Every woman is precisely aware of her degree of handsomeness.
-Elizabeth Kerbridge, “A Special Mischief,” Upstairs Downstairs
My father thinks I'm beautiful. In fact, it's part of my title: "My Beautiful Princess Daughter." My father also says that I'm his favorite daughter.
I'm his only daughter.
So, that gives you a sense for how much my father should be trusted on issues that require objectivity.
I do not think I am beautiful. I never have. I was boyish as a kid, then gained some of that baby fat that prepared my body for puberty. (By the way, how cruel is life that just as a girl is developing a sense of her place in the world, her body should prepare itself for growth by making her chubby?) Until I was out of college, I struggled with how to choose clothing that was aesthetically pleasing in its combination and relevant within the cultural context. I couldn't learn the language of style so I was not communicating who I was through what I wore. And I knew it. This made me extremely self-conscious. By the time I had figured out how to dress myself with some success, I'd gained enough weight to qualify as a "big girl."
But in addition to all of that history, I have to face the fact that guys haven't tended to be interested in me. Since guys are interested in beautiful girls, the logic is obvious. Oh, there is a somewhat long line of men that have communicated interest with their behavior and with some of the things they've said, but their interest was never strong enough to actually inspire them to do something about it. From Chris H. in high school to Mike P. in college, I can only attract quiet guys and then only half-way. I have spent what seems like months of my life waiting for phone calls that never came. Let's face it, I fell for Dennis because he asked me to. The simple fact that a great guy like him wanted me to go out with him, wanted to write me poetry and make me mix tapes and then wanted me to marry him was all the evidence I needed to convince me that I had been wrong about being pretty all along. And, for the only time in my life, I desperately wanted to be wrong in my conclusion.
Because I kind of always suspected that I was. Wrong, that is. From an early age, I would stare at myself in the mirror and see myself as beautiful. Literally, I admired the planes of my face and the color of my eyes in bewilderment that no one else could see it. To explain to myself this gap, as far back as elementary school, I would spin fantasies about boys that I had crushes on being intimidated because I was somehow more than those popular girls in several ways, including my looks. I rationalized that they were accessible and common, so they got more attention. I was a weird dichotomy: my intellect knew that I was plain, but my soul actually kind of believed my dad. The two truths could occupy the same room and ignore each other completely, like former best friends at a party that neither expected the other to be at. I was annoyed by my skinny friends who complained about being fat but at the same time, was certain that I actually was fat. I just didn't want to be that girl, so I never said anything. (I was all of 120 pounds in high school.) So, I learned to explain this dissonance by compromising, if I wasn't beautiful, I told myself that I would qualify as a handsome woman or possibly even striking if a book were being written about me. But, I sang along with A Chorus Line, "Well, different's nice but it sure isn't pretty; pretty is what it's about. I never met anyone who was different, who couldn't figure that out? So, beautiful, I'd never live to see. But it was clear, if not to her, well then to me, that everyone was beautiful at the ballet. Every prince has got to have his swan." I didn't like to dance, but I did like to read. So, I gave my life over to being smart.
Looking back on my life, I am fiercely glad that I did not get many strokes to my self-esteem because of what I looked like. When I was in New Orleans a couple of years ago, I was walking down Bourbon Street at midnight on a random Friday night with my Aunt Barbara. We stopped across the street from the Penthouse building to look around and I watched a skinny skinny girl with fried long blonde hair wearing a bikini and trashy high heels hold beads on the balcony to hand them to gross men who had rented the balcony - and her - for the evening. She was crouched on top of her shoes and wrapped her arms around her body whenever the men left her alone and her face looked about to go over the edge to tears whenever she wasn't looking directly into the face of a client; then she smiled. I was so sad for her. I spend so much of my time thinking about whether or not my job is fulfilling and wondering what my passion is and how I will pursue it. It is such a luxury for me to have to decide between a job in community development and prestigious grad school. When she looks at her options, her best one is to make money by being vulnerable to the kind of men that enjoy taking advantage of a woman in that situation. That never would have occurred to me, so I've looked for success in other areas, like my brain and my personality. (The personality is a little less reliable than the brain when it comes to being successful, though.) Since that night, I keep seeing other examples of women whose lives are limited because the only way they know how to be successful is through their looks, like when you learn a new word and all of a sudden see it 6 different places in the next week.
