Beauty has always moved me. Ever since my early childhood, works of art, music, dance, words and all beautiful things have filled me with ineffable emotion, something between extreme sadness and desire. I remember being five years old and listening over and over to the piano cadenza from Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto on our old record player, because it was just so wonderful to me. I have no rational explanation for my response. Pathos as a rhetorical device is meant to stir the emotional recollection of lived experience, but how much lived experience could I have had at such a young age?
When I experience beauty, I do not want to own it. I want to become it. Not to influence people, or to elicit a response. Just to be it, to embody that transcendent quality. I want to be beautiful.
This is a problem. It’s a problem for numerous reasons, but I’ve come to see that first and foremost, I don’t feel beautiful inside. I feel rotten. I feel tainted with an ugliness that no superficial change can remedy. No makeup, no clothing, no weight loss or addition of muscle can fix it, because ugly is my identity. I feel it as strongly as I suppose others feel their gender identity. It’s the core of my being, my basic nature.
I’ve only spoken to one other person who gets this and feels the same, though I know many who’ve told me they recognized early they could never be beautiful and so never aspired to it. It doesn’t seem to eat at them as my desire for beauty does me. I have a hard time understanding.
Writing about this is extremely difficult. Trying to articulate it brings tears to my eyes and makes my throat close up. It’s one of those places where I wish I could just rip the sensations and emotions out of my stomach and hand them to someone: “Here, try this on and you’ll know.” Because this reality is beyond words, beyond expression. As I can’t remember a time before beauty moved me, I can’t remember a time before the absolute certainty of my own ugliness. I am Quasimodo in a world of Esmereldas. Probably beauty moves me the way it does because I know I lack it.
The pre-verbal quality of this feeling makes me wonder if it isn’t something I absorbed in the womb. I know my mother didn’t want another child by the time I came along, and whatever face she showed to the outside world, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if she prayed to miscarry early. The religion I was raised in doesn’t put much emphasis on Original Sin, but Presbyterians do subscribe to the doctrine of predestination; maybe I somehow caught on to this early enough to understand, to believe myself Not One Of The Elect. The feeling of being flawed goes that deep. The pictures in my book of studio portraits taken between the ages of a few months and six show a cute, blonde girl, but I remember feeling unattractive from about four on–a feeling which worsened over time, as my age peers continued to poke fun at my looks. When I got old enough to recognize that girls objectively less attractive and larger than I were still accepted into the ruling cliques and didn’t face the same derision, the fact cemented my opinion that the flaw in me must be something other. Not a superficial wrongness, but one flowing outward from my heart, poisoning everything about me.
I fear photos and mirrors; I believe they must inevitably show me for what I truly am. But when I do look, it’s not too bad. Sometimes I can critique a specific part of my body; “I don’t like the hanging flab of my upper arms.” Mostly, I don’t associate the images with my sense of self at all. Even gazing at my naked body in a full length mirror, my body with its rounded belly and vast thighs, I see no one in particular. Just a woman. Not one who fills me with distaste. Not the inner ME, either. The inner ME is the sense of wrongness in my stomach, the one I can only ignore but never banish.
I suppose calling this wrongness “ugliness” is something I learned. We’re indoctrinated early on in the truth that a woman’s value lies in her beauty. I have no value, therefore I lack beauty. I guess that’s how it worked.
People sometimes try to reassure me that I am, in fact, not bad to look at. I try to reassure myself. But all the words, all the times people have said “You’re beautiful,” make no difference, because I don’t feel them. You cherish what you find beautiful, don’t you? You nurture and protect it. I don’t feel people show that impulse to me. I don’t feel cherished. I don’t believe anyone thinks of me when I cease efforts to thrust myself into their faces. I don’t believe anyone has held me in their hearts, wondered about how I am and what I’m doing, obsessed over me the way you do in the first throes of an infatuation, when your life hangs on the possibility of a date or a phone call. Outside the boundaries of interaction, I cease to exist. No one works to impress me, no one plans for my delight. And I know, according to some, you are not supposed to require these things. Women especially are supposed to reach for what they want. But it’s hard, so hard, to reach, and reach, and reach, sometimes to achieve, but mostly to fall, and swallow the failure, and move on. It empties you out, after a while, reinventing the self over and over again. Knowing that I operate without a net, that no one will catch me if I fall because no one sees me falling (or worse, see it and don’t care), is not a source of strength. It makes me question why I bother with anything at all.
When I set out to write this post, I meant to address the complex relationship between beauty and value women in our society suffer from every day. It’s devolved into something else, an exploration of the constant pain at my core, where value, and appearance, and the simultaneous need for and fear of regard tangle into a Gordian knot of Titanic proportions. I’ve been trying to untangle it for almost forty years, and always, just when I think I have one thread separate and laid out clean, the others contract into an impossible snarl. I’ve tried the Alexandrian solution, but the problem isn’t one I can cut through. Other people contributed to it; I need other people to do their part. But I can’t count on that. So the question always returns: How can I be okay without other people doing their part? I can’t. I used to try, and once upon a time I was able to salvage a few passions from the ones damaged beyond saving. If not this, then that. If not that, then another thing. I used them all up years ago; I have nothing left. People have taken it all and never put anything back.
They don’t put it back because I don’t matter because I’m ugly. And so it continues.
I write this fully aware that I am in a bad depressive state right now–bad enough that I booked an early morning appointment with my medication manager for Monday, though both Mondays and early mornings are things I try to avoid. This state may have been triggered by lingering physical illness, or by sticking my toe into an ocean of hurt my last therapy session, but I can’t get on top of it. Lately I reduced my antidepressant because the higher dose combined with my mood stabilizer, though it made me feel really good, also caused severe irritability. I would far rather have the irritability than this blackness, where all I can feel is the pain in my heart. I can’t bear to leave the house for fear of eyes upon me, for fear my inner flaw will show plain and even if others are too polite to mention it, they’ll mock it in silence. I imagine voices with the ironic tone peculiar to the Grosse Pointe of my schooldays, where every compliment hid barbs and every glance flayed to the bone.
Ugly. Ugly. Ugly.