I think about being attractive a lot.
I don’t do so because I am vain (although, don’t get it twisted — I am vain. By popular standards and the Christian Ethic I somewhat affirm, keeping 693 selfies stored in the ‘Favorites’ album of my iPhone is super-silly… and supercilious).
I do so because it is entirely too difficult to grasp the language for appearance, and aesthetic, for what it’s like to be the ugly sister, or the hot friend, or the “7-but-could-be-cuter-with-a-good-face-wash,” or all 3 standards at once, in different spaces, through different measures. I think about being attractive to see if I can crack the code.
What conventions can we use to explain being pretty in a POC space and being pretty invisible in a white space? What of us, then, that we often circumlocute through “Dove Real Beauty” platitudes to avoid acknowledging the politics of appearance — knowing all the while that though “they” still exist , “they” just can’t be spoken of, no, no?
How do you find the language to weigh the dynamic of Leah and Rachel, when their beloved worked 7 more years for the prettier sister? What words can we use to explain to our children that yes, everyone is beautiful, but yes, looks do matter, and sorry kid, you’re your father’s spitting image and that’s just how the cookie crumbled?
I guess I think about the stakes of being attractive a lot. It’s probably because once I wasn’t pretty, and now I am.
I’m fortunate to carry linear, episodic proof of moments in my life where the duckling met the swan. I begin with age 6.
At the age of 6, I’m not sure I had much of a sense of self beyond needing to be first in the tetherball line at recess. But by the age of 8, I certainly recognized myself. At the age of 8, I found myself beautiful. I remember taking a family photo with my two older sisters and thinking that they ought to be jealous of how cool I looked in my purple bolero jacket.
I smiled my best smile and stood still, knowing that my careful application of my Dr. Pepper Lipsmackers (while my mom was none the wiser to my “makeup” usage) would totally pay off when the photographer snapped his shots. I was so pretty to myself and I deserved to feel pretty.
I learned that I didn’t deserve to call myself pretty very soon.
My third grade class held an unofficial beauty contest on our playground’s sand. I didn’t win, of course, because Madi K. was in our class and Madi K. got 8 Valentines that year. But I was good friends with Madi, and I’m glad she became our classroom’s prettiest girl.
And it didn’t matter that I didn’t win, I told myself. It didn’t matter that I was ranked second to last of all the girls in our contest, rescued from the bottom only because the last candidate wasn’t at recess that day. I was still good at reading! Mrs. J had picked me to be classroom reader and she’d said that I excelled above ‘Accelerated Reader’ proficiency and that I-
“It’s because you’re from Africa,” a girl named Haley (Hannah?) said knowingly, interrupting my thoughts.
“I’m from New York!” I hissed, a half-truth.
I think Haley/Hannah was explaining why I wasn’t pretty to be helpful, but I just knew that her pity was mistaken.
They were all mistaken! Had I known what the term “rigged” meant at that time, I would have called the contest “fake news” and would have ordered an immediate recount.
I was pretty. They just didn’t understand me.
Or, perhaps, I didn’t understand their language. Though my parents were the ones with the accents, I wasn’t able to fathom the consequences of what we’d agreed upon in organizing this beauty-contest. Beyond the classic narratives of “white is right”, beyond the subtly-Aryan preferences of probably every 3rd-grade classroom in America — in this beauty contest, there were so many politics to be played and so many constructs to be upheld that I simultaneously reinforced and couldn’t comprehend.
Because while I was certainly aware of my race — my dark brown arms against their angry red sunburns — I wasn’t quite aware that I wasn’t cute.
We both saw the same things: me, in the mirror, saw my twisty, curly braids, my braces, my blackness. They, in the flesh, saw weird, saw dark. They had language, an entire lexicon for just how ugly features like mine were. And while I was really good at language arts and could spell the best in the class, the letters they used to spell my body were “c-o-c-k-r-o-a-c-h.”
By the time I got to 7th grade, I knew my body was defined by its ugliness, too. Somewhere between 3rd grade cooties and 7th grade butterflies, I think I began my journey in self-consciousness — consciousness not just in self-esteem, but in the terrible, actualizing sense of having to accept the limits of the body that cloaked me.
And of course, in 7th grade, I didn’t have the language for such a dramatic feeling.
In 7th grade, my white friends IM’d: but omg, your so pretty too! maybe we can all get dates for the dance this year!!
And I knew that just wouldn’t be happening for me but I couldn’t articulate that, not fully, not deeply.
So I typed: yeah it will be soo00o fun! maybe our moms can take us dress-shopping at Windsor together!! by the way, it’s spelled ‘you’re’, sweetie (:
But I knew my limits, and I think my friends did too. I knew that my body just wasn’t enough to slow-dance sweatily against a guy named Kyle on our school’s linoleum floors.
And though I knew my limits, I often tried to plead my case. Though my circumstances were truly unfortunate, if I just got contacts instead of glasses, people could finally see that I was actually beautiful beyond the darkness. If I just got my braces off — If I weren’t so flat-chested! People should have judged me for my true, potential beauty. I deserved that. Didn’t we all?
I went to my first Ghanaian summer camp right after 10th grade. That’s when the vertigo started — suddenly, I was one of the cute ones. My looks were more than alright at camp and I got the attention of more than few boys there.
