I acutely remember the first time I was conscious of beauty. Not simply conscious, however, but overwhelmed by it, and weary of its power over me. I remember the first time I felt that my entire self worth equated with how beautiful I am. No one told me “this is the moment you’ll fall under this trap and it will envelope you like a cloak that you’ll wear for the rest of your life” or “from this day forward the world will label you as beautiful or not and each passing moment you’ll be aware of this label”. Instead, like the twelve-year-old child that I was, I sifted through these ideas like they were the natural order of things. Beauty was something you held onto if you had it, but felt bad about having at the same time. It was something you tried to understand, but which evoked the strongest self-judgment. Beauty induced jealousy and pain, pleasure and joy, and always: self-consciousness. It made men look at you and women look at you, it made people love you and hate you and doubt you and reject you, and sometimes it was even something that you tried to hide. So many conversations revolved around beauty and it was so fragile that in a moment, it could be lost. One of my first encounters with the subtlety and drama of beauty, however, took the form of a Jr. High School dance.
Our seventh grade class had departed on a weeklong French immersion trip in the middle of nowhere and was preparing for the first dance of the year. The night was fraught with tensions as gawky pre teens stretched bedazzled shirts and miniskirts over their adolescent bodies and attempted to apply mascara and eyeliner without poking themselves in their eyes. For some reason, this dance felt like a big deal. Maybe it was the vacation mode of the camp or the cabin fever we were all experiencing, but no one wanted to feel like they had no one to dance with, no one to gossip with, or simply no business being at a dance. Everyone had packed pre-teen-sex-appeal attire and was jostling around the communal bathrooms fighting for a piece of the mirrors. At twelve, I had the beginnings of acne, extremely pale skin, braces and due to a late start at puberty, a slightly emaciated look. I always felt awkward in my own skin, like I was in a constant state of development but never quite there. Mostly, however, I judged my appearance based on the evaluations I received from others.
Away from the female frenzy upstairs, the boys downstairs sat quietly in the common area after putting on their “shirts” and possibly some deodorant. Those who really cared about their appearance had even brushed their hair. It seemed that none of them really wanted to be at this dance anyway but were now forced to sit together in a sullen state of confusion as hysterical girls wrestled each other with blow dryers and applied glitter and butterfly tattoos to their navels.
Amidst the buzzing upstairs, however, a slight murmur started to arise from the common area. “5”, “6”, “8”, “2”. Numbers were being chanted from the peanut gallery downstairs. “4”, “3”, “5”, “6”. The boys in their shirts had made signs with numbers and were holding them up for the females as they descended the stairs. Each one of us was now a number based on our desirability to our pre teen counterparts. Girls tentatively emerged into the common area and attempted to remain stoic while their peers, very bluntly, told them exactly what they thought about them.
As soon as I discovered what was happening I froze in my tracks, my shiny pink lip-gloss held mid air. There was no way I could go downstairs. If I was labeled as a two or a three I could never show my face in society again. I would simply crumble and die or be forced to live under a rock. What if everyone thought I was a monster? What if I was the most undesirable person on the face of the planet? What if no one ever wanted to dance with me or kiss me or even look at me? What if I was forced into a life of loneliness? “3”, “5”, “6”. The chant continued, and women continued to descend the stairs like brave prisoners awaiting execution.
I started to think about my options. I could stay upstairs for the remainder of the night, if need be, eternity. There was water here, showers, paper towel and vending machines; I had everything I needed for a comfortable existence. I could feign sickness and bow out of this game that I so desperately didn’t want to be a part of. I wanted to go to the dance, yes, but I also wanted to maintain my dignity, and who were these boys to judge us anyway! The whole power structure felt so unfair and inevitable to me and I cursed the scrawny boys in their Hawaiian T-shirts and weird haircuts who simply had to sit downstairs and bark out numbers. Another part of me, however, a very tiny but the nonetheless existent part of me, was curious to go downstairs. A part of me wanted to know how I stacked up and what my number was. I felt a sick compulsion to know my beauty worth.
I took one last look in the mirror at my bright red sweater shirt and short white skort and bravely walked into battle. Attempting to casually walk down the stairs as if I wasn’t aware and/or affected by what was happening, I held in my breath as I watched the first card flip up. It was an eight. An eight. Okay, an eight was good. I could deal with that. Beneath my paleness and skinniness and braces something was redeeming itself. Eight was a very solid number. Whereas five minutes before I’d been shocked and appalled by the events of the night, I was suddenly happy we were playing this game. In fact, my ego had grown a little bit this night and I started to walk with a slight swagger. I was an eight.
