I grow up watching my older brother and my father spend countless hours together in the garage: working on cars, fixing broken appliances, and toying with electrical gadgets. As the younger son I naturally gravitate toward their greasy, clanking realm. One day my father hands me a wrench and points to a bolt under the car that he wants removed. The bolt seems stuck, so I yank with all my might and end up stripping the threads. Furious, my father snatches the wrench out of my hands and shouts, “You idiot!” My older brother, silently looking on, later demonstrates the correct technique. He also warns me to watch out for when Dad “comes to a boil.”
It is the first in a series of fix-it disasters for me. I am eventually denied access to my father’s masculine territory. I find solace in shooting baskets on a neighbor’s hoop and become immersed in sports, joining as many teams as I can. My father rarely attends my games or offers an encouraging word. If my team has a big win, he makes sure to remind me that someday I am going to have to learn what goes on underneath the hood of a car, but I ignore him.
After leaving home, I avoid dependence on cars and technology and adopt a hippie lifestyle. My dad becomes almost a phantom to me, and we have only terse interactions. If it weren’t for Mom, we’d barely connect at all.
Then I fall in love, get married, have a kid, and buy a house. Suddenly I live in secret fear of anything breaking down: The check engine light sends shivers down my spine. A leaky roof causes me to panic. When our washing machine starts spewing water all over the floor one day, my wife gives me a What are we going to do now? look. I call about repairs, but the salesman quotes me an astronomical amount, then suggests it’s probably better just to purchase a new washer.
Dejected, I remember one bit of fatherly advice that slipped through: “If something is broken, take a look at it, study it — you might be able to figure it out and fix it yourself for nothing.” So, feeling completely clueless, I tip the washer up and start unscrewing bolts and detaching hoses. I find a plastic spinning mechanism that has a small crack in it. Sure enough, when I pour water through, it leaks. I grab my surfboard-repair kit and apply resin to the crack.
The following day, after the resin has hardened, I plop the spinner back into place and start up the washer. As the water rushes in, I whisper a prayer.
I’ve seen some beautiful sights in my day — Yosemite’s Half Dome rock formation, double rainbows, the birth of my son. But when I bend down to look under the churning machine and see not a single drop of water, it immediately joins the ranks of the most beautiful.
Morro Bay, California
Throughout my life beauty has been both my nemesis and my best friend. From a young age (too young) I experienced lust in men’s eyes and veiled dislike in women’s.
Now that my fortieth birthday is looming, my appearance has become an obsession. In my mind age and beauty do not coexist. Aging is the end of beauty, sexuality, power. Every time I pass a mirror, all I see is the imperfections the years have wrought: the slackening skin, the graying hair, the drooping breasts.
As I sit writing in a cafe, I glance up and see a young woman settle in across from me. Her skin is dewy and luminescent, her face unlined. Now I am the one with veiled dislike in her eyes. Embarrassed by my jealousy, I pull my compact from my cavernous bag, flip it open, and apply the lip gloss I use religiously to give my desiccated lips the illusion of youth. I smooth the hair at my temples, where gray strands proliferate.
This morning I stood before my vanity assessing my nakedness. I did not like what I saw. Only four years ago my body was like a ripe fruit at the peak of season, and now it is deflating alarmingly, folding in on itself. I looked down and expected to see a puddle of juices pooling at my feet.
I know that the consequence of my youthful vanity will be the horror of watching my beauty disintegrate. Perhaps I could endure that better if I had children and could watch beauty blossom anew in them. But I don’t.
The year my family moved across the country, I was a miserable fifteen-year-old with bad posture and social anxiety. It had taken me five years to make friends in Ohio. All I knew about Oregon was that it rained all the time and I would be friendless again.
My grandparents drove my brother and me to the West Coast, making a holiday of the trip, with stops at national parks and landmarks. I sat slumped in the back seat, feeling sicker with every passing mile.
On the last day we were winding up a steep mountain road on the east side of Oregon’s Mount Hood. Out the window I saw a wide blue sky over tall evergreens with a rocky stream gurgling below. Grandpa pulled onto the gravel shoulder. “There’s no sense letting all this beauty go to waste,” he said.
He was right. The view was breathtaking. My brother and I took off our shoes and waded in the stream while Grandma and Grandpa sat on the bank and took pictures.
I won’t say the experience melted the knot of fear in my gut, or that my life turned miraculously graceful, but over the years the wisdom of my grandfather’s no-nonsense approach to beauty has awakened me to many moments I might otherwise have missed.
