Lily Reamer is the pretty one. I see her framed in the back window of her parents’ Pontiac. Her white organdy confirmation dress billows around her and a big satin ribbon makes a crown on her frothy blond hair. She looks like a tiny bride on the way to the church. I hate my own looks. I have long dark braids and short, jagged bangs that my mother keeps trimmed with fingernail scissors. My eyebrows grow straight across my face in a harsh, relentless line; they don’t even skip a space when they get to the bridge of my nose. My teeth stick out. I smile at myself in the mirror and groan. Why didn’t I quit sucking my thumb when my mother told me to? I am skinny. All ribs and no breasts, I am a Carter’s undershirt in a locker room of lacy B-cups. I stand close to my locker when I dress, trying to be invisible. For a while I have to wear corrective shoes — brown leather with laces, and steel plates in the toes to keep my feet from pointing in. “Look out!” they scream on the soccer field. “Bird Legs is wearing her killer shoes!”
In summer I don’t think about my looks much. I spend most of my time on my bike or down by the river with Marion. We take off our sneakers and wade into the water. We dig clay out of the stream bed, shape it into pots, and set them out to dry on the smooth, flat rocks. We lie there in our cut-off jeans, dangle our legs in the water, and talk while the sun bakes us. By August my skin is the color of a walnut.
It’s August 27. Today is my thirteenth birthday and I’m with my family at Playland amusement park. For a birthday present my mother has let me get my braids cut off, and my hair is free. I notice the way it brushes against my cheek in the soft summer air. Playland makes me and my little brother wild. We break away from my parents and sisters and run from ride to ride, desperate to do them all. After a few turns on the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round, we decide to get our picture taken. We go into one of those photograph machines and pull the curtain. We drop in our quarter, smile for the blinking red light, and wait while the whirring motors crank out our snapshot. The picture drops into the little slot below. It’s still wet with developing chemical when I pull it out and hold it up. My mouth falls open in amazement. There, next to my chubby, round-faced little brother, sits a tanned, short-haired girl. The girl is beautiful. The girl is me.
Peyton Evans Budinger
New York, New York
A woman sat beside me on the Jerusalem to Tel Aviv bus. She never introduced herself, but I knew her for one hour. She sunk into the aisle seat and spread her shawl over our legs. “It’s cold in here,” she said. She took out a tin of Sucrets and offered me one. Her eyes were the color of damp teak.
She told me this trip to Israel was her present to herself for having survived two failed marriages. She had a room at the YMCA in Jerusalem. “I’m the only fifty-year-old in the place,” she said. Mentioning her age seemed to make her aware of her hair. She smoothed the gray over her ears.
For the entire bus ride she sucked the Sucrets and fingered the matted tassels of her shawl. She had friends in Tel Aviv, “Friends of friends in America, actually.” She had phoned them and they wanted her to come. “They said they wanted me to see their children,” she said. She repeated the word “wanted” as though it were a new way of describing herself.
She spoke about the family she had never met. She had toys for the children; she knew their names. The family wanted her to spend the night. She looked into my eyes as though I could assure her that these people would make her one of their own. Tears slipped from her sparse lashes, leaving gray trails down her cheeks. I gave her a tissue from my purse. I didn’t know what to say, so I held her hand.
Then she apologized for talking about herself so much. She said I could tell her anything: “I work on a women’s hotline.” Women called her all night. They asked her whether they should abort their babies. They begged her for advice about their runaway husbands. She squeezed my hand. “There isn’t anything I haven’t heard. We’ll never see each other again anyway.”
I lied to her. I told her that my boyfriend had broken our engagement and that I still loved him. She pushed her hair behind her ears, ready to hear someone else’s pain. She put her arm around me and said that I was young and beautiful, and someday a wonderful man would want me. She spoke those words as though she were painting over a canvas that already had too many layers of pictures on it. She had repeated the same words, painted the same pictures for herself, over and over. She said she knew that I was a girl any intelligent man would love.
The bus pulled into the Tel Aviv station and we were the last to get off. She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and the wind twisted her hair, freshened her face. As we hugged each other, I felt as though I were taking the last bit of hope she could give me. Suddenly, I was as desperate as this woman, realizing that being wanted and loved is not an eternal state of being. It is something that can fly and tangle as quickly as hair in wind. I hoped that someday I would be capable of wanting to give like she did; that mine would be a desire that was beautiful because it came from a full heart. I was terrified that it might come at the price she had paid.
