“At least you guys can wear halters. I’ve got man-shoulders.”
That’s me at 13, backstage at the student theater. Looking at this photo 13 years later, I’m struck by how pretty I look. I was a pretty girl. I didn’t know it. In fact, every single time I looked in the mirror, I saw something close to a monster. I saw a person so horribly ugly that it was embarrassing to be her. Even if a friend told me that I looked pretty, I would agree on the surface (because I didn’t want to argue), but felt as though they had an ulterior motive (they were actually making fun of me, for example). This habit has stayed with me – I can’t look in the mirror and act normally. I have to somehow rearrange my features, so that the face looking back at me is not my own face, but a mask. I can’t smile sincerely in the mirror, though I’ve been practicing. I had no idea I even did this, until I started living with my fiance, who began pointing this stuff out to me.
“Why can’t you look in the mirror like a normal person would?”
“I don’t know.”
But I do know. I don’t like my reflection.
Growing up in the U.S., it felt as though bashing your own looks if you’re a girl was good manners. This isn’t really the case in Russia. “I look horrible!” I’ll wail to a friend, and they’ll go, “What?”
Of course, my problems with my own face and body don’t just stem from problems within society – any society. It would be disingenious to just blame “the media” or “fashion magazines” or even “high school”. My problems with how I look started with abuse at the hands of a male relative, and progressed steadily onward. I saw a monster in the mirror, because I felt there was a monster on the inside (it all comes down to kid logic: “Adults must be hurting me, because I am a bad person” – after all, I trusted adults to make the best choices for me).
Society did help, however. Society made it permissible, even desirable, to feel ugly and to feel bad for feeling ugly. Everywhere around me, other girls felt ugly too. Even girls I considered pretty, they all said the same things: “My butt is too big,” “My boobs sag,” “OMG, my nose!” “I hate my goddamn hair!” If you were considered “ethnic,” you were in trouble – what if your curls were “too kinky”? What if your skin was “too dark”? An Italian-American friend of mine was approached by the grandmother of a mutual friend, who asked her – “Have your parents considered doing anything about your nose, dear?” And if you were a lily-white girl, well, you were in danger of being “too bland” somehow, as if you were a dish to be sampled. Indian friends were told to lighten their skin. I was advised to consider a tanning bed. I think some of us realized, even at that age, that we couldn’t win.
Now that I’m older, I don’t have time to worry about my looks. Literally. I have a job, I’m getting married, I’m working on a new play, I have finally started getting over my morning sickness. I don’t have time to worry about my looks – but I suddenly have time to enjoy them. I’m not really sure when this started, before I moved to Russia, definitely (though being in Russia has certainly reinforced this feeling), but I feel very pretty. Even when people tell me that I’m nothing of the sort – somehow, this no longer bothers me. And in the earliest stages of pregnancy, despite the morning sickness, I was suddenly overcome with how pretty my body felt, if “pretty” could be a feeling. It still is very pretty, even more so now that it’s sporting a growing baby bump.
I reject ridiculous beauty standards, but I don’t reject beauty. This is important. This is why I ignore people who attempt to chide me for “performing beauty culture.” It’s honestly the same thing as the people who made it their business to fret about my lack of tan – an invasion of privacy. Nobody should have any right to tell you how the hell you ought to look.
If someone fails to find you attractive, it’s not the end of the world (even though for a woman, it somehow “should” be the end of the world – otherwise, why would women be so heavily policed in this department? When I was growing up, people made “ugly” comments about Janet Reno as if they actually meant something, for example). There is also nothing shallow, or self-centered, or rude about saying, “But dayyymn, I’m feeling pretty fine” or being told that “dayyymn, you look fine”.
I feel fine when I look at my pregnant body today. I feel fine when I look at the picture above. I feel fine in general. I’m glad that I finally get to experience something I denied myself for so many years. I imagine that things will be more difficult in the last weeks of pregnancy, and in the first few months after the birth – it’s a trial for the body in many ways, and having a bad back (that I’m working on) doesn’t make it any easier – but at the same time, there will be a baby I plan on feeding with my body during that time as well, and if that’s not beautiful, I don’t know what is.