Ugly Thoughts about Beauty

Time and time again I’ve said and written that my obsession with skincare is a way of micromanaging my whole exterior life. A blemish or a wrinkle is a flaw, and if someone catches one flaw they might just pull the whole thing apart. I’m deeply afraid of aging because that, too, skews the calculations. The world is more forgiving of young women, and my brain is already something that comes with disclaimers. The more placid a surface I can create, the harder it is to pin down my actual age, the less people will be tempted to look behind the curtain. My corrosive personality takes up so much space that I don’t have room to make physical mistakes.

I’m not a Pretty Girl, because from a very young age you either are or aren’t one, and I was not. Being a Pretty Girl is really just lines of input from your mom, your friends’ moms, your socialization as a girl, and your various privileges that you receive and compute to form the right output. In a vacuum it may not always translate to beauty, but it affords a sense of security. My mom, a great beauty who countless people have fallen in love with, is also not a Pretty Girl. And neither of us can spin those loves into confidence or assurance that we’re lovable. It all just bounces off.

Like countless people who have had to live any amount of time presenting as female, my relationship to my appearance is made up of my actual connection to my own body and my awareness of others’ connection to it. This is how I can begrudgingly acknowledge that enough people find me beautiful even though I hate myself and sometimes look in the mirror and think everything is angrily and badly put together. Knowing you have the ability to be beautiful but not being able to reap any personal benefits from it is a unique pressure that you can’t talk about because people find it obnoxious. Anyway, it’s there, and sometimes I wonder if people who were never told they were any of the superlative adjectives feel more free to let their partners see them with bad skin, to eat a big meal in public, to just get dressed and walk outside.

A writer I like explained once that she relies on language as a way of preceding and apologizing for her body and the space she takes up. It works the opposite way for me. I’m such an awful, vain motherfucker because I feel like my face is the only true apology, the only consolation prize, that I can wedge between the world and someone who has surely already worn our her welcome.

Family Matters (so do other things)

I do not like the word family held up as the highest title you can bestow on a friend or a romantic partner. This can be on its own or in the phrases “found family” or “chosen family.” Maybe this is largely on account of my privilege as a person who has a supportive immediate family. The way I love my family, particularly my parents, is rougher and more complicated than the way I love anyone else. It involves brokenness, waxing and waning trust, and rebuilding that I most likely wouldn’t be willing to go through with a romantic partner. The concept of unconditional love has always seemed like an excuse to not work harder to be good to each other, but my actual family is the only structure in which anything close to it exists. It is a unique dynamic, but does it make it more sacred than friendship and romantic love? No, I don’t think so.

The assumption that friendship and romance as their own paradigms don’t hold enough weight seems wrong to me. While I can see the comfort in the idea of found family – particularly if your own blood has been a litany of disappointments and failures to connect – it’s just not a barrier I want to cross. I used to want it so badly it caused me incredible grief. In the interest of being a more reliable narrator, my distaste is probably in part just an attempt to forge that grief into something more dignified. But like an indignant child, I am here to tell you that I also buy where I’ve landed, really, I do.

I think the idea that some of our most important relationships are held together by nothing more than choice can be terrifying. We can understand the positives and power of it – wow, they have no reason to be here beyond their own belief in my place in their life – and still desperately want to construct a buffer. And what better safety net than to compare someone to the one relationship you had no choice in – that you can singe off through estrangement but never truly erase? The people who do make that break face oppressive stigma. Even abused children are often told “she’ll always be your mother!” I can’t help but see the need to declare our self-made bonds familial as a sort of stake in the ground; a salt circle in which relationships that are as fragile as any become fortified.

My parents are, of course, family. Were their previous marriages families before children were involved? That’s an interesting question to me. When pressed, I think most people would say that marriages in and of themselves are family units, but you still hardly ever hear the phrase “childless family” vs. “childless couple.” I’m biased, because my own experience with marriage is a facet of my problem with the word family. I fear marriage because it stands in bureaucratic defiance to my belief that people should be able to leave relationships at any time for any reason. Before and during my divorce, I bristled at my husband referring to us – two people increasingly incomprehensible to each other – as a family. I’m comfortable saying I belong to my family; that I am a member of it. I’m not comfortable saying that about anyone else. Just as I am cynical about the prospect of ever getting married again, it’s hard to imagine calling or wanting to be called family by a romantic partner.

It’s not that I don’t take obligations and responsibilities to our friends and partners seriously. I do, probably more now than I ever have. But the nature of those commitments is so different than what I feel toward my family. I know if my friends and I had gone through some of the rough patches my siblings and I have, we would no longer be friends. Romantic love in particular is delicate and conditional. The work is messy. When it involves terribly contentious things like fidelity and boredom and sex it becomes a different beast than any other type of relationship. The difficulties of romance can be very lonely and it’s not pleasant to realize how tenuous and easy to lose it is. I think it’s tempting to want to call it family, to override the potential for pain, to believe we have a reason for being together beyond wanting to, and still wanting to the day after.

I know that when most people call their friends family, they only say it as the highest compliment. I don’t mean to disregard their personal sorting systems and the places in which they hold their loved ones. You could (rightly, probably) accuse me of having the darkest possible take on these words. But I do aggressively believe in being good to the people we love, and that it’s difficult, and that part of that difficulty involves being honest about what things are. Or maybe I’m just envious.