The state of Michigan is promoting the return of bluebirds by encouraging people to put out bluebird houses. The home in the country that Sue and I bought two years ago came with two bluebird houses already installed. Last summer, however, one was inhabited by chickadees and the other by a pair of barn swallows. Our next-door neighbors got the bluebirds.
The first weekend of spring this year, I spotted a pair of bluebirds checking out the accommodations in our yard. I watched them flit from one house to the other. First the male would poke his head in the house, look around, then fly to a nearby branch while the female went in and explored the house. As I watched this ritual repeated at both houses, I remembered reading that bluebirds will not occupy a birdhouse if last year’s nest is still in it.
I cleaned out the chickadees’ house and moved on to the swallows’. I found a nest that nearly filled the box. As I pulled out the soft downy grass, it struck me that this was an odd type of bird’s nest. I looked into the house and there, an inch from my face, was a field mouse quaking in terror.
“Out, you moocher,” I said as I scooped it out. “This is no penthouse for mice, this is for bluebirds.” The mouse disappeared into the grass. The next day, walking by the house, I peeked into it through a crack. It looked as if some of the mouse’s nest were still in it. I opened the house again. There was the mouse, sitting in its partially rebuilt nest. In that moment, nose-to-nose with the mouse, I saw two things: the trembling beauty of that tiny creature, and my own “bluebirds are better than mice” mentality.
I picked up the nest I had discarded the day before, placed it next to the shivering mouse, and gently closed the box.
I see beauty everywhere — in the squawking of the blue jay on my deck railing, in the twisted trunk of an old oak tree, in the relentless motion of the ocean waves. Everywhere there is beauty, and I am ugly. Why is it that I can see beauty in the twisted and the grotesque of nature but not in my own body? What image do I have of human beauty that is haunting me and whispering in my ear, “You are ugly”?
As much as I want to believe that I am beautiful, I know that my body is ugly — my shaggy chin, my large white belly, my pendulous breasts. I search my mind for definitions of beauty to see if somehow I can squeeze in, but there is no way I can see to make my body beautiful, and I am tired of pretending beauty.
To admit to ugliness is to break a fundamental taboo in our society, but no lightning strikes me dead. I feel somehow relieved that I have identified another taboo that was keeping me from clear vision. So I live with my ugliness, breathing in and out, relishing the ocean and land, feeling fully alive and connected to the world. Beauty and ugliness belong to the same axis and each needs its opposite to exist.
I have two friends who are beautiful. One is a warm, nurturing Mediterranean. All the men I know have, at one time or another, fallen in love with her. The other is a cool, distant Scandinavian. Her beauty is more threatening. Men speak of it, but only the most secure approach her.
Once at a party, I saw a man surrounded by a swarm of women. Life had seemingly dealt him a perfect hand: he had no noticeable flaws. Therefore, I stayed away, far away. In spite of this — or more likely because of it — he sought me out. We became very close. He would write me love letters from New York — just the kind your children discover after you’re dead that makes them exclaim in disbelief, “Look! Mom had an admirer once!” Then they quickly check the postmarks to see if you cheated on Dad. So I keep them.
I have never considered myself beautiful, even though I’ve been told I look like my Scandinavian friend. I have always thought myself fat even when I wore that same friend’s clothes. Even while I enjoyed my handsome admirer’s attentions, I was never convinced I was attractive. I look back at pictures and wonder how I could have been so hard on myself. Clearly I was attractive, if not beautiful, and certainly not fat.
Today I am past forty and still think I am fat and unattractive. I think I was wrong about yesterday but right about today! Luckily I can see the absurdity of this and even find it amusing.
When I walk down the street or sit in a cab, I am no longer subjected to suggestive remarks, come-ons, and sexist comments. This may seem depressing to some — an indication of truly getting old, fat, and ugly. But I find it quite liberating, because these games have been replaced by the possibility of real contact. I am now free to talk to those I felt oppressed by, frightened of, flattered by, or attracted to just a few years before. Sweet freedom! True beauty!
A young mother once told me that when they held up her newborn she saw an angel, white and radiant, the most beautiful vision she had ever seen, so powerfully beautiful that it frightened her. Later, when she saw pictures taken in the delivery room at the same moment, they showed a blood-streaked, wrinkly, most assuredly human baby girl. She asked if I thought she had really seen an angel. I think she saw the essence of beauty.
