My mother always told me that I was beautiful.
“You are a beautiful, beautiful girl, sweetie,” she would say, and I would reply – with much eye-rolling and heavy sighing – “you’re my mother. You have to say that.”
I knew that I wasn’t beautiful, not in the way that princesses in fairy tales or fashion models or the older, made-up girls who worked department store cosmetics counters were beautiful. I was tall and awkward and gangly and frizzy-haired. Which, yes, I know, is exactly the way that fashion models and movie stars describe their adolescent selves, but I really was tall and awkward and gangly and also frizzy of hair – hair that I insisted, after seeing the movie Pretty In Pink, upon dyeing red, which did not help its texture – and prominent of nose. So I am not being coyly self-deprecating when I say that I believed – that I knew – that I was not beautiful. My mother wasn’t lying to me, but she was, I knew, viewing me through mother-colored glasses, which as we all know are tempered and tinted and glazed with sparkles and stardust. Of course she couldn’t see what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I was looking at myself with clear and critical eyes. She was looking at me with love.
I spent years struggling to come to terms with my looks. I wanted to be beautiful, but I didn’t see beauty when I looked in the mirror, and so I costumed and primped and transformed myself relentlessly, one day playing the part of the poetry-scribbling goth (dark hair, Fleuvog boots, lots of eyeliner, dog-eared copy of l’Etranger), the other playing the part of the quirky outcast who really might be pretty behind her vintage rhinestone-encrusted frames (red hair, Goodwill sweater, antique brooches), yet another pretending to be an avant-garde performance artist who might or might not be rehearsing her one-woman dramatic reading of Gender Trouble (white blond hair, catsuit, cowboy boots.) (Oh, dear lord. The catsuits. Can we all just pretend that 1990 never happened?) My mother would ask me why I kept hiding. “I’m not hiding,” I would say. “I’m expressing myself.” And I was. I was expressing myself in a thousand different ways that I hoped would draw attention to the parts of me that were interesting, and away from those parts that I thought were, if not ugly, then, at least, unbeautiful. If I was interesting enough, nobody would notice that I wasn’t pretty. I couldn’t make the world look at me through mother-colored glasses, but I could surround myself with mirrored glass and dry-ice fog and disco lights and it would, I figured, amount to more or less the same thing.
It never felt like the same thing.
When I was in twelfth grade, I experimented briefly with not costuming myself. I kept the red hair but grew out the asymmetrical cut and trimmed my bangs and pulled my hair back and wore preppy sweaters and jeans and not much make-up. I acquired a pair of penny loafers, and I wore them unironically. My dad, at the time, was having what used to be called a nervous breakdown, and my parents’ marriage was in crisis, and although they both assured me and my sister that we would be fine, that they loved each other very much and that they loved us very much and that we would be, really, fine, I worried. I worried constantly, and it seemed very, very important that whenever I walked out our front door I looked exactly as they saw me, through their mother- and father-colored glasses; that I looked like me, just me, unadorned. Why that translated, in my seventeen-year old mind, to Upper Canada Preppy – which is, of course, just another costume – I don’t really know, but it seemed to me that this was the look that concealed me least, the one that involved the fewest distracting elements, the one that left me little or nothing to hide behind. It seemed important that I do that, that I not hide. It seemed, somehow, to be key to our family remaining intact, that I comport myself as though I were as beautiful as my parents thought I was, that I actively reinforce their view of me, their view of us, that I assert their rightness about how much beauty lived in our home, about how much beauty lived in us and surrounded us, always.
For some reason, penny loafers and blunt-cut bangs seemed a reasonable way to accomplish that.
This is me, then:
I look at this now and I see what my parents saw and I think, of course I was beautiful. I don’t know that I was any more or less beautiful in the penny loafers and cashmere-blend sweaters than I was in the goth eyeliner or the Goodwill costumes – I have almost no photographs from my costume periods – but it doesn’t really matter: here, I felt exposed. I look at this picture and I think: the girl in that picture is beautiful. But I also think: the girl in that picture is terrified. Sure, it’s the picture of a girl whose family is crumbling, but it’s also the picture of a girl who’s trying to disappear into her sweater, the better to hide her face. And I just want to hug her, and tell her that she’s beautiful, no matter what she’s wearing. I want to tell her that she has nothing to hide. I want to tell her that it is going to be okay – no matter how difficult things get – and that she will carry herself beautifully through whatever life throws at her, and that, yes, sometimes a chunky sweater will make it all a little bit easier to bear, and so will high heels and lipstick, sometimes, but that no matter what happens, and no matter what she wears to get through it, she will be beautiful. She is beautiful.
I want to race back in time to say that to her, and I want to leap into the future to say it to Emilia, whenever she hits that moment of self-doubt, if she ever does. But I know that I would be, that I will be – were I to, when I do, say such things – accused of wearing mother-colored glasses, of not seeing things clearly. And to that I would say, I want to say, I will say: yes, yes, I am wearing glasses. Mother-colored, maybe. Love-colored, certainly. And I want them for you, too; I want you to look at yourself, to look at everything, always, as through a love-colored glass, brightly.
And then I’ll tell her that when the time comes, she really, really mustn’t wear that catsuit.
What would you tell your teenaged self about beauty, given the chance? Would you tell her – him? – to stop worrying and love that nose? That someday, she’ll be thankful for that thick hair? That it wasn’t just you, that acid-wash jeans made everyone look like a dork? What will you tell your daughter, or, for that matter, your son? What do you look like when you look at yourself through love-colored glasses – or, what would you look like, if you dared put them on? Leave a comment and I’ll select one of you, randomly, (yes, Canadians too) to receive The Beauty Of Different, which is an amazing, gorgeous, soul-lifting book by my friend Karen, who lives the art of looking at the world, and at people, through love-colored glasses better than almost anyone I know.
Thanks so much, you guys, for the lovely, soul-lifting comments. The winner of Karen’s book is Johanna; the rest of you, I highly recommend that you put it on your holiday wish list.