But the happiness vanished as soon as Réne Hache walked down the stairs. Réne was curvy and healthy looking with glowing red cheeks and big boobs. While I was still skinny and angular, Rene was somehow already womanly. She looked like a model from an 18th century painting with her perfectly smooth skin and rounded features. “Réne Hache, Réne Hache, hot, hot, hot” the boys started chanting. And this chant continued throughout the night. Suddenly my eight started to feel like a wilted flower, crunched under the feet of Rene Hache and her “hot, hot, hot”. And suddenly, it felt to me like the worth of my person was out of my control. A test could be mastered with studying, an undesirable personality trait could be altered with awareness, but beauty, it seemed, was God given. And the boys downstairs with their dorky shirts and shoes had the power to make or break my self-esteem.
This distinct feeling of judgment and vulnerability may have started as a pre teen but continued into high school, college and beyond, maturing and changing as I changed and grew. From yelling “ Do you think I’m pretty??” to friends in a drunken college dorm, to a myriad of first dates where my appearance was always mentioned, to a relationship where beauty felt like a trade for affection and attention, to a job where appearance and dress were constantly monitored. At fleeting moments beauty felt like power, but in most moments, it felt like a weight. Beauty possessed an influence I could yield over others, but it also created a one dimensionality to my being. After all, people can possesses beautiful things like flowers and paintings, but something as complex and ever changing as a human can barely be fit into the static definition of “beautiful” and much less be treated as a prize or possession.
If someone made me feel like I an object, I quickly felt like I could do the same to them. If I was sure that my intellect or character was of no importance, I could make them feel used in other ways that often resulted in withholding affection or game playing. If they wanted beauty, I wanted things from them too that had nothing to do with their character or intellect. I could pick them up or drop them off at a whim and create a constant state of ambiguity in our status in order to create tension. Sometimes this resulted in the question “but you’re seeing other people?” In these moments I thought to myself, “but aren’t objects meant to be shared?”
In these relationships, beauty created a divide. While I was striving to be beautiful in order to receive some sort of affirmation, I ignored the other facets of my personality because I was consumed with this idea of beauty. In any human relationship, connection, ultimately, has very little to do with beauty and more to do with the essences and idiosyncrasies of each personality. Thus in order for this connection to happen, beauty can’t be such an all-consuming ideal. In order to show oneself, and truly show oneself, the ugly, the weird, the crazy, and the awkward all need to be shown, along with the beauty.
The same year of the first dance I received a rose from a crush. It was a pinkish orange colour with yellow bursting from the inside. Everything was mixed yet fluid, soft yet vibrant. It was the most beautiful flower I had ever seen. The year had left me feeling gawky and unsure of myself, afraid of my teenage years and intrigued yet a little bit resentful of boys. Everyday felt like a battle of what to wear, how to talk, and how to deal with all the horrible hormonal changes of adolescence. Every day was filled with anxieties and questions as I stumbled through the beginning of teenage hood. The rose was delivered to the classroom with a little note attached to the stem that read “I really like the way you are, will you be my girlfriend?” And to me, that was beautiful.
Although it can feel like we’re descending the stairs on a daily basis, constantly being judged by those sitting on the ground, incidents such as the rose deliverance reaffirm the cliché that beauty really is more than skin deep. When you look around at the natural order of things: leaves, a wave, the sky, they’re beautiful not only when they’re blue, or breaking perfectly or green, but they’re beautiful when they change colours and start to fall down and crash at different times. They’re naturally beautiful because of their patterns and the effect it has on us. Maybe it evokes nostalgia, the passage of time or remembrance of traditions. Like nature, beauty changes at each cycle. From freshness and innocence to refinement and wisdom, beauty is also the reflection of time and the sum total of what something has become. While prettiness might be pleasing to look at, beauty is a bit more complex, based on evocation. Superficially, beauty can be judged at a first glance, although the online dictionary describes beauty as: “The quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).”
So there, beauty is a quality. So in fact, beauty can just be “the way that you are.”
These days, I don’t tend to think about myself as beautiful or not. Instead, I try to think about the qualities I evoke. How do I communicate with people, how do I make them feel? What sort of environment am I helping to create? After all, when we look at a piece of art, many times our reaction is “that’s so natural, so true, so beautiful!” This manifestation in life is in my opinion, a better measure of beauty. With this protection of what I consider beautiful, instead of going down the stairs at all, I can make people walk up the stairs to me and drop their signs on the way up.