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Here they are in Disney World with matching princess-mouse hats. The sun shines warmly on their painted faces this November afternoon.

Grace, eight years old, loud mouthed, freckled, athletic, proud, and protective, stretches her arms across the railing behind her. Her chin is high, and the blue sky stretches into eternity behind her as she gazes thoughtfully into the distance, but out of the corner of her eye, she checks you out and sizes you up. The star on her forehead marks her as a visionary.

Little sister Leah smiles sweetly into the camera. Her dark wavy hair falls around her shoulders, her head tilts with affection for the photographer, their silly Uncle John. She is a butterfly to be sure, lovely and elusive, flitting past and becoming something new every second.

These are my two nieces. It does no good to compare them. They aren’t quite opposites, but they’re far from identical. When Grace was a toddler and her parents were going to have another baby, I wondered, how can they have another one? There can’t be another Grace. Then, when Leah was born, I realized, Oh, that’s how. Two parents, two babies, two completely different results. Go figure. And they have a little brother now, and miraculously, he is yet another completely unique human being.

It’s tempting to compare them, though. Everyone comments on how smart Grace is. Everyone says how beautiful Leah is. Of course, they are both smart and beautiful and much more — it’s practically a waste of breath to mention it — but you can’t stop people from saying what they say. Once, when the girls were fighting, Leah crossed her little arms, batted her eyes and said, “Well, I’m prettier than you.” She thought that was her trump card, but their mother overheard, whipped around and made it quite clear that beauty is not a weapon to be used against one’s sister.

Grace didn’t seem to take that too personally. Part of a sibling’s job is to hurl insults, so she probably just chalked it up to another day and moved along without giving it another thought. She still looks out for her little sister, anyway. Or maybe she did believe it. Maybe she has accepted a slight inequality. Maybe she, like many young girls, has come to believe that there are smart ones and pretty ones and that one girl can never be both.

When I was very young, I thought I was ugly. I don’t know where I got that idea, since no one ever called me ugly, except maybe a couple boys elementary school, but what do they know? I never took their word for much. Nonetheless, when playing with my friends, I would tell them, “Pretend I’m blond, and pretend I’m from California, and pretend my name is Christina.” Who wanted to be a round-faced brunette from Louisiana named Mary? How dull.

Because I was not Barbie but instead a round-faced, dark-haired, sunburned kid with a lop-sided smile and a goofy laugh, pretty was just never the word for me. Not knowing any better, I figured the alternative was ugly. What did I know?

Someone called me unconventionally pretty, once. I figure it was a compliment, but it did make me wonder who or what was conventionally pretty. I looked around at the girls in my high school and noticed the ones who were conventionally pretty also happened to be the ones who were on the dance team. Some of them had brown hair, some were blond, a couple were red heads (strictly unconventional) but wore the right brands of clothing, liked the right music, dated the right boys. What they had was not beauty but status. They were the girls everyone wanted to hang out with.

In retrospect none of them were “conventionally pretty,” except maybe the petite one with the round face and dimples. She looked like a baby. Everyone thought she was adorable, but I found her creepy. Another one I guess could’ve been called pretty, but she was a spaz. She went to the coffee shop with my friends and me after school a few times. It just never went over that well. She didn’t read poetry, and I was too hung up on her being pretty to like her. Another of the pretty girls was thin with a pointy nose and rather big teeth. Mostly, it was the thin part that qualified her for the pretty category. The one I found stunning, whom I never got to know very well, had a rather bulbous nose, biggish lips, frizzy hair, and freckles. She was anything but conventionally pretty, but she was interesting.

The truth is that I had no concept for beauty whatsoever. It wasn’t until Grace was born that I started to understand. Grace was stunning. She was amazing. When she was just a baby, she was crying her head off, and I picked her up and walked around the house till she calmed down. Grace has been a powerhouse from the start. When I held her in my arms, I started to understand that it’s not about being pretty. No one calls a crying baby pretty, but she was the most incredible person I’d ever encountered. Pretty is not a word I use for these girls. Pretty won’t cut it.

To wrap my head around them, I’ve designated them young Athena and baby Aphrodite. It may sound like a compliment, but it’s wrong. They are more.They are uncontainable. Wonderful is the word: You are wonderful — both full of wonder and always making me wonder. Awe-inspiring, with infinite facets, and at every turn and with every second revealing something new, concealing something brilliant, something that will blossom in the moments to come. And when I imagine them reaching adolescence, the way they will examine the mirror for signs of their worth, when I consider the words they will apply to themselves, I hope they can see themselves the way I see them.

Note: It wasn’t until Marni Grossman posted her piece, On Beaty: 1000(ish) Words that I realized what I wanted to contribute to the 1000 words series. Thanks, Marni. You are beautiful.

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MARY HENDRIE (formerly Mary Richert) is a writer living and working near Annapolis, MD. Her blog is missdirt.net. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. You can also find her on Twitter, @MissDirt. Mary really likes it when people comment on her blog or talk to her on Twitter so she can meet new people and get new ideas, so feel free to say hello any time.

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