This originally appeared on Eat The Damn Cake. Republished here with permission.
I tell myself and other people that I started writing about beauty and body image because I moved to New York and stopped eating dessert and realized that I was trying to be thinner all the time, and because of my nose jobs, and because I looked around, and it seemed like every girl and woman I met had also stopped eating dessert. But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s because of surprise.
I remember sitting on my moss green carpet in my bedroom when I was just barely 14, and a couple friends were helping me read through my box of love letters. I have, by the way, always had a shoebox of love letters. A cool one—not Keds or anything. Later, I didn’t let anyone read the letters, but then, they were highly social. It didn’t feel like a violation of anyone’s privacy, it felt like, if you were a boy writing me a love letter, you should probably know what you were getting into.
“Ohmygod!” one of my friends was shrieking. “Look at this! He says, ‘You are the stars and the moon and I am always looking up at you’! It’s like, he’s really short, you know? Doesn’t that make it sound like he’s really short, and he’s like, peering up and trying to see way up there?” She acted this out, squinting exaggeratedly and craning her neck.
We rolled around on the floor, laughing hysterically.
“Fuckin’ A,” said Sarah, who was a little older, and always had the coolest expressions, “I can’t even believe this one. He goes, ’You are the most ethereally beautiful girl I have ever seen.’” She looked at the rest of us, eyebrows quirked up, her face about to collapse in laughter. “Ethereally beautiful?! Seriously?”
We laughed at the strange, show-offy word.
But she had a big vocabulary. “I mean,” she went on, patting my shoulder, “Honey, you look fine, but no one would ever think you’re ethereally beautiful. Let’s be real.”
Usually I liked it when she called me “honey” because it pointed out how she was older and cooler but still liked me. But now I felt strangely hurt. I mean, this boy HAD thought that I was ethereally beautiful, whatever that meant. And maybe I would think I was too, after I looked it up.
But everyone was nodding in agreement and moving on to a rhyming love poem called “The Wind In My Boats Sails.”
I felt like snatching the letters out of their hands. Why had I thought this would be a fun idea?
I thought about Sarah’s words for a long time after that. Her tone. The disbelief and skepticism, like a giant eyeroll. Please. Come ON. And I was surprised. I was surprised because I guess I’d just figured that I was any kind of beautiful a big word wanted to describe, before.
This was how I’d been growing up. Not particularly thinking about my beauty or lack of it, but just assuming in the back of my head that I was probably beautiful. Why? I don’t know, lots of good reasons. My curly hair, my square shoulders, my green eyes, my skill on the piano, the fierceness of my attitude, my parents’ love, the fact that boys liked me and girls liked me, the love letters, the basic reality of my me-ness, inhabiting this special, singular body, and why not? Why the hell wouldn’t I be beautiful, if I could only be this one person? It would be a waste and a disappointment not to.
It took a long time for that surprise to wear off. I kept being sideswiped, jolted a little off-balance, as my assumptions about my fundamental coolness, my birthright beauty, my essential worth, were interrupted.
I didn’t recognize myself in these moments. I had to frantically recalibrate, reposition. It didn’t come easy.
I was surprised, when I started hating my profile automatically. Underneath the hatred, was a sharp surprise. Wait—but–
I was surprised, when my body no longer made sense to me, and it seemed foreign, somehow, ungainly, full of complicated wrongness.
I was surprised when I cheated on myself with other girls, telling myself they were so much better than me, so much prettier in every way.
I was surprised when I had to be smart because I wasn’t anything else anymore, instead of being smart because of everything I was.
I was surprised when I felt relieved to be called pretty by even the least interesting guys.
I was surprised when I sometimes dated them.
I was surprised when I found myself having sex I didn’t want to have.
I was surprised that I’d been doing it for a long time by then.
I was surprised by the reshaping of my desire, which became contorted so that I sometimes couldn’t locate it, and sometimes I seemed to be coming at it through a confusing loop, a rift in a the space-time continuum, so that I could only feel lust as a pretend man, because it was only men who seemed to actively lust, and women were always just moaning along, splayed, obliging.
