“Little boys want to be heroes or scary,” says a Halloween costume expert at Dallas & Co in an NPR interview. “Little girls want to be pretty or cute.” He’s ducking questions about women and girls dressing as “strumpets.” I wonder whether he believes there is an innate distinction between what little boys and little girls want. I wonder if he has children, if he’s paid attention to how people comment or fail to comment on the beauty of females from the moment they pop out of their mothers’ wombs and a nurse wipes off the goop.
I can’t remember anyone commenting positively on my appearance when I was a child. Occasionally, a mean kid would call me fat or ugly, so it’s no surprise that by high school I’d decided I wasn’t good looking and accepted that fact. In retrospect, it must have been liberating to know I wasn’t pretty, to not have to worry about living up to expectations, to not need those compliments.
My sister Rose will be seven in January. I’m not sure what the trajectory of her life will be, if, when she’s thirty, she’ll look back and say, “Yeah, people always said I was so beautiful since I can remember,” or if she’ll say, “People always said I was beautiful, until I was X years old.” I don’t want to think about what might happen to her sense of self if the compliments stop.
By the time she was three, when strangers stopped her to tell her how beautiful she was, Rose would lose patience–“I know”–and try to talk about something more interesting, Legos or unicorns, dinosaurs or balloons.
I turn off my car, silencing the man who owns the costume shop in the town where I live. Back in my apartment, I check Facebook because that’s what we do now. Someone has posted a video of a woman going to the zoo to visit a lion she rescued and nursed back to health. The lion reaches through the cage and grabs her to his chest, nuzzles her face. He is the biggest, happiest kitten I’ve ever seen. He wants nothing more than to cuddle her.
The woman is not attractive. She’s short and pudgy with thinning hair. The lion does not care. The woman did not choose her body. She did choose to take a starving lion home and feed it and care for it and love it. It’s me. I’m spending more time judging her physique than thinking about her act of kindness.
I try to look at the woman with the lion and not think about her appearance. I try to watch her smile, sense the warmth beneath her thin chapped lips and crooked teeth. I know I was trained at an early age to value physical beauty in women over any other characteristic, but can’t I be better than that?
Humans like beautiful things. A beautiful face makes us smile, doses us with dopamine. But we are so much more than our biology. We can decide as a group to not believe that might makes right as it would in the wild. We can stay up all night through the power of coffee and electricity. We can rip the scent of old fish from the air and replace it with a lemony-chemical zing. We can carve out clogged hearts and replace them. We override our biology again and again when we see fit, but when it comes to female beauty, the only biology we want to override are the flaws in the female form that could be fixed with a sharp razor, makeup, carefully designed clothes, and silicone injections.
An ugly girl will get in trouble for being unruly, talking back, not sharing, or not doing her schoolwork much more often than a beautiful girl. Conversely, an ugly girl is more likely to get positive feedback for doing well in school, for being smart, for being nice. It’s only once appearance has been established as lacking that other traits gain more importance.
This is why I have to force myself to not mention my sister’s beauty to her too often, to focus on other traits I can laud, to praise her for being smart and funny and nice. I try to tell her what it is to be a good person because most people don’t care if she’s good or smart or funny. I care, but I’m glad she’s beautiful too. It makes me happy to look at her smooth, heart-shaped face. It makes me think of my own awkward face when I was her age, the too-big cheeks and small, freckled nose, those horrible thick bangs cut straight across my forehead.
I don’t think I ever thought I was flat-out ugly, just not pretty. I was told I was ugly plenty of times, but I never believed that was true, coming as it did from other unattractive kids who were obviously putting me down for the sake of putting someone down. I have no memories of being told I was pretty during the first half of my life. I do have a strong memory of my best friend looking at me in seventh grade Home Ec and saying, “You know, you’d be really pretty if you plucked your eyebrows.”
Done and done. Take that, biology.
By the end of high school, I was just an average-looking girl who cared about being smart and reading books and writing. Then something tragic happened. During my first trimester in college, the boy I liked told me I was beautiful.
I laughed in his face.
I laughed and laughed and laughed. He stiffened and walked away. I laughed all the way back to my dorm. Then I paused. I went into the bathroom I shared with five other girls and looked in the mirror. “Shit,” I said to my reflection, “he’s right. I am beautiful. When did that happen?”
I couldn’t make much of suddenly being beautiful. I had been maybe ugly, then average, then beautiful, but it was nothing I had done. I couldn’t take it seriously. I sometimes dressed up for special occasions. I sometimes put on makeup, but mostly, I continued to live like I always had, wearing whatever secondhand clothes I had lying around, not getting dressed up for parties on Friday nights, waiting impatiently while my friends tried on a dozen different outfits and worried about how to style their hair.
But now I had a choice. I could still look unremarkable with stains on my shirt and unbrushed hair, but with minimal effort, I could look stunning. Strangers were nicer to me. It was easier to get things I wanted. People wanted to give me jobs, a better view at a concert, or a drink. Everywhere I went, men held open doors for me to walk through.
Would a woman who works hard to be beautiful save a lion? Would she be out in the jungle where her mascara might run and her heels would sink into the wet earth? Would she give up manicures and trips to the salon to have enough money to feed the beast?
