So just what is beautiful, anyway?
Being thin / having curves / pregnancy. Blonde / brunette / redhead / salt and pepper. Youth / aging gracefully. Strength / vulnerability. Femininity / androgeny. Seventeen / thirty-seven / a baby. Being toned / being touchable. The hourglass / the thigh gap. Marilyn Monroe / The Mona Lisa / Coco Rocha / Barbie / Mother Theresa / Michelle Obama.
And / or:
Confidence. Authenticity. Intelligence. Honesty. Wit. Humor. Admitting wrong. Fearlessness, passion, growth, perfection.
Beauty is all of these things or none of them, depending on whom you ask and when you ask them, and asking me yields no exception. To me, Beauty is elusive, contradictory, a never-ending flip-book of images and words and moving pictures spanning my earliest memories to this very moment. My idea of Beauty is woven into my history; it has changed through the course of my life. Even as I write this, my definition of Beauty is changing from one thing to its complete opposite and back again, and it is complicated further by the lens with which I approach. As a woman in general, Beauty is one thing; as an actress, Beauty is another; as a writer, it is another still. I cannot imagine how complicated it will become when I become a mother… of daughters… or sons.
I was a philosophy major. When something eludes me, I go and read what other people have written about it. Typically, this confuses me further – I studied philosophy to understand life, but I walked away with my degree knowing less than I did when I started. In reading about Beauty, however, I may have hit upon something enlightening in Plato’s Symposium.
Plato says, basically, Beauty is that which people desire. And they desire that these Beautiful things or people or ideas become their own. And when all the Beautiful things and people and ideas they desire have become their own, they will have happiness.
I was your average-looking adolescent spaz: on the tall side, but not the tallest; of average weight, thick wavy hair. I had worn glasses since I was nine, but so had several other kids in my class. So I was very surprised when, in my fifth grade year, someone other than a family member told me I was pretty.
I remember that moment vividly: the way the afternoon sun streamed through the big windows of Zingleman’s, the hot-dog shop in my first hometown, a picturesque suburb of Chicago. I remember where I was sitting at our four-top table (next to the wall, facing the counter) and the names of the two boys I was sitting with (Billy and Matt). I can see Billy’s stick-out ears and Matt’s blonde hair and braces, Billy’s royal blue polo and Matt’s hunter green t-shirt. Interestingly, perhaps – the thing I don’t remember is the other girl at the table. I sense in my memory a female presence in the chair across from mine, but I cannot remember which of my friends she is or any detail of how she looks.
At Zingleman’s, in between fries, Billy turned to me and said, matter-of-factly: “I like you.” Matt also turned to me and said, “Me too.”
“You do?” I asked them.
“Yeah,” Billy said.
“Yeah,” Matt repeated.
“Really? Why?” I asked. There were lots of neat, lovely, fun girls in our class. “Why not Nora or Eva or Abby?”
“Uh, because you’re pretty,” Billy said as if I were an idiot.
“I am?” I asked, bewildered.
“Duh,” Billy said. “Yeah, duh,” Matt echoed.
Immediately, I felt terrible, because they did not tell the girl sitting across from me that she was pretty. (How must she tell this story now, if she remembers it?) But then, I admit, I was rather delighted.
I had heard about pretty. We had Barbies; they were pretty. Jane Fonda from my mom’s workout video was pretty. Princess Jasmine from Aladdin was pretty. And pretty was desirable: Girls wanted to be Barbie (life with Ken in the Dreamhouse did look pretty sweet); my mom sweated and grunted along with Jane Fonda, so evidently she wanted to look like her; all the princes and commoners in Arabia wanted to marry the Princess Jasmine.
So when I discovered I might be in the same category as these pretty things, I thought: You’re kidding! I’m one of the pretty ones? Well, goodness, how lucky!
(Lucky, I realized, because if they were right – if I was pretty – then I could do absolutely nothing and have value. I didn’t have to say something clever, or accomplish something, or do an act of great kindness. Simply sitting there, I had value. I was desired.)
Less than a year later, I entered sixth grade. Thanks to tween hormones and the joyous discovery that the middle school cafeteria would sell me as many HoHos as lunch money could buy, whatever pretty Billy and Matt saw in me vanished almost overnight.
Early in the year, our teacher assigned me a desk at a cluster with Billy, a boy I don’t remember, and a popular girl named April. One morning, we wrote autobiographies. April leaned over to my desk and looked at my work.
“What’s yours say?” She asked me.
“I have two sisters,” I read aloud. “I am pretty athletic and–”
“Wait.” Billy said. I looked up at him. He was staring at me as if I were an idiot. “Did you just say you were pretty?”
“Oh! No! Not – I mean,” I stammered, blushing. “I meant, pretty athletic, you know, without a comma, like kinda athletic. Not like, pretty pretty.”
“Oh,” Billy said.
“Yeah, I’d never say that,” I went on.
“Thank god.” Billy said.
And he went back into his own work, having no conception of the power he’d just exerted. I looked down at my desk, beet red, mortified – and feeling completely, utterly empty. Worthless. Valueless. I had intuited that nobody thought I was pretty anymore, but to hear it from Billy was the nail in the coffin, and the loss was excruciating. But just as I had done nothing to earn pretty months prior, there was nothing I could do now to earn it back.
Perhaps this is why Beauty is so elusive – it is not up to us whether we are desired or not. It is in the way we are perceived that we are beautiful – at least, in the conventional definition of Beauty, the definition according to Plato. Being desired is a passive thing – there is no active verb for being desirable. If Beauty is that which people desire, then despite our best efforts, being beautiful is out of our control.
(A sidenote: I wasn’t athletic either, unless you count unwrapping Laffy-Taffy wrappers a sport. But no one called me out on that.)