Beauty, I believe, is found when we are not distracted by what we see. Beauty is the secret beyond shape, color, and composition. It is born out of the interaction between the seer and the seen. Sometimes, when I read a good book, I see beauty; however, beauty is not in the book, or everyone would see it, and it is not in me, or I wouldn’t need the book to stimulate it. It is a dance between the book and myself — a dance between its story and my story. The dance between mother and baby creates an angel.
Once I dreamed that I was standing on a shore, with a large expanse of water before me and a great city behind me. I recalled my childhood home, a small farm several hundred miles from the city, and I wanted to go there. As my wish to go home increased, I felt my feet rise off the ground and I watched the city shrink beneath me. I thought of the farm, expecting to go in that direction, but before I knew it I was looking out into the star-filled universe and down on the blue and green and white Earth. For a moment, I was lost in the splendor, beauty, and utter peacefulness of the universe. For a moment, I was an angel.
Last week it rained almost constantly — icy March rain whipped around by strong winds. Our dogs hate to go outside in such weather, but I can’t delay taking them out much past noon. One day, just at my deadline, the rain stopped. I was feeling grateful as I pulled on my boots and leashed the dogs for their walk.
My mind was on a conversation I’d had with my husband Steven the night before. He told me about a “peak experience” he once had with a friend. After a marvelous dinner, as they rode home through the country, listening to Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” a driving, intense hailstorm forced them to pull over to the side of the road. Snug within the car, they turned up the music, and watched the wild shower of hail. It was a moment that seemed created for them.
Walking the dogs, I was thinking that such moments are often associated with nature. (Once, my daughter and I saw a double rainbow, and as we made our way home, we saw whole families gathered outside in their front yards, marveling at the sky.) I was also thinking that drug use is tied in with the desire to experience such beauty; for me, at least, this is part of a spiritual search.
As the dogs and I made our way around puddles, and the biting wind whipped my hair into my eyes, I was trying to find beauty. I was noticing how spunky the puppy was, and how dignified Mu looked carefully stepping over fallen branches. Suddenly, a couple of feet away, there was a tremendous pounding of wings, and a pair of mallards rose from the rain-swollen creek.
Faye M. Geller
Keene, New Hampshire
I was born beautiful. In school I got a lot of attention from the boys, so the girls didn’t like me. Once the boys talked to me, they left me alone too. I was weird, intellectual. Nobody liked me very much and I was very much alone. I didn’t like myself either.
I was a Playboy bunny for two years. For the first time in my life I found myself in the company of women whose lives had been a lot like mine. At thirty-five, I was almost twice as old as many of them. They appreciated and looked up to me. It was a wonder and a delight. But, oh, the men! For the most part, they were even worse than the boys in high school and college. As a part of the job, I was to have no personality to speak of: smile; look pretty; laugh at the proper moments. That was what ultimately drove me from the job.
Money, they say, can’t buy happiness. Well, neither can looks. I met the man who is my husband through the mail. I was writing erotic stories for a trashy magazine of which he was the editor. I never saw him; he never saw me. We corresponded on work-related matters some two years before we met face to face. My looks never entered into our relationship until we met. Then, he was just . . . pleased, as though he had discovered a secret door in a house he’d lived in for years.
We’ve been married for more than four years now. I have contracted a disease that may ultimately rob me of my pretty face. Already it’s taken away the grace with which I used to move and the sensuous curves of my body. But this morning when I awoke and opened my eyes, I saw him, leaning on one elbow, watching me drift into wakefulness. I felt more beautiful than I have ever felt in my life and I was so happy to be me.
Victoria + Dodd
This week I’ve been asking people: what’s the first thing that pops into your mind when I say the word beauty? It’s a small survey, but already I’ve detected a pattern: women tend to answer in terms of objects — rose, horse, landscape, blue sky — while men answer in terms of women. Some men give the names of women they consider beautiful; others reduce beauty to specific features — “dark hair and green eyes.” The only woman who didn’t name an object was a lesbian, and she, like several of the men, blurted out a woman’s name.
I’ll admit that I am — in this regard at least — a typical male. For me there is nothing more beautiful than the beauty of woman. The blue sky is very nice, and a nicely formed purple iris can shake me out of a slumber, but nothing excites the falcon of my soul more than the shape and smell of a beautiful woman. What constitutes a beautiful woman? Here is the quandary: it is some unimaginable combination of inner and outer form and charm, which, as the dictionary says, “affords keen pleasure to the senses.” It is some magical potion made flesh. “There is no excellent beauty,” wrote Francis Bacon, “that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” (Surely he was thinking about women.) Meryl Streep is a great beauty — thanks to a “strangeness in the proportion” — in a way that Bo Derek isn’t.
