I love that smile. It’s like a special secret.
I smile back, and I think I even say thank you. This time.
This, the smile back, is honest and so is the appreciation. But…
“You’re so beautiful,” he has said. The same way he has said, contentedly, “I love to hold your hand.” The same voice and the same gentleness, and I know he’s not lying, but it has taken a lot of effort on my part to keep myself from arguing.
“You’re so beautiful,” he would say.
And I would say, “No, I’m not.”
And inside, I would say, “This is ridiculous. Has he not seen the research?!”
And up against the three words from the man I love, who also loves me, is decades of statistical data explaining why, specifically, I am not beautiful. And images of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of models who are our society’s definition of beautiful. And inside me, the certainty that if I stood next to any one of these women, I would be arrested for my ugliness. No, not arrested, probably. Just poofed out of existence.
Sometimes, I would give him specific reasons why he was wrong. “I’m fat…, My hair…, My skin…, Look at what I’m wearing.”
I don’t know when the data collection even started. Was it from the beginning? Or did I hold off until I was a pre-teen? My friend Liz had a subscription to Seventeen, which I think was where I first got the idea that I should be on a diet. No wait… My first diet was before that. When I was fourteen, I think. I got a lot of praise for that diet.
That was when I learned to talk to other girls about myself.
“I’m having a bad hair day!”
“Ugh, I’m so fat, I shouldn’t have eaten that yogurt.”
They would echo back.
“Can you see my zit?”
“My butt looks so big in these jeans.”
Acceptance and understanding. We hate ourselves and the way we look. Or we know we are supposed to. We are all on the same page. Carry on.
But that goes away when girls grow up, right?
I was twenty-six when I stopped measuring my right to exist (to have a voice, to be seen, to believe I was allowed to be considered) based on anything but my looks. That I know specifically. That was the year my first husband’s cancer spread. That was the year I pulled all-nighters measuring out pain medications, emptying catheter bags, checking IV sites. And that was the year I saw someone I love suffer and die. I didn’t think about being beautiful once that year. I learned how unimportant it really was.
I still live in a society based on beauty and thinness, and those judgments creep back in. I have to remind myself.
When I was twenty-seven, I met my friend Tricia.
I tried to talk to her the way I talked to other females.
“Ugh, I look so terrible.”
And she just blinked at me. “Garnett,” (That’s what she calls me), “be nice to yourself.”
I didn’t know what to do with that, but it felt like the inkling of some kind of scary freedom. “Oh, we don’t hate ourselves here?” I thought. And still when I remember that day, my heart feels the same weird-good way.
Later, she told me this story a friend of hers told her. She, the friend, was in law school and was talking to a bunch of other female students.
“You know,” she said, “the only thing straight women ever talk about is their weight.”
“Oh, I KNOW!” said the only straight woman in the group. “I have gained five pounds this term!”
I think about that story all the time. I try to make it remind me to talk to my straight women friends about things other than hating our looks. I let it scold me when I fail. Societally, that is our language.
Now I am edging my way toward forty-three.
I’m old enough to feel silly when I want to argue with the man I love about whether or not I am, objectively, beautiful.
I’m smart enough not to judge myself when insecurities creep in, because there are a whole lot of years of bad lessons to unlearn.
And just recently, I’m wise enough and compassionate enough toward myself to smile and say thank you.
Because, this is the man who loves me most in the world, the one who has seen me cry and rage and laugh ‘til I snort
The man who has watched me watch our little boy with eyes so full of love they overflow with it
And, just maybe, this guy knows what he’s talking about when he says I’m beautiful.