I was surprised that this was supposed to be liberation. That being a free woman meant being a woman who didn’t flinch, didn’t blink, didn’t bother to be hurt by anything. Being a free woman meant, somehow, doing the things to guys that guys already wanted you to do, but doing them because you thought this was fun anyway, because you just felt like it. It was all in the nonchalance, the unaffectedness, the laughing-it-off.
I was surprised to look at myself, finally, and find that I could no longer see myself through my own eyes. Instead, my image had been filtered through all of the other eyes in the world. Through the eyes of every man.
I was surprised by my surprise, which after a while seemed misplaced. Why be surprised at all? This is just life. It just goes like this.
The truly surprising thing, really, I began to think, was that I’d learned somehow to be surprised in the first place.
The thing about these lessons we learn about being a woman is that they are not really practical. They don’t really have that sweet settling sense we get from the inevitable realization that we are not perfect, not the best, but that we are fine anyway. That’s growing up, and it has to be. For example, I thought as a kid that I should become a concert pianist because I was good at piano. But as I got older, I realized that I was not really concert pianist material. So eventually, that dream was shed, and I stepped into other dreams, and the new dreams fit me better and had more to do with my actual abilities. Fantasy is quietly replaced with reality, but reality can be reassuring, exciting, comforting.
The problem with beauty and sex is that the world doesn’t tell you, like with piano, that you’re not as good as some people but who cares about piano anyway? It tells you you have to keep practicing and practicing and feeling bad about how you aren’t Lang Lang, because every day, they’re blaring Lang Lang on the subway, and people are going, “Holy shit, this is amazing. This is the best stuff in the world.” You are still failing, somehow, every day. In these tiny, constant, clinging, eroding, poisonous ways.
I was surprised to learn that, too. I thought, as a kid, that I was automatically beautiful partly because I didn’t understand how much people cared about beauty. I didn’t think they’d want to examine it the way they do, and squabble over it, and rank and rate girls and women the way they do, and shout definitive definitions, and obsess and obsess. I just thought, sure, yeah, of course I’m beautiful, the way I’m interesting, and smart, and let’s talk about how I made this perfect sling-shot out of a branch I cut, because seriously, it’s so awesome.
It should be OK to not be ethereally beautiful. And you know, I looked it up back then, but I don’t know what it means, even now, because I can’t separate it anymore from images of models and movie stars. But whatever it is, it should be OK to not be ethereally beautiful, the way it’s OK to not be a concert pianist, or a top chef, or a prima ballerina. Being more ordinary in some ways and more exceptional in others is just the balance of a person.
But there is a problem with beauty. We get stuck on it. We make it into more.
Why else would so many women stop eating? Why else would so many of us agonize, the way we do, even when we think we aren’t agonizing, stealing glances at our reflection in passing car windows, in anything reflective—that firm, tiny drip of despair, the realization, over and over, “God, I look awful,” or, “Why can’t I just look a little better?”
We have learned, ultimately, to see ourselves through everyone else’s eyes, every moment of our lives. As though they are the ones who decide us, who define us. We disappear even as we take up what feels like too much space. We are vanishing in front of ourselves. What an obnoxious paradox: to vanish even as you are condemned to scrutinize your physical self, hands and eyes glued to the magnifying glass, forever.
I don’t think it’s impossible to feel good about the way you look, even later, as a woman in this world. You can feel good even as you don’t look like a movie star or a model. But I think it’s much, much harder to get there than we’re given credit for. And sometimes it requires a special, fabulous obliviousness, and sometimes it requires an extreme refusal to engage. Sometimes it just requires the passage of so many years.
Sometimes it requires an acknowledgement of our own buried surprise.
I thought that maybe I was beautiful—
I thought that maybe I was OK—
Maybe we should be surprised at all this insistence that we are not.
There’s a part of my mind, an ethereally beautiful part, I’m pretty sure, that is still surprised.
Kate Fridkis blogs at Eat the Damn Cake. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Salon, Tablet, and many more. She lives in Brooklyn, where it’s not totally weird to be as obsessed with sandwiches as she is. You can follow her on Twitter here.