“You’re beautiful,” he says. I stay silent. I always stay silent because I’m not sure if he’s just saying it to say it, or saying it if it’s true. Beauty is such a warped concept.
I like to think about it – beauty – in terms of its cultural connotations: who it includes, who it excludes, the prejudices involved, who is favored, and who isn’t. But from a personal perspective, I have always been uncomfortable. To the point that I would just rather not think about it at all.
I was made fun of a lot as a kid for how I looked – dark skin, thick hair, too skinny. Interestingly, I credit it with why I’m reasonably good at different things. Or at the very least, I’ll give most things a try.
I’ve been distracting people from looking at me since I was a child. “Please focus on my intelligence, focus on my talents, focus on the good I can put in the world, focus on how hard I try, focus on what I can achieve. Focus on everything but my face. Please don’t look at my face.”
I’ve been told I have ugly duckling syndrome. In theory, I know what that means. In practice, I am not so sure. I imagine – even though I’m not sure either – that there are people, especially women who just know they are pretty. They just know. Maybe it’s the looks they get, the feelings they experience when they look in the mirror – they just know. I have no clue what this is like. I find myself often wondering what beauty is anyway.
I know when I find a piece of artwork beautiful. I know when I am in a place that makes me feel beautiful. I know when I am with a person that makes me feel beautiful. But I don’t know what it means to be beautiful in the societal sense. Not really anyway.
Sometimes I think beauty just makes sense, and sometimes I think it’s all superficial bullshit. From a Christian perspective – my faith – I wonder, if we are all made in the image and likeness of God, can any of us not be beautiful? From the perspective of someone who observes the world and the way it works, I ponder, if everyone is beautiful, then is anyone really beautiful?
I think when you grow up feeling ugly, it’s a scar you’ll carry with you for much of your life. And you can turn that scar into something that makes you despise the world for treating you like less than. Or you can turn into something, well, beautiful. The former is easiest to fall into, the latter involves hard work. Maybe beauty isn’t so effortless even when it is supposed to be natural.
Of course it is true that it’s more than just the aesthetic of a person in a world that exists in prejudice, that will determine their beauty. Their heart, oh, their heart will be everything in the eye of the beholder I think, I hope. It’s the heart that makes people fall in love at the end of the day, isn’t it? In spite of any and all the aesthetics, it always goes back to the heart.
In the end, childhood isn’t so innocent, it isn’t so wonderful and pain-free – certainly even in the most superficial things like beauty. But I wouldn’t trade growing up feeling ugly for anything else.
The world can be unnecessarily cruel, it is certainly unevenly unjust.
But when you grow up feeling ugly you learn from a young age to be so much more than just beautiful to the naked, prejudicial, cruel eyes of society. And maybe that’s why hearing, “You’re beautiful” always leaves you a bit uneasy, maybe even a little wary. You appreciate it. But really, you’ve learned to be so much more than that – you’ve learned to define beauty by so much more than that. And to you that is life-saving; to you, that is life-giving.