we need are more photos of girls striving for insight. Or, for a moment, not striving at all—just being, at ease, against a backdrop of air.
One morning, I realize that my gray hairs have reached a turning point, spreading like weeds across my scalp. When I go for a trim, I ask the stylist to dye them. Nothing crazy—just a nice dark brown to restore me to myself.
When I walk in the door, my older daughter lifts her face from her book.
“What happened to your hair?” she says.
“I colored it a little. There was so much gray.”
“Like it?” I ask, though I can already tell that she doesn’t.
She thinks, and then she says, “I like it when you look like you, when you look like my mom,” and I understand from the edge in her voice that this opinion isn’t aesthetic, but emotional.
Before I know it, I’m that thirteen-year-old girl at her mother’s bedside, understanding in a new way why my heart has hardened. It’s because my mother has chosen public approval over my private devotion, generic beauty over her own particularity—and in doing so, she has shown me the limits of my love. If I cannot buttress my mother, in all her beauty, what hope will there be for me?
Why, I imagine my daughter asks, should I care what anyone thinks of my hair when there is her? When there is us.
I wish I could say that I decided never to color my hair again, proudly letting my silver flourish. I didn’t—maybe in time. But there have been, since then, other small relinquishments. First, I let go of the mascara. Then one day, the concealer. Later, the blush. This wasn’t a resolution, exactly, but a pattern that took hold without my quite knowing it, the way our thoughts can shape our lives in silent ways. Each release has brought me closer to the true wishes buried below my conditioned ones. I have written this essay in time stolen back from my mirror.
The moments keep coming, and I gather them up hungrily, making up for lost time. I hope my daughters are seeing. I hope they’re catching on.
The Irish philosopher John O’Donoghue described beauty as “that in the presence of which we feel more alive.” And in a recent interview, cellist Yo-Yo Ma defined it as something that involves a “transfer of life.” I like the way these definitions push beyond the pat “beauty is on the inside” maxims, showing how true beauty is active, a transaction that inspires and uplifts.
But the concept of beauty I keep thinking about lately comes from Little Miss Sunshine, the 2006 movie about a family determined to get their young daughter into the finals of a beauty pageant. Awkward, bespectacled Olive, played by Abigail Breslin, isn’t pretty in any standard way, but she’s endearing, lovely in her earnestness. As her self-awareness grows, so does her self-doubt, and she looks to her grandfather—brilliantly played by Alan Arkin—for reassurance:
Olive: Grandpa, am I pretty?
Grandpa: Olive, you are the most beautiful girl in the whole world.
Olive: You’re just saying that.
Grandpa: No! I’m madly in love with you, and it’s not because of your brains or your personality. It’s because you’re beautiful, inside and out.
This scene surprises and delights with its lack of sanctimony. Arkin’s character doesn’t deny that what’s outside matters, or righteously proclaim it’s only what’s “inside” that counts. Instead, he lays bare his love. For it’s love that makes Olive beautiful to him, all of her—interior and exterior—in her wholeness.
I won’t be able to shield my daughters from the forces conspiring to turn them on themselves. Or my son, for that matter, for boys have their own set of forces to contend with. But Arkin’s lines seem to offer a sort of compass, pointing toward how I might fortify them. I used to hold back from commenting on my children’s appearance, fearing I’d provoke vanity. With my girls especially, I’ve been careful, wanting them to grow up believing it’s who they are that’s important, not what they look like. But I’m starting to believe that we should name our daughters’ beauty—that we, in fact, must name their beauty if we’re to have any hope of protecting it from perversion.
Now, in bed at night, I tell my children how beautiful they are—their fingers, their eyebrows, the flare of their nostrils, the soft hollows under their chins. I run my fingertips over their foreheads, their noses, the whorled seashell ridges of their ears: my youngest with her tiny chapped lips; and my son, with his birthmarked arms; and my oldest, with her mixed-up teeth and one pinky toe growing sideways.
I tell them about the vistas inside them, with gentle pools of water and surging streams. And wide open fields dotted with wildflowers. And wind-swept mountains crusted with snow. They giggle and tell me I’m weird, but still I go on, cataloguing all their beauty that can’t be seen.
I make myself a mirror, showing them everything I know.
This story was the runner-up in our 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction.