by Abby Thatcher
I can’t write about beauty. I’ve written four different opening lines, ones about beauty being a beast, or my hatred of photographs of myself, or the Maybelline counter in Macy’s in eighth grade where my mother took me to become beautiful. The sentences stumble over themselves. I have so much to say, but I feel too much, and the words choke upon entry, tumbling headlong into the white void. I hear my seventh-grade locker partner and the woman in Georgia who both told me I had hair on my neck—haven’t you heard of tweezers?—and my mother’s words each time I call on Zoom: “Abby, you look so pretty. You really are beautiful, you know.” I wonder, if I didn’t look so much like her, would she say it quite so often? There’s a desperate self-assurance about it, as though she is trying to convince herself along with me that our particular genetic cocktail is lovely, gorgeous. Beautiful. After all, I am my mother’s daughter.
She loves to pull out the pictures of her children and line them up along the sideboard and on the rust-colored carpet, her bespectacled offspring staring out from Olan-Mills calico frames. But when I reach into the cardboard box and pull out Polaroids of her as a 10-year-old, 15-year-old, 24-year-old, she grabs for the photograph as if it were a nude. She ducks her face as she shoves the picture away, and I am left with the echoed vision only: my mother wearing glasses, unknowingly graceful in her growing body, a kind of unfinished poetry about her form as she hides from the camera. The photograph is dated 1983, she was 14, and she would have said the same thing her 51-year-old self says now—“I’m not beautiful, no, not me. My sisters always said I stretched out their clothes when I borrowed them, I was called ‘dyke’ on the softball field, I didn’t go on any dates.” It’s always the same, no matter how I coax and plead that No, Mom, you are beautiful. I just want to see you; your face is dear to me because you are.
But the picture remains hated in a box, and even now, my mother shies away from the camera. Is it any wonder I do the same— “I’m not beautiful, no, not me. My friends tell me I can’t borrow their shirts because I stretch them out over the bust, I was called ‘ugly’ and ‘fatso’ in the junior high locker room, I don’t go on any dates”—no matter what my mother says to me?
After all, I am my mother’s daughter.
We took family photos this past summer, decked out in matching white T-shirts and black pleather. My father wanted a family band aesthetic and brought along the electric guitar and a set of drumsticks; we look like the Osmond Von Trapp family singers taking Ogden by storm. My mother’s been showing off the photographs around town to ward members and her jogging partners, and once to Beverly in the post office. I hear, through her, their thoughts about my photograph: “Striking.” I can’t help but hear the void around “striking.” What it is not. Not pretty. Not lovely. Not beautiful. Striking in one sense may be arresting—I looked it up in the OED for comfort then tossed the volume aside—but in the end, arresting isn’t attracting: stopping rather than entering, my face won’t ever open doors. My self-conception verb of choice is “striking.” Striking from the record any positive marks in my compliment ledger with one red-lettered item, striking from my self-regard any positivity to be gained from my mother’s words, striking down any moment of thinking I look good when the world says otherwise. I look away from cameras and hide under layers of makeup and clothes and blankets. It would be easier, I think, if I were asleep.
Beauty is the Dream that beckons. Ugly is the waking up, realizing I’ll never be good enough, thin enough, clear-skinned enough. So, I let my mother lull me off to sleep again, back to the dreamland of the Maybelline counter and mascara, concealer and a Magic Bra. When the makeup artist at the counter takes my picture, I grab for the camera and try to delete the picture, shove it in a cardboard box and hide it—and me—from the world. “I’m not beautiful, no, not me with the made-up face,” I say. After all, I am my mother’s daughter, and the Dream embraces me when all else casts stones.
The Dream whisks me toward the fiction of my own Beauty. It is a Candyland that always remains one roll away, a limited-time offer with limited supply, where some exclusions apply—see reality for details. When I’m reveling in the Dream, I imagine the ground beneath my feet to be a castle in the air. There are those who clamber for a ladder. White hands reach it first, and climb, and climb, and never, hardly ever look down.
If they did, they would see the Dream is built on the backs of bowed bodies. They aren’t bowed because they want to, but because they were forced to somewhere back in time such that now their bodies can’t unbend. Broken-backed, picking up the slack of a line that can’t be found in any family tree of their own. Prosperity, success, generational wealth that gathers like the down upon a feather tick. The tick they must stretch and push and pull into comfort for the white men and women who sleep on its fluffed surface, lost in the Dream.
The Dream is paid for by bowed bodies, Black bodies, brown bodies too. “Sponsored by the working class of America,” the ads for the newest cars and shiny Frigidaire and brand-new clothing should say in rolling script. Instead, they lie. The Dream is a gutter spout, with the rain funneling through a pipeline to the parched ground below. White hands reach in and stop the water greedily before it gets to the bottom. “What can I do?” they say with a shrug of their unstooped shoulders—“I got there first, I need to serve me and my own, it’s not my fault there’s not enough water to go around.” The trickling down of wealth only goes so far, and the ground—with people clambering for water, water, WATER!—is so far away from the source.
The Dream is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps—but what if I can’t afford shoes?—and walking the road less travelled—but what if I can’t afford the toll?—and not letting opportunity pass you by—but what if it never comes round my part of town? The Dream is a college education, and doing better than your parents did before you, and they before them, and all of us getting more and more wealth and beauty and a two-car garage with motorized doors. The Dream is barbeques in the summer and Fourth of July parades with sticky popsicles and apple pie; it is Christmas with white Santa and Thanksgiving with Christian pilgrims. The Dream is the suburbs that form squeaky clean while leaving behind the bathtub rings of white flight neighborhoods in the city. The Dream is Beauty. The Dream is white. The Dream is impossible for all to experience. Some people can’t afford to sleep, so they stay awake while I dream of a life of Beauty, a life of light, a life bought with the wealth I inherited. They burn the day and midnight oil, and I—
I go shopping for the Dream.
My shopping list is extensive. Frigidaire. Tupperware. A new iron. The Curlinator™. VASA Fitness pass. Meal planners with stickers and glitter pens. Frills and bows on pajamas. Blowouts. Blowing money like the wind. How to Be a Good Wife, How to Catch a Good Husband as if he is a Fast-Fish and I am Ahab. KitchenAid mixer with frosting attachment. The latest frosted tips.
Betty Friedan of The Feminine Mystique lives in my home. She lurks in the Frigidaire, hides behind the Tupperware that I bought last week because these promise to keep my food Fresh!™ for longer. My new iron, the one I bought with birthday money and justified by imagining it placed on a shelf in my future suburban home; the Curlinator™ I used this morning for church because surely today is the day that the handsome organ player will look my way, and (I tell myself as I smell the hole in the ozone widening around my singed hair) while my hair may not be the thing he’ll notice, it certainly can’t hurt; the new shirt I bought for myself in the mall because I am an independent woman (thank you, Beyoncé), and I don’t need no man to pretty myself up; the jealousy that hits me outside the store when I see a woman kiss a man by the Cinnabon. I covet amidst the smog of perfume and powdered sugar, heavy cinnamon decadently mocking my paltry love life; I buy a pastry and hide my new shirt under the plastic bench. VASA Fitness will be my salvation, I tell myself, as I buy another cinnamon roll and leave the mall with heavy thighs. I will work myself to someone’s ten, and I’ll meet my ten while lifting in the mirrored corner of the gym.
But another week passes, and I reach for the stickers and glitter pens that bring almost childlike glitz and glamour to my lonely Friday night: I’m meal planning for one in preparation for the eventual (right?) two. At a bridal shower, the bride lifts a baby doll nightie from its papery cradle and coos. It looks so young in her hands, but she’s nineteen, so we tell ourselves it fits and eat cupcakes with pink, crusty sugar. Blowouts for the singed hair—the Curlinator™ stopped working, so I need to treat myself, right? The organ player isn’t going to be attracted to me on his own.
I can’t afford rent now, but if I move into my parents’ house, the money becomes like Monopoly cash in imagined pastel greens and blues. It can blow away in the wind of their superior air conditioning; I’m only waiting for a man, anyway, so I’ll let my money get swept off its feet in the meantime. My great-aunt recommends How to Be a Good Wife, and I tell her my Laurels group read its excerpts at an activity once while we made bridal time capsules of our fantasy’s traits, weight, and projected income bracket. I remember one of the tips is never to buy a cake at the store but to mix it at home with the latest and greatest KitchenAid appliance, so I practice while alone on the weekends. Powdered sugar coats my bitterness, hope, and frosted tips (I hear the organ player likes blondes) in equal measure.
Later, I insist that I buy what I like as I walk quickly past the smiling Pioneer Woman display in the grocery store and head for the electronics in the back. I’m a strong and independent woman who doesn’t need a new frying pan. Instead, I tell myself that I’m buying only for me, valiantly and defiantly alone, and therefore I should treat myself to a new iPhone case (I’m not a “girly-girl” so I shun the pink and go for the more expensive dove gray), a new speaker—the girl on the package looks so cool and entirely herself, listening to her music and dancing for the sheer pleasure of moving her body alone—and a box of ice cream bars because I don’t cater to any man’s taste when it comes to my body. I’ll eat what I want, I’ll do what I want, I’ll buy what I want. This is my running commentary as I shop.
But somehow, at the register as the dollars total higher and my Monopoly money stretches thinner, Betty Friedan speaks anyway. I walk out of the store several twenty-dollar bills lighter; my head hangs unconsciously low because I bought with my gender in mind. I bought to spite man, and The Man gets my last dime and the last laugh. I’m in a Sexual Cell of my own making. I may have spurned the mixer, but I yielded to the New Woman, the one created to sell dove-gray phone cases and speakers and ice cream bars. The billboard may be different, but the number’s still the same. It’s mine; they’ve got it, and they call me all the time.
Betty comes home with me and looks on while I put the ice cream bars away in the Frigidaire behind the new Tupperware. My house is full; my home is empty. I log on to Facebook and see an ad for the latest Facial Mask for the Independent Woman!™ So, I click “See here for the New You.” I am Alice now, spiraling out and down the Internet rabbit hole.
I fall asleep at the computer and find myself in an apartment complex with shiny, plywood-fronted veneers. Like half-rotted teeth, but covered with shiny white caps, the apartment building’s interiors are dark, with rabbit warren hallways and linoleum mirrors. There are worlds tucked away inside the building’s walls, and I wander them. These hidden hutches that I discover hold test-subject bodies and scattered dollar bills. I sense that to live here is to die here, venturing out with made-up faces onto the stage of the world. Happy and smiling representatives of the complex greet me; these living advertisements to happy, beautiful, industrialized existence. Behind their smiles, ulcers lurk. The pressure and the Potemkin palaces are enough to give anyone a complex, and female bodies make sleek missiles when jumping from the fortieth floor. I push for an exit in the dark as I hear the whistle of their bodies shriek past.
But I find only rules. The complex’s code of conduct goes down smooth as lotion on oiled palms, easy enough that a young girl should understand. Here, Beauty is queen and king, the most powerful thing within the world of the complex, and the most important. No one messes with Beauty’s role on top. No one competes with Beauty’s agenda, her daily schedule for the complex’s workings, its comings and goings. I lurk in the shadows, hoping she won’t see me, grasping at straws to build a ladder out.
While looking in the dark, I see lit-up posters lining the walls of the building’s maze: You are not Beautiful. Beauty is THIS, and you are . . . Other. Beauty is as Beauty does, and You Can’t Do It! I am surrounded by this message, watching the required programming on flickering gray screens, reading the magazines that flutter like streamers in air vents. The residents try to get me to repeat the mantra. You are not Beauty. Beauty is not you. You will never be Beauty on your own. They’ve been here a long time, I can tell, so long that they believe it. They say it to each other, to their daughters and mothers and friends. When new residents have the glint of hope in their eyes, acolytes rip them to shreds, like streamers caught in air vents. It is only when each resident believes it (they tell me as I try to run) that the complex starts to work.
I careen through the hallways, which begin to look like the mall I left earlier that day outside my dream. I see the Cinnabon and the smiling couple, my mother and grandmother and sister working on a puzzle in the dark, the junior high locker room with the jeering girls and a crumpled towel. I climb stairs, but the women follow, chanting the mantra. It echoes in the halls. I burst out of a door and I am on the roof, the wind whipping around me. I hear them getting closer, the chant growing louder. They are almost at the door. I turn and approach the ledge.
I am dreaming, I know, and I want to wake up; the Dream has turned sour and my foot skids a little on the edge. The women beat on the door. I attempt to fly away. Female bodies make sleek missiles when jumping from the fortieth floor. I scream toward the ground and wake, panting and shattered.
After my nightmare, I look for light. White, blue, pink, peaches fuzzed with blonde hair that gleams golden in the sun—this sun that shines upon the wicked and the righteous alike, right? This sunlight that illuminates all equally, that blesses me as well as them, as well as her as well as him? Well? Does it?
I search out this sunlight myself. I yearn for its warmth, for the accompanying words-as-manna for my attention-starved soul: “Oh, you look so good! Oh, you look simply lovely. Oh, I wish I could look like you!” I have to contort my body to stay in its light, make it smaller and slimmer because the light is a rarity. The light is life. The light is white and my skin glows when it glances upon me. I wear powders to make it really stick, mascara for my blue eyes—body privilege is mine, I think, as I add plum liner to make them really pop—and bronzer for my white skin—the freckles go in and out of the light’s reach, but most days I can conceal them from the light’s knowledge, and I am as white as the light wants me to be. I take photographs of myself, and I hear what I want to hear: “The light loves you!” And for a moment, artificially aided, it does.
But I’ve got uptown problems, which aren’t really problems at all these days when I feel like other white women get more light than I do, that their skin and hair and eyes and aquiline noses are better and more light and more white. I can diet and dress to the nines and bleach my hair and straighten my teeth; I can cut my body down and bulk it up, implant plastic seeds that will never grow anything but insecurity and dissatisfaction. But I don’t need what the light requires most, what white requires most: skin with less melanin, skin with less protection from the sun. For beauty, as far as skin goes, less seems to be more.
Body privilege is a thing I’ve struggled with always, an enemy for which I’ve only recently found a name. The critical framework for recognizing socioeconomic privilege comes to bear as I look at people born with bodies that fit the norm, that open doors that will remain shut to me. But, just like socioeconomic privilege, I realize there are those who have it worse. Again, I’ve got uptown problems, and I don’t think about the people living so far downtown they’re not ever making their way north. They can’t afford the cab fare; they aren’t allowed on the bus. Black women, Indigenous women, tones of honey, obsidian, onyx, ebony, taupe. They need a skin transplant to ever have a shot at finding the white light, at having the white light love them.
When I think of these women, the colors that are more melanin-rich, more protective against the light and age and weathering but are constantly rated as less—I find it hard not to hate my skin, not to feel the whispers of past cruelties perpetuated by other white-skinned people glutting up on my freckled shoulders and white palms. I cover my skin with long pants and sleeves, with boots that reach toward my knees and coats that stretch to my feet, but even with hardly any skin on display—again, less—my skin finds the light. It burns sometimes, but the light persists. It is white, I am white, and my Black and Indigenous sisters are not. Beauty as defined by the Dream passes them by, no matter how long they may wait at its stop. They haven’t inherited the ticket, and blood runs as thick as the mascara in my wand.
What we inherit, what we carry in these bodies like parasites latched to our spines. The lottery ticket that gets passed along, from mother to daughter, from grandmother to child. I am my grandmother’s too, or I was. My grandmother was betrayed by her body, a genetic inheritance that took rather than gave. The last time I saw her alive, the room stank of decay and Bengay lotion. Peppermint Lysol sprayed by my aunt covered the smell of my grandmother’s body eating itself. It was dark, as my grandmother had always had a penchant for heavy wooden furniture and closed curtains, but I could see the bandages that covered her chest. She had, if rounding down, stage IV breast cancer. Her right breast, which had nourished five children and symbolized her sexual and procreative power as a woman, was no longer there; another mastectomy was scheduled for the next week, but the hushed whispers and that awful smell scried that she would not make the appointment. My aunt cried in the corner, and my father stood by the covered window, trying not to join her in outward signs of grief. My grandmother floated on a morphine-drip raft away from the room, but her body remained on the shore. Breaths were labored, the bandages oozed, and her skeleton tried to poke its way out to the surface of paper-thin skin. I counted the bones in her right hand so I wouldn’t look at the lack of her breast, the asymmetry caused by medical attempts to save her body from itself.
My grandmother was a beautiful woman, with an hourglass figure set off by hugging black velvet dresses and aprons with large bows. When my figure became larger than that of other girls around me, she would tell me I was lovely, classic, and “at least you don’t look like a boy.” She would smile and say, “You’ll thank me one day for giving you these,” gesturing to her large chest and sliding a glance toward my mother’s comparatively spare form. Never mind that my grandmother’s mother died because she wouldn’t give up her left breast, that her sister—my great-aunt—was wasting away at the chemotherapy IV because of this ample gift. I’m getting my first mammogram at twenty-five. Thank you, Carol.