By fifth grade I’d given up on hoping to be friends with the cool kids, so of course, Ginger Holt, one of the most popular girls in school, took a special interest in me. She invited me to her birthday party with other popular girls and one hanger-on, Heather, my mom’s friend’s daughter, who wasn’t pretty and wasn’t very popular, but who tried and tried and managed to stay on the fringes. They tolerated her, but did not like her. At one point, we all went upstairs to try on Ginger’s clothes. I didn’t want to try on her clothes because I was too fat. Her house intimidated me with its size and cleanliness, with the giant trampoline and wood staircase to the second floor. She had a closet as big as my half of the bedroom I shared with my little brother. She wouldn’t let Heather try on her clothes because she said Heather was too fat and would stretch them out. Heather was not fat. She wasn’t quite as thin as Ginger, but only by an inch or two. Ginger turned to me and offered the outfit she’d denied Heather. The difference between me and the other girls was easily four sizes.
I did not try on Ginger’s tiny Guess shirt and jean skirt, and I did not hang out with her or any of the other girls after that. The price of admission was too high.
I’m not beautiful anymore. It came and went. I am still pretty, and if I lost thirty pounds, I might be beautiful again. I don’t want to waste time on my appearance that could be spent writing or interacting with loved ones, but I’ve made concessions. I’ve started wearing a little makeup to work. I sometimes style my hair. I sometimes wear nice clothes. I sometimes want to hear I’m pretty.
I can’t go a few hours without a cigarette, and I can’t go a few weeks without being told I’m pretty, verbally or through the way a man’s eyes cut across my body, the way his face warms while looking at mine. It’s like air conditioning. You can live half your life without it, but once you’ve experienced artificial air with regularity, once you’ve felt that cool chill on a hot day, once you have the crisp smell of Freon in your nose, you need it.
I need to know people still think I’m pretty, and that if I try hard enough, I can be beautiful.
I don’t want to care, but I do. It was easier in my twenties, when I still had the glow of youth. Now I’m approaching old-maid-hood, and I packed on pounds I thought I’d left in high school. Now if I put in no effort, most people do not think I’m very pretty. But if I spend thirty minutes in the morning, if I wear the right clothes and makeup and do something with my hair, then I am. If I spend those 3.5 hours a week, 14 hours a month, 168 hours a year, I can still get that boost, that taste, that feeling of worth.
It’s been almost a year since I started this essay because I didn’t know what to say that hasn’t been said or is worth saying or that could change anything or anyone. It’s September now, and candy aisles in grocery stores are already decorated orange and black with pictures of little boy pirates and little girl fairies.
Rose is in second grade. I saw her a month ago, already as tall as a fourth grader, not thin or fat, but big, which is not beautiful. She’s been downgraded to pretty, or maybe cute. I wonder if she knows. I wonder if she’s noticed that strangers no longer stop her on the street, that she’s no longer first picked from a crowd of volunteers at the Science Museum show.
I talked to her last night on the phone. She owed me a story. She’s been working on one about fairies. Do I like fairies? Sure, I like fairies. She’s relieved. She knows I don’t like princesses. Well, there was this beautiful, beautiful fairy, who was so beautiful on the outside, but on the inside, she was horrible and mean. She was a bad person who wanted everything for herself and wouldn’t help anybody—she would never give a poor person so much as a crumb.
But there was this other fairy, and she wasn’t much to look at. My sister struggles and struggles for words to describe a good person who is not pretty. She rephrases the other fairy’s looks again and again, bumping into unknown territory, not wanting to call a good person “ugly.” This fairy is beautiful on the inside, even though she’s, uh, um, not so good on the outside.
I know where this story is going. There’s only one place for it to go.
It will be my turn when Rose is done, so I stop listening to her fumble through her morality tale and try to create a new one for her. I make a world where no one thinks a thing about how anybody looks. It never occurs to them to judge a body; instead, they are only interested in what’s inside.
I keep half an ear on Rose. A prince fairy is falling in love with the wrong fairy: the one who is beautiful outside, but cruel and selfish. Rose struggles to find the word for “male fairy” until I tell her he can just be a “fairy” too.
My fairy comes to this world from hers and is surprised to find that people care about appearances. She’s even more shocked to discover that she is beautiful and that means something, more than anything else. Wait, I’ve gone the wrong way. This is the same old story. It’s the same fucking story.
She’s not pretty in this world then, but that’s not right. That’s Rose’s story retold. In these stories, the nerdy or ugly or not pretty girl who is a good or interesting person becomes beautiful. She always becomes beautiful. That is her reward for being good. There is no story of a not-beautiful good girl who stays not beautiful and good. That is not a trajectory an audience could stand.
In Rose’s version, the fairy prince falls in love with the wrong fairy, and she steals his wings. The good fairy gives him her wings.
I look at the time and try to get off the phone. I don’t want to hear the rest, and I don’t have a counter story. Even in my make-believe world where looks shouldn’t matter and girls should be free to be who they are, unbound by appearance, I can’t escape beauty. I have no story to tell. I’ve failed.
I get off the phone, pretending to be very interested in what happens next, but more interested in Rose getting a good night’s sleep. She can tell me the rest tomorrow. I grumble to myself, remembering the movie I’d been watching on mute at the gym the day before. I rode a bike and watched Sandra Bullock play a type: the oddball woman who’s plain looking, but interesting, who eats a lot in front of people because she doesn’t care how she looks (and apparently has the metabolism of a hummingbird), who through circumstance needs a makeover, and then everyone is WOWED by how beautiful she is, and she lives happily ever after now that she gets the guys and her appearance matches her soul.
Except that her appearance doesn’t match her soul. She was happy in jeans and a t-shirt with a sloppy ponytail. And who wants a man who didn’t notice you until after you put on a skin tight dress and six-inch heels? It’s the same bullshit story. It’s the same place my sister’s fairy story was going to end up. It’s the same place I was going with my fairy story. It’s the only place we know.