My mother says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. She says that beauty is only skin deep.
My mother says that I’m gorgeous. She says that I’m adorable. That I’m not fat, no, she swears, it’s the truth. My mother says I wish you could see yourself the way I see you.
Right, I say with a smirk. Through love cataracts.
My mother says there will be days like this. There’ll be days like this, my mother says.
* * *
We are one. An undulating mass of freshly shaven legs, glitter eyeshadow, cheap taffeta and hormones.
We are women. We are thirteen.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are playing. Or possibly Sugar Ray. “Bad Touch” or “Mambo No. 5.”
When a slow song comes on, people pair up. Pair off. Mary Nash with Roger, Anna with Alex. No one comes for me, though and “we” becomes “I.” Alone, I stand around for a minute, nervously picking at my dress. But I’m not stupid, not blind. I beat a hasty retreat.
I walk fast, with purpose, to the bathroom. In the mirror I can see that I am not what I thought I was. Under the fancy dress, I’m just me. Ugly.
I lock myself in a bathroom stall and hang my head between my legs waiting for the moment to pass.
I am, in fact, intimate with ladies’ rooms. With powder rooms and lounges, the loo and the john. In fact, sometimes I feel as though my life has been nothing more than a long line of evenings spent hiding in bathroom stalls.
* * *
My face is the shtetl. I am Galicia. I am the Warsaw Ghetto. I am Zabar’s. The new Woody Allen film. I am some tertiary Philip Roth character.
Because my eyes are dark and brown and heavily-lidded, they are often described as soulful. Or mournful. Sorrowful. There’s something of Susan Sontag in them. And there’s a bit of Rosa Luxembourg in my long, hooked nose. Or maybe Emma Lazarus. In my smile, there are echoes of Anne Frank.
I invite comparisons- not to movie stars- but to Holocaust victims and Ellis Island rejects.
Even my body is foreign: fleshy and puckered. Tits and ass and hips. I have unruly brown pubic hair. One part ChiaPet, one part steel wool. I have a faint mustache that I bleach faithfully. My hair gets greasy and my skin is dotted with fading pimples. I am neither svelte nor toned. It’s telling: there’s no English word for zaftig.
I am much too much.
* * *
I am not a pretty girl. I know this, but, at the same time, I’m hoping someone will come along to contradict me.
I’m not a pretty girl and the most I can aspire to is “striking.”
Striking. Or “unusual.”
In college, a friend asked me to be in her student film. “You have such anunusual face,” she said.
But everyone knows, of course, that “unusual” is the polite word for ugly.
* * *
Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. But the thing of it is, pretty does well.
Studies show that being attractive comes with plenty of benefits. Pretty people make more money, more friends. They get more sex and better jobs.
And while my mother would have me believe that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, science says otherwise. Beautiful people, they say, have symmetrical faces. Lithe bodies. Wide-set eyes and generous mouths.
Even babies know this.
In 1989, psychologist Judith Langlois found that infants have an innate sense of what is and is not attractive and act accordingly. The babies in her study stared significantly longer at attractive faces than at unattractive ones.
Which is to say that I am- and always have been- doomed.
* * *
Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. But women have always known this to be a fallacy. We know that all we’ve got is the curve of our ass. That a pretty face is worth more than a Ph.D. We know that when our looks fade, we will be irrelevant, obsolete.
We know this and so we spend our lives, our money, trying to be beautiful. We tweeze and we pluck and we shave and we wax. We curl our eyelashes and we host Botox parties. We starve ourselves or we corrode the pipes with our vomit. We go under the knife again and again. We buy, buy, buy.
And we never give up the hope, propagated by Hollywood and children’s books, that we will wake up one day and be- quite suddenly- transformed. A swan.
* * *
For women, looks matter. Pretty is pretty damn important.
* * *
I always knew this. And when I was sixteen, I decided that if I wasn’t going to be beautiful, I’d better be thin. If I was thin enough, I reasoned, no one would notice that I was ugly. Models, after all, are allowed to be unusual. To have crooked noses that meander leftward and asymmetrical faces. So I’d be thin.Yes.
And for a while, I was. I was very thin. I was 95 pounds and then, for a moment, 88 pounds.
But I was also starving. I was puking in the shower and cutting my stomach with razor blades. And I wasn’t any prettier.
* * *
My friend Lacey recently tagged this awful photo of me on facebook. I detagged it. Because I’m vain and I’m insecure.
“I look hideous,” I wrote on her wall. “And fat.”
In the picture, I’m in the midst of a story. In full flow, prattling on about something or other. I’m clasping my tote bag. Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body is poking out. Maybe I’m extolling its virtues.
My breasts look enormous and so does my nose. I look heavy and cow-like and the photographer has, unflatteringly, shot me from below. Also, it’s my bad side.
And so I detagged the picture. Of course I did.
But I’m giving the picture a second life here. Because, when it comes down to it, this is what I look like. Living and breathing and reading and yes, eating.This is what I look like. Caught up in the moment. This is what I look like.
It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth.