This one is for Latoya, who reminded me of my love for beautiful TLC and Mary J. Blige.
My mother has always insisted to me that I am pretty.
This went beyond the regular “my child is simply darling” outlook that most parents have to some extent. No, my mother insisted she saw something in me – the way one sees despair in a late Van Gogh painting or the Virgin Mary in a passing summer cloud. She told me I was unconventional, unique, a one-of-a-kind specimen one may discover after getting lost in the Amazon Rainforest or exploring the back-rooms of a particularly pretentious record shop.
Now, I always knew that beauty doesn’t humanize a woman. But I also knew that beauty does make her more acceptable, especially if she has the mind to have a career or, egads, strongly disagree with a man. Sexist men are more forgiving of “uppity” women if said women happen to be beautiful, though beauty can become a liability the minute you are sexually harassed or otherwise assaulted. But what made my family worship female beauty was its romantic, tragic side: the beauty that jumped off cliffs and turned itself into trees and so on. It was the beauty that was allowed to be at the center of a story. As a writer, I knew all about stories: the stories you told, and the stories you lived. Most of the time, I was doing the telling.
I actually blubbered when my mother showed me pictures she had taken for my senior yearbook portrait.
“But you look so interesting!” She insisted.
“Buh-but I don’t want to be uh huh huh interesting! I want to be uh huh huh pretty! Like you!”
“But you are pretty! Not like me… but, like your great-aunt Lina! She was always such a star. Men didn’t even care that she was married.”
“How do I know you’re telling the truth? I wasn’t even born yet then!”
“Your grandmother still talks about it!”
“Yeah? Well, grandmother also told me that you sold samogon on the black market when I was five.”
“Maybe I did.”
Being unpretty is bad enough, but being unpretty when your own mother might as well have stepped out from the insides of a pearly shell is like having the universe take a highly unsubtle dump on your head. When I was unpretty and sickly thin, I at least had a small chance of getting to snort heroin backstage at some over-polluted city’s fashion week and thinking myself cool. Being unpretty and having a thigh circumference greater than Lolita’s is not just unfashionable, it’s downright contemptible, or so some people would say. It doesn’t matter if it’s all in your head, your head is a big place, and you can’t ever leave it until you’re dead.
With a philosophy like this, you would have expected me to cut my own face off that time when that boy told me he wasn’t interested in seeing me anymore because he had, for all intents and purposes, found someone prettier. But no, I am a much sicker person than that, I actually savoured the moment. It was my vindication.
“Certainly,” you’re going to say, “it’s a rather fluid phenomenon, this notion of ‘prettiness’ and all that it entails.” I would, of course, agree. Alek Wek is pretty. So is Sharon Osbourne. And Hedi Slimane (you’re not supposed to call men “pretty,” but that’s just sexist). But pretty is more than an agreeable face, it’s also a state of mind. And I have never been in The Pretty, just The Awkward, and perhaps its cousin, The Glum. And it feels good to admit it. And as much as I want to blame it on sexism and fashion magazines, that’s not all there is to it.
The other day, I got into the shower, and, being naked and more or less alone with myself (perhaps some nearsighted pervert was looking in from the olive grove), I decided that it would be a good time officially accept the fact that I look like my dad. I also decided that I might as well officially accept the fact that what my mother sees in me is a very sad and plaintive sort of ghost, the ghost of herself. I do look remarkably like my mother when I tilt my chin upward, for example, although it isn’t a pose I can hold for long and it gets positively dangerous when I’m trying to walk down the street. The “pretty” in me is a distant, romantic echo, like a church fresco glimpsed underneath layers of communist-applied paint, and this is precisely why my mother loves it so. I am, quite literally, a brooding phantom of her youth. A unique specimen if there ever was.
No, the clouds haven’t opened, and the trumpets haven’t blared, and I certainly haven’t started “accepting” myself. In fact, if I wasn’t financially screwed as well as terrified of surgery and its possibly “Tales from the Crypt”-esque side-effects, I’d have my nose trimmed and my lips plumped up tomorrow. And anyone who tells me I’ve no right to consider it, or that I must think of the children, or else watch more Oprah and feel good about myself can go right ahead and kiss my fat-tipped peasant nose.
On the plus side, my mother’s side of the family, ever prone to flights of fancy, have decided that I look rather like Volodya, my grandmother’s long lost brother. He died heroically when he was still a teenager. Most people wouldn’t tale this comparison as a compliment because of death and gender, now matter how gorgeous Volodya was (and he was damn gorgeous, just so we’re clear), but I put it in perspective. As Neil Gaiman once wrote, beauty is mostly a “pretty cover for the bones.” Within the contrast of physical beauty and the dripping, slithering decay of the mortal world lies an answer – and though I’ve got no farking clue as to the actual question, contemplating firm skin and red apples and the jellied eyes of the dead is, to quote my mother, interesting, and interesting is the best I can hope for in this life.
Although, if I remain as underappreciated as I think myself to be, I will run off to join the Pussycat Dolls.