Beholder

Snow changes the landscape upon which it falls. It smooths the dips and rises of the land’s topography, even as it throws into stark relief the knotty bark and bent branches of winter-bare trees.

If ever I were conventionally beautiful, I am no longer.

I’m not seeking compliments or reassurances. I do not think myself ugly, though some days I struggle with self-confidence. It’s simply that my body and face have changed in ways that do not conform to society’s ideals of beauty, and I am reckoning with that reality.

Snow much change

Growing up, I didn’t think myself unattractive, but I didn’t think I was especially pretty either. Like so many preteens, I went through an ugly duckling stage in junior high: a mouthful of braces, thick glasses, a head of fine, short hair that never cooperated with the tall, teased tresses popular in the ‘80s. I felt gangly and awkward, out of balance, my skinny legs having grown long well before my torso caught up.

Early on I was labeled a “smart” kid, and given the fierce demarcations of school social categories, it didn’t occur to me that a “smart girl” might also be a “pretty girl.” I definitely didn’t look like the models I admired in the Seventeen and Glamour magazines I devoured; I thought my face crinkled up too much when I smiled, my nose was too pronounced, my chin too undefined. My fears about my flaws were confirmed when a boy I’d briefly dated told me my nose was too big for my face. Then I developed persistent acne.

My 13th birthday party

When, to my own surprise, I took up modeling with a local organization called Fashionista Roanoke in my early forties, it wasn’t because I’d decided I was beautiful, though I was well over most of my hang-ups, and had come to rather like my face, strong nose included. If anything, I thought by modeling I could challenge the narrow American beauty ideals that insisted on privileging young, svelte, willowy waifs. I was 40, not 14; I was thin, but not thin enough by modeling industry standards; I was taller than average, but not the 5’8″+ desired. And while reasonably photogenic, I “didn’t have as many angles as some other girls”—a phrase I picked up from the one episode of America’s Next Top Model I watched at the time.

My look was decidedly different than most of the younger women I modeled alongside. A picture of a group of us lined up on a stairwell at one event is telling: one, two, three sleek brunettes smolder fiercely at the camera, and then there’s me, wearing a broad smile, blonde hair tossed in messy waves. My early beauty influences were clearly more Farrah Fawcett than Katy Perry. But I had chutzpah (a gift of my age), a lifetime of stage performance, and an acute awareness of my body in space born of years of childhood dance lessons. I participated in several local runway shows and a number of photo shoots, and it felt good to get a public stamp of approval on my attractiveness.

A favorite shot from my modeling days

Then, cancer. Chemo. Surgery. Radiation. At first, the impact on my appearance was minimal, and temporary. I lost my hair, but it grew back; my left arm swelled a bit after my mastectomy and the accompanying removal of lymph nodes, but the difference was almost imperceptible. With each subsequent recurrence and round of treatment, the changes have grown more profound, my appearance progressively less conventionally attractive. I’ve lost corporeal symmetry, one of the elements science has shown affects our perception of beauty. The lymphedema in my left arm has made it markedly swollen, my shoulder drawn up and rounded by a combination of fibrosis, capsular contracture, and edema. A rope of scar tissue tracks my left collar bone, the skin on both chest and back red and inflamed from radiation dermatitis.

Most distressing, a patch of skin just above my left breast has remained ulcerated for almost a year. My radiation oncologist believes it’s cancer the drugs haven’t reached due to the lack of blood flow in my previously irradiated skin. He told me not to worry about it–“As long as it’s not getting bigger, who cares?” On the one hand, he’s right. On the other, he does not have to live with a daily reminder of cancer festering on his chest, itchy and ugly and scaly. I long for the reassurance its healing and disappearing could provide. Instead, it’s a daily source of shame and anxiety.

The most obvious changes, the ones I cannot hide under cold-weather clothes, are those to my head and face. A beautiful woman, society tells us, has a mane of long, shiny hair, full shaped brows, a thick fringe of eyelashes. These are things that, objectively, I no longer possess. (My head shines, but not in the way the world tells me it should.) And since I’ll be receiving Sasquatch long-term, at least at a maintenance level, I can’t look forward to a time when my various hairs will grow back.

These losses may seem like minor hits to my confidence or vanity, but there’s potentially more at stake. Beauty is a currency. In a 2010 interview with Sharon Driscoll, Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode cites a poll conducted for a Newsweek article that “revealed that two-thirds of hiring managers ranked appearance above education in importance for hiring. And the same percentage agreed that appearance would affect job performance ratings.” Rhode’s book The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law details numerous instances of appearance discrimination, arguing that those who do not conform to culturally accepted ideals of beauty face real consequences–and their legal protections are few.

At present I don’t venture out much, but I do wonder, post-pandemic, what the wider world’s response to my changed appearance will be. In the meantime I’ve been trying to find ways to get comfortable myself with my new look. There are plenty of products out there to help me fake what’s missing–faux eyelashes, eyebrow tattoo stickers, wigs. But faking it takes a lot of time and energy, and I’m not persuaded trying to “pass” looks all that great, or is all that convincing, anyway.

Which is how it came to be that, when we got five inches of snow here in Virginia last weekend, I decided to become a snow princess.

The benefits of conformity notwithstanding, I deliberately set out to find ways to feel beautiful by defying conventional standards and fully embracing my changed canvas. No hair? How about a cap of silver glitter! No eyebrows? Create expression with arching crystal gems. Instead of fake eyelashes, define and highlight the eyes with a line of shimmery ice-blue shadow.

Granted, the otherworldly-snow-princess-look isn’t particularly practical for a run to the grocery store or doctor’s appointment. (Though it would be kind of fun to see my students’ reaction if I showed up in full princess regalia on the first day of teaching class….) But my goal was to see if I could feel pretty, even beautiful, without attempting to “pass,” without attempting to hide all the changes my body has undergone.

The good news is, the answer was yes. The bad news, well–beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder. And the only beholder’s perception I can control is my own. So perhaps a different goal is in order. Whether or not I’m beautiful by conventional standards, I am, as Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit describes it, most decidedly Real: “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But those things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

I think I do understand. And it’s a beautiful thing to be Real.

4 thoughts on “Beholder

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