But, despite my history, I'm finding that I might be pretty after all.
It feels weird to be talking about this again. Like, shouldn't I get this by now and let it drop? But the positive feedback from strangers is getting consistent and I can't help paying attention to that. And that means a belief I've held as unquestioningly as my belief that Star Wars is a good movie might be wrong. Apparently, the wigmaster at the opera is mad at my friend Camilla because she brought me by once and then never brought me back. His comments about why he wants to see me again seem to be an extension of my years at the Renaissance Faire when I just looked right in my costume and got attention that way. While I was at the Faire, I found an article on the Renaissance image of the ideal woman that proved my childhood comforts that I was something unique. ". . . beauty was the physical evidence of spiritual virtue. A beautiful woman would be modest, graceful, humble, obedient and pious, but she would also possess something indefinable that brought these attributes together. Agnolo Firenzuola, . . . [a] Florentine writer, would later delineate the physical characteristics that were sure signs of a virtuous character. The forehead should be twice as wide as it was high . . . Arched brows. . . and a pointed (but not upturned) nose were necessary, and ears should be pale pink like roses, except at the edges, which should be the transparent red of a pomegranate seed. High, ivory cheeks should frame a small mouth, which might only occasionally reveal a woman's most potent feature - a smile that would transport the recipient to paradise." (Mary O'Neill) Camilla and I stood behind the counter at the Faire and measured our foreheads. Mine was exactly twice as wide as it was tall. However, that article did not force me to give up my belief that I was unattractive because I could still take comfort that I was only beautiful in limited contexts that could not result into actual relationships. I only wore the costume nine weekends in the summer so I only had to adjust to a different identity - as a pretty girl - for 18 days a year. The rest of the time, I could just be myself.
Recently, I found another quote in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell that resonated with my self-image, "She was about twenty-two years of age. In repose her looks were only moderately pretty. There was very little about her face and figure that was in any way remarkable, but it was the sort of face which, when animated by conversation or laughter, is completely transformed. She had a lively disposition, a quick mind and a fondness for the comical. She was always very ready to smile and, since a smile is the most becoming ornament that any lady can wear, she had been known upon occasion to outshine women who were acknowledged beauties in three countries."
But I didn't really participate in the conversation with the wigmaster. I stood to the side and listened. And, on Friday, I sat and read my book at Bite, the restaurant where my brother works, as I waited for him to end his shift and give me a ride home. As we were wrapping up to go, the middle aged gay man who had been having lunch on the other side of the restaurant hustled by me on his way to the bathroom and said casually but hurriedly, "You, you're very pretty," as if he was pointing out that my shoe was untied.
These men didn't see me smiling. These men didn't see me in a Renaissance costume. These men hadn't been wowed by my superior intellect. These men weren't my father or men on the street with absolutely no standards. The only indicator they could use to determine my spot on the attractiveness chart were my actual physical features.
That boggles me. I'm going to have to figure out what to do with myself now. Or, at least, how to think of myself.
This is part of a whole new stage in my life. I have been uncomfortable with the infrequency of my posts since I moved to the city from the island. It has made me feel like I have lost the adventurous spirit that I had been so proud of. But as spring approaches and I can look back on the winter with a lighter heart, I realize that the adventure has been different but it is still there. Much of my energy over the last few months has been spent thinking about relationships and how the world works. I've remembered passions that I've had in the past and begun playing with them again. I've written a lot of emails that function as essays, especially to my pastor, about community development. Maybe I'll share some of those with you all, to show you where I've been. I've wrestled a lot to find my place in the church. I've been building an adult relationship with my brother and spending time with friends, new and old. My heart has been doing flip-flops. My body has been stretching into Warrior 2 and Utthita Trikonasana. I have just today realized that the city is dense with experiences and beautiful images that convey the human experience as ephemeral art at every turn. The island was so quiet that I could process unique experiences as they happened because they were the only events to process. It is taking me a long time to be able to focus on single experiences here in the city so I can paint pictures for you in this blog because there is so much ambient experience that I have to tune out.
I've learned that my father is right: I am his beautiful princess daughter.
My life is full of adventure. And that, too, is beautiful.
Maybe it's not so bad after all.
Holiday Letter: Summer 2017 - Hannah texted me a photo of our family this week. It is the six member version and it was taken on a Sunday before we took her to the airport. We all have ...