I remember in standard 3 or maybe it was standard 4, (the third or fourth grade in these parts), this boy, a schoolmate, called me “priceless.” He wasn’t particularly bright and didn’t realize that priceless was the opposite of what he actually meant to say, which was “worthless.” My family was living in Botswana at the time. Dark skin, thick hair, skinny girl. I was not beautiful. By African standards, by global standards, I was ugly and I was made to feel ugly.
What’s the purpose in being a girl if you’re not going to be beautiful?
I remember being twelve and visiting Rome. Still with dark skin, thick hair, and still skinny. By then I had figured I could distract people from my looks by being smart and athletic and funny and witty. Simultaneously confident and self-conscious and insecure; upfront and distant. I was standing outside waiting for my mother to finish bargaining in a store. A lady from Amsterdam introduces herself and tells me to consider modeling when I get older. Earlier that week, two teenage boys, one Italian and one French, playfully fought over who would ask me out at a restaurant. I was confused. I was supposed to be ugly. They were probably wrong.
…Could these boys, could any boys find me beautiful?
I remember being nineteen walking to my campus on a hot summer day. This gentleman on a bicycle yells out something about my appearance. I stay silent but scowl. He laughs. He says, “You’re beautiful. Don’t be mad because someone says it.” He goes off on his bicycle. My dark skin probably sparkling in the sun, braided hair not quite so thick; not fat, not skinny, slender perhaps but seemingly always wanting to trade-in for a “better body.” Maybe not quite so ugly but never the most beautiful girl in the room.
After all, is a girl really worth anything if she is not beautiful?
Some days, I don’t know what do with beauty. Sometimes I want to banish it from my life entirely. Have nothing to do with any part of it. Ban it, get rid of it, scream, “fuck beauty and fuck beauty standards” to everything, and be on my merry way. That way, I won’t be participating in the endless judgments I place on other humans, and on myself.
But the better part of me, the part where spirituality meets sense and I can see and feel things clearly, knows that beauty in and of itself isn’t the problem. Beauty, I dare say, is a gift from God. It is we who exist in this fallen world, who adopt and perpetuate at best, sometimes prejudiced perceptions, and at worst, violent condemnations, of beauty, on each other. And for what? The morose ways we think about beauty never bought us our health or brought us more joy. It never improved our wisdom or made us more intelligent. It sure as hell never made anyone happier.
Beauty. It’s this thing that everyone talks about and everyone, and especially every woman, is supposed to have or supposed to want. Yet this worldly beauty seems like this thing out of our reach, impossible to wholly and thoroughly possess. It’s here today and it’s gone tomorrow. But yet we try to purchase it, we pine for it, we crave it, we breathe it, and live for it, and sometimes even die for it.
We live and we die but our Fallen Beauty, she remains.
The endless ways we define beauty through racist, classist, sexist, colorist, and all the endless “ists” we can think of, never failed to overwhelm me. Whether putting on my intellectual lenses or simply being a woman in the world, it had the power to overwhelm.
I hate how it creeps in and becomes the vantage point by which I can perceive another human being. I hate that it has made me feel unworthy of love or friendship or goodness. I hate that I have judged many people, and especially many women by what I saw when I saw them. Even though with superficial eyes, you can only look but will never really see people as they are. I hate that I have wondered if the woman next to me is more beautiful than I. I hate that I judged myself by it and for it. And above all, I hate that all of this has came down to wanting to be beautiful for mankind – for men.
Yes we say girls dress for other girls, and we say we love compliments from other women but none of us are exempt from the sexualizations of beauty as they have historically applied to women. Notwithstanding the breadth of sexuality and orientations, women, yes women, desire men’s attention. We crave their “yes” to a stamp of approval of our beauty; we sell our souls for it. Even in the spaces we fight against it, we are always one undesirable look, one ugly comment, one pathetic rejection away from wondering if we are not beautiful enough.
I am tired of wondering if I am beautiful enough.
Through all the memories of being ugly or beautiful or confused or uncertain, all I’ve ever learned is I have no control over what others see when they see me. I have perhaps even less control about what the world decides about beauty. All I can do is try to look after the body I have been given the best way I know how and can. All I can do is treat that body and the soul it accompanies, with kindness. And try to do the same for others.
Twenty-four, wonderfully dark skin, thick, resilient braided hair, in strong and healthy shape, and choosing every day to no longer care to be beautiful for the fallen world; choosing no longer to wonder about being beautiful to mankind. Choosing every day to see beauty for what it is – a gift from God. Choosing every day to discover what that is really supposed to mean…
…Finding that my worth, my purpose, and my being is most powerful when it is free from precepts of fallen beauty. Ironically, feeling more beautiful than ever.