Uninvested in Being Beautiful

By | October 7, 2009

As I’ve gotten older (and here I use “older” cautiously since I’m only in my thirties), one of the more unexpectedly pleasant aspects has been my growing invisibility to younger people. I’ve been fat my entire life, and as a result there hasn’t been a time when seeing a cluster of young men (or, for that matter, young women) out in a public place– especially in a scenario when I have to walk past them–didn’t stiffen my back and set my teeth on edge in anticipation of the coming harrassment. But my age is slowly taking that away. Few groups are as offensive to the cultural consciousness as youthful fat people, because it’s like a car crash of antithetical concepts: if youth is beauty and fat is ugly, than a young fat person is willfully bastardizing the treasure of youth. Or so some would have you believe. Combine this with the natural inclination of young people to be powerfully fixated on physical appearance and you have a recipe for an environment that’s especially hard on fat kids.

Recently I was walking into a local department store, and a cluster of boys in their late teens were standing near the front doors, talking. A slender young woman walking in front of me passed them, and all three watched and assessed and traded insights. As I approached them on my way out, I felt that familiar adrenaline rising, fists clenching, prepared for fucking war, as though I’m waiting, someday, for the time when I will inevitably, finally snap and physically assault a person for saying the wrong thing to me at the wrong time and in the wrong tone of voice (it may still happen, someday).

But the boys barely glanced at me. And I could relax, reminded that I’m slowly becoming irrelevant, which is troubling on some levels, particularly ones relating to sexism, but is a massive relief on others.

One of the more common sentiments expressed by the women of More to Love was the ultimate goal of “feeling beautiful”. While the objective truth of an individual person’s beauty is up for debate–and acknowledging the question of whether an objective beauty exists at all, being ultimately in the eye of the beholder–the feeling of beauty is something else altogether. It’s internal, it’s visceral, it’s a deep, penetrative assurance, it’s something you get in your very cells. It’s not necessarily something that has any visible effect on how symmetrical a person’s features are, or whether her hair is shiny and flowing, and so forth. It’s not tangible.

When the fat women of reality TV told of how they “felt beautiful”–to the object of their affections or just to the television audience–my husband would ask me, often with a bit of a sideways glance, “Do I make you feel beautiful?”

This is a question with a complex answer and likely one I’ve never fully expressed with accuracy. I would typically tell my husband, “I believe that you think I’m beautiful,” and, “You make me feel loved,” both of which are true, but neither of which is the same as feeling beautiful myself. The fact of the matter is that I don’t feel beautiful, pretty much ever. Before you frown at this sympathetically, dear reader, allow me to also note that I don’t feel as though I’m missing anything in this way. I am, frankly, uninvested in being beautiful.

I don’t receive hate mail very often at all; maybe a couple times a year. This surprises me considering I am pretty open on this blog, about my background and my size and what I look like. I would expect telling the story about being nicknamed “obese” as a kid or frequently posting photos of myself here, would make me a favored target. But on the rare occasions when I do get hate mail, it’s only ever a slam on my appearance, and given that my lack of beautifulness is probably the least sensitive part of my psyche, I’m perversely grateful for this.

My most recent anti-admirer said something to the effect of my being painful to look at, which did nothing so much as remind me of Angela Chase and “You’re so beautiful, it hurts to look at you,”. This is especially apt considering that when Angela suggests this phrase as something she wishes someone would say to her, it’s difficult to imagine it happening then, to a skinny, self-absorbed teenager whose awkwardness is part of what makes her appealing, but who probably wouldn’t get broad majority support for a vote of “beautiful”, at least not at that age, in that situation. When My So-Called Life was on the air, Angela Chase and I were the same age–actually, I think I was a year older–but at the time I could only feel her insecurity and her sad teenage pain and I heard her voice her wish for the most romantic thing she could imagine hearing and I connected with it. I watch her now and can only think of how young she is and that while the character is relateable and her story compelling, she is also somewhat embarrassing, in retrospect. Were we all like that? Were we all so hopefully and hopelessly self-involved, so committed to being special and unique and beautiful in whatever way we choose to define it?

Elsewhere, the November issue of Glamour has arrived and, as promised, features more naked plus-size models and a lot of self-congratulatory back-patting on Glamour’s part for their progressiveness and willingness to buck the oppressive norms of the fashion industry… at least for one article in one issue. This piece is likewise steeped in the language of beauty, advocating that women of a certain size sure can be beautiful, boy howdy! But of course there are limits–lest anyone think Glamour is irresponsibly promoting self esteem and self acceptance, they are sure to remind us that “obesity is a significant health problem,” and that these models aren’t obese (except when they are).

It’s fun to play at being beautiful, like little girls playing dress-up in our mothers’ clothes. Everywhere we look we’re confronted with messages instructing us that to be beautiful is to be feminine, or at least that we ought to aspire to beauty even knowing that the vagaries of popular culture and genetics may ensure that it’ll always dance just beyond our grasp. This unites women as much as it divides them and sabotages and swallows energy that might have been better put into non-beauty-focused endeavors. As critical thinkers, we ought to be aware that being beautiful is an option and not a requirement. Even for the aforementioned women, who shoulder a disproportionately-high measure of the beauty burden.

You do not have to be beautiful. It’s not your responsibility to be beautiful, for yourself or for anyone else, not for your family or your partner or your friends or some stranger on the street who finds your face unpleasant (and let’s be real here–the most beautiful woman you can imagine will occasionally have folks thinking she looks busted). “Beautiful” is a loaded concept, encumbered with implications far beyond the dictionary definition. It’s a vehicle on which we can put our deeper worries, our fears that we’re not good enough, our insecurities, our sadness. It’s easier to say “I feel beautiful!” than it is to say “I feel confident!” “Beautiful” is a feeling that’s okay for a woman to express; often, “confidence” is not. But that’s a conflation of two discrete concepts. When we use it in this way, “beautiful” becomes a code word we employ when we can’t get at our deeper feelings, or at least when we can’t express them in a culturally-acceptable way. Feeling beautiful is often about nothing so much as feeling accepted, loved, appreciated, respected, and feeling those things about oneself from the inside, as well as feeling them as they are expressed by other people.

When my husband asks if I feel beautiful, I have to say no; because I never feel beautiful by its strictest definition; because I am not a beautiful girl. I am rather a woman who knows where she stands, who feels comfortable and confident in her own skin, and yet who struggles daily with living in a world that tells her repeatedly that she shouldn’t feel this way, that she has no right to feel this way.

Our beauty, or our feelings of beauty, are often feelings we guard as ferociously as we would a priceless treasure. Probably because for many of us this feeling comes all too rarely. But if I might interrogate our assumptions for a moment: what do we really mean when we talk about feeling beautiful? We mean that we feel good about ourselves, don’t we. We mean that we feel happy and confident and alive, and the fact that this combination of feelings is so rare and so magical and so intoxicating that we have to call it “beauty” just breaks my heart.

That feeling is beautiful. But you don’t have to be beautiful, to feel it.