Einstein, when asked for an explanation of relativity that anyone could understand, said to picture yourself sitting on a park bench talking to a beautiful woman: two hours go by in what seems like ten minutes.
It would be laudable were I to espouse that marvelous and well-intended cliché, “Everyone is beautiful in his (or her) own way.” Actually, I believe that sentiment, and when clouds are marbly white in the blue ceremony of the sky, I catch myself singing the melody. But I’d be a liar to claim I don’t distinguish between that kind of beauty — which everyone has — and the kind that can turn my chest to dumplings.
This is the question no one has sufficiently answered: what is the relation of inner beauty to outer? We’ve all known beautiful souls in ugly bodies. And we’ve turned away — a greater horror — from the perfect specimen of physical beauty, upon discovering there is little else.
So how do I deal with the hurt I feel for beautiful souls trapped in misshapen bodies? How many of us live with the sense that our bodies do not adequately express the beauty we feel inside? There must be a hundred books claiming we create our own realities. We’re told by respectably channeled entities that the outer is a faithful reflection of the inner. Does that mean people with great bodies have done a really fine job of creating reality? Or that the rest of us are lousy at it? I challenge any teacher, disembodied or not, to explain the exact relation of spiritual to physical beauty. For clearly, beauty is what attracts us. Beauty is what makes me want to give myself.
I saw her again last night, the woman who has lately become for me the embodiment of beauty. The woman I was dancing with — whom others find beautiful — knew something had distracted me. I was suddenly turning awkwardly, tripping over my own rhythms, to get a glimpse of her through the crowd. And yet to look at her made me ache. Is it because I have fallen in love this way before, and nothing has come of it? Is it because a woman that beautiful isn’t likely to fall for me? Is it because I have not figured out how to get my inner beauty to manifest for everyone to gaze at? And so I catch myself thinking stupid things like, if only she had a scar, or a limp — anything to make her feel less beautiful, anything to make me feel I had a chance.
Sometimes I wish I had never seen her, nor anyone who’s made me feel this way. A beauty such as hers is too distracting. In its presence I am beside myself, reduced to an essence of longing. When I long, I’m not whole. Beauty promises to fill me up, but never has.
At 6 my two-and-a-half-year-old son, who went to sleep earlier than usual last night, is ready to wake up. “Is it morning yet?” David wants to know. In spite of a fierce desire to call the shots about everything else, he’s still willing for me to declare the official beginning of each day. It’s a long way from “morning yet” as far as I’m concerned, but the soft roundness of his eyes is very beautiful as I sink into sleep again.
At the French Horn Cafe, having left David with my reluctant husband, I sit marveling at all the shades of lavender in view. In a copy of a Matisse painting, the wall is painted a very pink lavender, and the round table, on which a bowl of goldfish sits, is a blue-lavender. Both shades seem to shimmer in contrast to the red-orange of the goldfish. At a nearby table sits a woman wearing a lavender sweater and leg warmers, both of which match, perfectly and astonishingly, the lavender legal pad on which she is writing.
Doing aerobic walking, I plod along telling myself to enjoy it. “Find beautiful things to look at,” I advise myself grimly. That really isn’t hard, since it is early spring. I like this time much better than late spring, which always seems too lush, too pleased with itself. But early spring has so much delicacy that the word “delicate” might have been created solely for these few weeks, when all the pink and white flowering trees are on the brink of blooming. The light filters through the new leaves, creating a kind of yellow-green neon, which seems like joy announcing itself.
At home, still looking for beauty, I find the back door open, the radio babbling, a large, winged insect swooping around the living room, and an empty container of Haagen-Dazs ice cream (my husband and son’s breakfast, no doubt) in the middle of the rug. Paper airplanes, made from the pages of a magazine I haven’t yet read, have crash-landed in various positions all over the room.
I go into the bedroom and there they are, on the bed, fast asleep. My husband’s arm is draped protectively over David and his hand rests on David’s back, drawing him close. David’s small hand lies softly on my husband’s cheek. They lie face to face and seem to be breathing together. I stand there for a long time.