Please, she wept, take my picture!
In the weeks following my 21st birthday, I felt an overwhelming desire to be photographed naked. Not in lewd or suggestive ways, and certainly not for anyone’s viewing pleasure, but for the purpose of immortalizing what I was convinced at the time was the peak of my physical beauty. I was grown up and feminine, but I had not yet started to work long hours in an office – which I knew would bring the imminent wrinkles, grey hair, and extra pounds I spotted on suited professionals in subway cars. I lived in New York City, where models and advertising agencies never let you forget how you stacked up on the physical scale – and days went by with me frightened that I was losing time, as I slowly but surely approached my attractiveness annihilation.
Unfortunately (or rather, very fortunately), the dabbling photographer I was dating at the time was not inspired by the idea of a bare photo shoot, and argued that this would not influence his own interpretation of my physical beauty as I grew older. Interpreting his words to mean that he would certainly find me unattractive as I aged, I fought harder to preserve the memory of a day when I could stack up – comical scenes of me in my undergarments, throwing a tantrum. I tried hard to explain that my physical peak was ephemeral, and knew that if I couldn’t convince someone to immortalize it now, it would be too late.
Following one such unfruitful debate, cut short thanks to a pre committed birthday party, I felt far from beautiful while I put my clothes back on. And as we taxied to the East Village, awkwardly faking interest out of opposite windows, I felt actively ugly. How could I be beautiful if even my boyfriend was not interested in photographing what would be remembered as my peak?
Finally entering the Italian restaurant, relieved to have other people to distract ourselves with besides one another, the photographer spent the evening chatting with an eccentric brunette while I shyly made friends with the only other misanthrope at the party. His name was Tom, and we spoke about the changing weather, Jane Austen, lackluster quality of the pizza (in hushed tones), and our shared love of Audrey Tautou. He was the breath of liquor-tinged air I needed, and when the bill came, we exchanged emails before heading back to our separate nests on the Upper East Side.
As good anecdotes go, I was flattered to receive an email from Tom a few days later, with a poem intact. It was written by John Berryman, the setting was a familiar-sounding dinner party, and the lines which made me flush were: “Fainting with interest, I hungered back / and only the fact that her husband & four other people / kept me from springing on her,” which I couldn’t help but read into. Suddenly I felt gorgeous. Someone considered me so beautiful, I could now tell myself, that they needed to be physically held back from getting close to me. I smiled, oblivious that my beauty was controlled entirely by strings pulled by other people.
It’s cruel, isn’t it, how a young girl needs to wait for someone else to call her beautiful. Boyfriends apart, I spent my youthful years relentlessly molding myself into someone else’s definitions of attractiveness. This included mundane exercises: from subscribing to magazines which explained how to put on makeup and what clothing most flattered parts of the body, to examining advertisements for beauty products and clothing brands to learn about the things I needed to buy in order to become “my best self.” I looked to young models and actresses for a definition of what is admired and attractive – failing to appreciate that they too, were often fulfilling someone else’s definition of beautiful.
Then one day, I finally ripened to realize that most of the models and actresses I aesthetically looked up to were actually younger than me, and that we further had very little in common. Theorizing that people who find models attractive and admirable probably shouldn’t also find me attractive and admirable, I decided to stop trying to contort myself into someone else’s image of what is beautiful.
My girlfriends were simultaneously reaching the same conclusion. We slowly started to laugh at the same magazines we used to treat as bibles – Where do they get this never-ending vault of “outfits to flatter your best parts” and “makeup tricks which will make him swoon”? We snickered at Cosmo. But I don’t remember us explicitly talking about this transition – this change in our relationship with an industry which had, for a significant part of our youth, told us how to think about beauty. Instead we – individually and in our own time – superiorly renounced magazines and advertisements and whatever else the beauty industry had sold to us. And then we quietly wondered: what do we do now?
Playing with the lexicographer’s pen
It is the implication, when you care about aesthetics as a woman, that you probably care about your own personal beauty. Young girls are trained to be muses – to wait to be labeled beautiful by a King. Yet being a muse – being classified as beautiful by someone else – is a powerless, quiet thing. Whereas being the creator – where you can contribute to the definition of what is beautiful – is the true position of power.
The problem was, while I disagreed with the narrative of beauty presented to me, I did not have my own counter narrative. Should I replace Cosmo and Vogue with Ms. magazine, or sketches from Berthe Morisot? I did neither – I simply stuck to novels. Do I reverse everything I did before – look sloppy, not smile, not wear makeup? Possibly not – whether I liked it or not, I had been conditioned to feel ugly without a certain level of care and maintenance. And perhaps because I would expect men to place a similar level of care and maintenance into their own physical appearance, my inner aesthetic could explain that she wasn’t contradicting my inner feminist. Hence, I began the search for a definition of beauty that I would be happy with: that would fit my life.
This journey included two main discoveries: the first (something which many people have written about and I won’t spend much time on), is the discovery that inner goodness is incredibly more important to contributing to how beautiful you are than anything external. When I think about the women I find beautiful, they vary drastically in age, origin, makeup routine, and physique. But they share: warmth, kindness, courage, curiosity, humor, wit and brilliant brains.
The second (seemingly contradictory) discovery was that: despite my newfound appreciation for the soul, human beings are and will remain visual animals, with varying desires to be pleased aesthetically. Humans will continue to find attractive those who are physically beautiful. Hence why, regardless of my ability to come up with a new definition of beauty to emphasize the inner, the beauty industry (into which, I generously pool the same magazines, adverts, and Victoria’s Secret), isn’t going anywhere. So instead of trying to change the game, I’ve decided not to play it anymore. This means neither molding myself into someone else’s definition, nor feeling the need to create my own.
There was another poem enclosed in the email Tom sent me that day following our first (and yes, only) encounter – which would end up having a more lasting impact on me.
It was by Tony Hoagland, and remains to this day, one of my favorite poems. Describing his sister recognizing her aging in the mirror, Hoagland reminisces about her youthful days as a man-magnet blonde:
“Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,
walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it—
It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.
My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,
something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.”
This image of buttercups and daisies climbing over me caused tears of relief to run down my cheeks as I whispered, “exactly,” finally letting go. It was as if Tom, via Hoagland, was giving me the chance to throw beauty away, a freedom I didn’t think I would ever find. It was at 21 that I asked: how much can we really change about the way we look, anyway? Is it not a better use of effort to cultivate and impart more warmth, kindness, courage, laughter, wit and wisdom? And since then, I’ve not worried much about whether I’m physically beautiful.