And so I flossed and I flounced for the rest of camp, assuming that my newfound beauty would trail behind when I returned home to Arizona. Shockingly, it didn’t. Who could have known????!?
(Well, everybody. The whole world probably.)
I wasn’t going to be beautiful in Gilbert, AZ — that just wasn’t going to happen. Still, I was ranked next to tall Mormon girls with long blonde hair named Ashlynn. My weird name and dark-skin and foreign parents* just disqualified me from being considered an option altogether, and at the time, I was still okay with not being valid. I’d been practicing being okay with it since the 3rd grade.**
And even though I’d grown into my looks, I had to train myself to understand that the language of beauty takes context. That on Tumblr, if I posted photos with hashtags of #darkskinbeauty or wrapped a Kente scarf around my head and a “Gye Nyame” bracelet around my wrist, I would be considered alluring, a marvel.
That the same Ghanaian tokens displayed across my body could be read as foreign and backwards in one setting, or as the perfect revolution in another.
I’m usually good at finding words for feelings. I still can’t find words for my high school experience.
I’ve considered myself to be pretty for about 3 years now. I’m pretty aware of it. I still don’t have the language for it.
I’m aware when I make a funny snapchat story about having a bad hair-day, and I actually look pretty good, but I make a self-deprecating joke and try to play it off as if me and my snapchat followers aren’t acutely aware that I, do, in fact, look pretty good. I cover nakedness with laughter.
It often feels like I let people down, now, if I don’t have “my face on” for the day. I’m aware that most people would never interpret my bare-face in such literal, damning ways but I know how to read shock and I know how to read confusion, and that’s what I read when I don’t have my eyebrows on. They don’t know how long I spent trying to blend my foundation to my neck that morning.
I’m aware when I write my kindness in a big font — I push myself to act in gratuitously nice ways because it feels like I must be considerate and generous to still be likable. This feels like my penance for existing somewhat prettily in a world of ugly, and it’s taxing, but I mostly understand. I’m aware when the black food workers at my school talk to me differently while my food is being prepared, and I’m aware that I should, by all means, criticize myself for suggesting that the workers talk to me differently — even though I’ve seen the way they look at me.
I’m aware when people wax poetic about how “dark skin is BEAUTIFUL!” and that they mean it about me or Lupita but, of course, the poetry seems to runs out for Gabourey or Leslie Jones. And if we call it out — are we terrible for putting language to experience?
Are we allowed to put words to the feeling of being a cockroach for your formative years, confusingly developing symmetrical features, then being ogled like an exotic, desirable plaything by liberal white guys for the rest of your 20's? Can we do that beyond trite #glowup hashtags and Flashback Fridays?
What of these politics, then, that they permeate everything that we do but can only be critically acknowledged every so often? What of these politics, that our bodies are only given voice through euphemisms? When our looks determine our validity, our expectations of kindness, our power, our worth — when we can’t even address these constructs aloud?
If somebody were to ask me, “how would you describe the politics of appearance?”, I’m not sure I’d have language to answer beyond my own neuroticisms. I know how people treat me and I know how people used to treat me and I know that this article is the epitome of navel-gazing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people tell me that this is all in my head. Perhaps it is — I recognize that I am a little terrible for writing such a long article about being pretty, and I recognize that I should feel terrible.
But bit by bit, I am trying to find the words that don’t exist for these politics. I am trying to piece together the nuances and weirdness of conveying that, oh, I have the correct type of body in many spaces in society, but oooh, I cannot acknowledge the privileges of bodily ‘correctness’, because ahh, yes, it’s true, but only in certain spaces, and god forbid others don’t think so, and yikes, I’m kind of a jerk for suggesting it. Non-pretty people are just jealous, pathetic for realizing it. Dove “Real Beauty” campaigns win awards for talking about it, and they don’t really say anything at all.
In short, beauty is a bitch.
And for what it’s worth, I don’t believe that this bitch is the end-all-be-all of life. You can do a lot of things and be a lot of people without being beautiful.
But from what I’ve surmised, a person’s beauty — or lack thereof — can certainly introduce what their end-all-be-all of life will be. It can shape how seriously a person might be taken in their field or home, how that person might be able to navigate the social and economic environments they inhabit, and whether or not that person feels sorry enough for themselves in a certain hierarchy of attractiveness to take the red pill (/s).
Like DJT’s 3 am toilet-top tweets, finding the language, contexts, and feelings to define the politics of beauty is a little bit disconcerting and a whole lot shitty.
But many of the contours and complexities of this shit can’t exist if we don’t talk about how hard it is to talk about it — the constructs, the privileges, the guilt expected to be performed, the “lifestyle bloggers” that are pretty enough to get paid for it, the “lifestyle bloggers” that aren’t pretty enough to get paid for it, the dating apps, the “preferences”, the politics, the politics and everything else in between.
So I think about being attractive a lot.
I think we all should.
*= In early adulthood, I retroactively blamed my parents for having to feel this way. They were immigrants from Ghana just trying to adjust to a new country, secure their permanent residency, and see three kids off to college, so their last daughter feeling normal at school was the least of their concerns. It certainly made sense.
It didn’t feel good, though.
** = It was all I knew! Now, I burn effigies of girls named Ashlynn.