My body has become the point of communication with those beyond the grave. I think of my grandmother when I check my breasts for lumps, my grandfather when I can’t hold a pen steady in my right hand (his Parkinson’s is another family genetic gift I pray I don’t end up possessing). I write letters to my mother every time I count my freckles and whisper a message to my long-dead aunt when I move my loose-limbed knees much as she did when she was alive. I teach myself lessons of fear when my body acts on its own, tingling with pins and needles, and learn lessons of patience when, month after month, I endure the shedding of my blood.
My body resists change as diet after diet yields only hunger, dissatisfaction, and a return of the Lululemon leggings I swore I’d fit into this time. And then I tell myself it doesn’t matter, that narratives of slenderness, shrinking, and being small are ways to reduce my female imprint upon the male world. I eat the food I want, wear baggy clothes for comfort, and grab for a blanket to cover up. I shrink away into these tents I erect to hide my body—to protect what is mine—and somehow, the male world wins: while I feel as large as an elephant, I have become small, quiet, female. The elephant in the feminist room—if I do things for me, the patriarchy still seems to always win—goes unacknowledged. Everyone gives it shifty eyes and heads for the scale. I weigh myself for me—I say as the numbers inch higher—for my health, my awareness. I hide the number on the scale from my roommate with my body when she walks in, but my body is a text that I just know she reads critically, and I shrink further into my sweats.
I don’t remember much of what my grandmother said when she was alive. I didn’t have many conversations with her about her past or her interests. But I hear her when I look at my body, her breasts on my form, her eyes in my face: “At least you don’t look like a boy” when I’m looking for something to redeem my fallen body. She betrays me sometimes, just like her body betrayed her, and her own mother, before. Her voice comes out sharp: “You’ve got to watch you don’t blow up like a house.”
I am my grandmother’s body, and through her fixation upon my growing body while alive, she has achieved a sort of immortality when dead. Perhaps she knew this while lying there dying in that stifling room. Maybe this is why the last thing she said before I left with my father was, “Stand up straight. You’ve got to work with what I gave you.”
And so, I suppose, I can write about beauty, after all. To write about beauty is to write about the ugly parts of my life I try to keep hidden away, unwillingly photographed, in the bottom of a box. It is to admit that there is a part of me—the too-large, all-too-visible, uncontrollable element of myself—that I can’t study into beauty or reason into loveliness. It is to see that I still, even in my personal nightmare, live the Dream denied to others. It is to put on paper what I struggle to handle within my soul, for all its sharp edges and nail-file rawness: that I, no matter how much intelligence I gain or how much kindness I show or how much money I make, will never be beautiful in the way that Instagrammed blonde, thin, lovely women are. No, not me.
The trick, I tell myself, is learning to be okay with that, more than okay, more than “fine.” But I can’t seem to get past the Maybelline counter and that junior high locker room, the demons that make me jump from ledges in my dream and push me to climb up impossible standards in the day. I can’t get past my own face, so I avoid mirrors and Polaroids and videos, car reflections and shiny chrome, computer screens and polarized sunglass shades, photo albums and portrait galleries. Zoom has required a bravery of me that I didn’t expect to expend this year, and the mask has proved to be a panacea for all the anxiety of showing my face on camera. I try to rely on statements scrawled on the surface of my mirror, things like “It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” and “A countenance of kindness is the most beautiful thing a woman can possess.” But when I realize my self-ideation has corroded my heart, and that my lack of kindness toward myself has ruined my countenance, I avoid the mirror and its fortune-cookie wisdom once more.
My mother keeps trying to convince herself—and me—that we are beautiful. Maybe this is how it works: she must first see her features on another human being, one she suffered for, such that she loves them all the more, and then she can begin the process of becoming beautiful to herself. Maybe I need to wait until I have a daughter, someone with my eyes and hair and squinty-eyed smile, to then say to myself—through her—“You look so pretty. You really are beautiful, you know.” Maybe then I’ll finally believe it. But probably not.
I am my mother’s daughter, after all.
Abby Thatcher is an undergraduate English and Interdisciplinary Humanities student. Her interests include early modern English literature, performativity, and queer and race studies. She has published articles in BYU’s “Experience” and “Criterion” journals. She lives in Provo, Utah with her roommates, three houseplants, and her dreams. All, she is happy to report, are thriving.