The death of Maya Angelou, the birth of #YesAllWomen
So, are you beautiful, or are you merely pretty?
If you are like most women my age, your answer is, “Neither.”
Maybe I thought I was beautiful once, but I lost it somewhere along the path of maternal urgings to be modest, of Christian teachings that the meek were the ones who would inherit the earth, not the boastfully beautiful. Compliments were to be met with self-deprecating responses so I wouldn’t seem conceited.
I know my daughter thought she was extremely pretty when she was little. She would pose for herself in the mirror, beg her stepfather to take her photo. Until one day, she stared in the mirror and saw some flaw. Maybe it was a pimple; maybe it was some remnant baby fat. But it became all that she saw in her reflection. And with that transition, she joined women everywhere.
She joins a sorority of women who get a massage to deal with stress, and then find themselves worrying that the massage therapist is repulsed by the layer of fat over the muscles he’s kneading. Of women lured by the resurrection promise of a makeover, who apologize to the makeup artist for how they look. One makeup artist spoke at TED about how her clients invariably say they’re sorry for their nose, or their skin. The only ones who sit unapologetically in her chair have the kind of perspective that comes with facing down an adversary like death or cancer.
But somewhere before that showdown comes the in-between.
The aging that adds another insult to shaky self esteem. The sagging, drooping, where-the-hell-is-my-Spanx slide into un-pretty and un-young. Rare is the middle-aged woman who can stare her unmade-up face down in the mirror and say gravity be damned, she is beautiful anyway.
At best, they may say, as my friend Nikki Hardin writes, that they have a “patina,” a surface change that comes with age that’s usually considered of great value.
But the issue isn’t how we look. It’s how we see.
Another friend, author Laura Lippman, challenged her followers on Facebook to post self-portraits, un-retouched and unmade-up. She said that, after a while, the way she saw the pictures changed. It’s not that her friends were becoming more beautiful with each post, it’s that her eye had adjusted and the plain faces became plainly lovely.
This fits with a study that showed that people exposed to images of plus-sized models for only 60 seconds began to judge beauty based on those images and rated slightly larger models as ideally beautiful when asked, at least immediately after the experiment. The eye learned a different definition of beauty.
My daughter is still lovely at 24. I have no objectivity, I realize, but I am stunned at her sparkling eyes, and graceful movements. My mother, even in her deathbed at 72, left me breathless with her beauty.
As for me? I still see the flaws first when I look in the mirror, but I’m working on it. At least now, if someone compliments me, I can stop with a simple, “Thank you.”
So, I ask the question again. Are you beautiful? I hope you say yes.
Mothers’ Day story by Helen Mitternight in Charleston’s Post and Courier.
I was standing in the greeting card aisle of Harris Teeter and crying. Not a lot, but the tears had definitely spilled over. You rolled your cart to the end of the aisle, saw the tears, and did a brisk about-face to roll away. Whatever sentiment you wanted to express with a greeting card could wait until this awkward live display of sentiment was over.
I understand. You had no idea I was crying because I was trying to pick out a Mothers’ Day card for my mother-in-law, and all the cards with all the sentiments for mothers stabbed me with words I won’t get to say to my own mother anymore.
I don’t blame you for running away. You came to the grocery for tomatoes, not a crying stranger.
Still, being able to say my mom’s name aloud, even to a stranger, might have been nice. Especially to a stranger, because this is my second Mothers’ Day without my mom and I feel like I may have used up the tears I can share with friends who were there for me through the year of motherless firsts.
Reaching out to a stranger in need is so hard for so many, although it wasn’t for my mom.
I remember one weekend in high school, the age where being noticed or different was excruciatingly embarrassing. My parents were treating my boyfriend and me to a day at the Great America theme park. Inside of the park, shortly after our arrival, we saw some commotion. A young woman sat on the ground crying, her hands hovering protectively over her boyfriend, who lay next to her, jerking spasmodically. Park attendees swarmed past this couple, sneaking glances at the freak show, then parting like ants and continuing on their way. I would have been one of them, but my mom dropped to her knees.
“Is he having a seizure?” she asked. “Is he epileptic?”
My mom stayed with the couple, sacrificing a wallet to put between the boy’s gnashing teeth because she had read he could bite off his tongue otherwise. She waited until medical help arrived, talking calmly to the frantic young woman.
I don’t remember much about the rest of the day. What sticks is the boy’s movements on the ground, ugly and somehow embarrassing even to be around. And my mom, stopping because that’s just who she was. For my mom, there were no strangers when a person was in need.
Last night, my husband called from the ball park. He had been waiting an hour and a half for the trolley and it still hadn’t come; could I pick him up? As I rolled to the curb by the baseball stadium, my husband gestured to a man who was 80 if he was a day.
“He needs a ride too,” he said.
As we pulled away, I remembered that strangers still help strangers, and that the kindness didn’t die with my mom.