I’d always had waist-length reddish hair in ringlets. I took it for granted, like having two feet. It was the one thing strangers commented on about my appearance. People sometimes asked if I wore a wig.
Then in August 2008 I discovered a large bald spot on the back of my head. The doctor diagnosed me with alopecia areata — loss of hair in small, round patches — and prescribed topical cortisone. It didn’t work. Clumps of hair streamed through my fingers in the shower, coiling at my feet. Next came prednisone, an immunosuppressant, which caused sleepless nights, a pounding heart, and racing thoughts. It, too, didn’t work. At the start of November I began wearing hats. Then I bought a wig. The next time a checkout clerk at the grocery store asked, “Is that your real hair?” I replied, “Are those your real boobs?”
Then came cortisone shots directly into my scalp: painful and ineffective. By the first of December I had alopecia totalis — total baldness of the scalp. By January I’d lost my eyebrows, my eyelashes, and all my body hair: alopecia universalis.
I learned to artfully draw in eyebrows with a fine brush, to apply drugstore lashes, to style a wig. I needed to feel I was still me.
At first my fiancé had told me it didn’t matter, that he would love me even if I were bald. Then he’d stopped touching me. He told me he was waiting until the problem passed and I went back to looking like myself. When I embraced him without my wig on, he pushed me away and said it was difficult to look at me. He threatened to shave his head and put on unflattering clothes to make himself look “ugly.” When I changed for bed from my wig into a hat — the wig itched and shifted during lovemaking — he claimed I was testing him, that I needed therapy. He said that aesthetics were important to the “mating dance.”
In June he cheated on me with a woman ten years my junior and then broke off our engagement. I have since met another man who glories in my perfectly smooth skin and kisses my hairless head. I am hoping that one day, when he holds my face in his hands and asks, “Do you know how beautiful you are?” I will be able to say, “Yes.”
Wallkill, New York
“Am I gor-geous?” my child asks, drawing the word out like pulled taffy.
“Yes,” I say, “you are.”
The pink and teal dress is probably made of highly flammable material, some chemist’s approximation of tulle and satin. Pudgy fingers decorated with pink polish trace the sequins on the bodice. “I love this!” A giant pair of bubble-gum pink wings flap slowly. Little feet dance in sparkly red slippers. “I’m just like a real princess!”
“Yes,” I say, “you are.”
Thick blond hair, blue eyes, rosy cheeks, flawless skin. This child is the American epitome of beauty.
This child, my son.
He is four years old and prefers to wear dresses. Maybe it is a phase, maybe not. Even as I wonder how I produced such an angelic-looking creature, I wish he would put on some pants and go back to playing with toy tractors — not because it matters to me (it doesn’t) but because I am already hearing in my head the name-calling he will face in kindergarten. Many adults already seem a bit disturbed by the dresses. Strangers utter awkward apologies when they realize he’s not female. This culture wants little boys to dream only of baseball, trucks, and trains. This culture has no room for little boys who want to be gorgeous.
He picks up a parasol a neighbor gave him and opens it jauntily over his shoulder. “Am I beautiful?” he asks.
I sweep him into my arms and plant a kiss on his cheek.
El Cerrito, California
After two decades of wrestling with my long, unruly hair, I decided to cut it off. With the help of my sister and my best friend, I reduced the length to a few centimeters in minutes. I loved it: no tangles, no bobby pins, no ties.
Soon after that haircut I started a teaching job at an oceanfront educational farm. One afternoon I was leading a group of second-graders on a field trip to see the tide pools. A tiny girl with chestnut hair falling to her waist looked up at me and said, in a voice reminiscent of a poorly tuned violin, “Can you whistle?”
“Sure,” I replied. “Can you?”
“Yeah. See?” And she whistled a loud catcall. “Does anyone ever whistle at you like that?” she asked. “ ’Cause when boys whistle at you like that, it means you are beautiful.”
“Really?” I said, struggling to think of a way to change the subject.
“Did you used to have long hair?” she chirped.
“Actually, I just cut —”
“ ’Cause sexy girls have long hair, ’cause it’s beautiful, so if you want someone to whistle at you, you should just grow your hair out.” She offered this advice as if informing me about a sale at the grocery store.
For a moment I was livid. I recalled my own childhood and teen years: the countless hours spent straightening my hair, hiding from the sun so as not to darken my already brown skin, counting every calorie and avoiding anything that looked delicious. I remembered flipping through magazines filled with glossy photos of women who looked nothing like me and praying my boobs would grow, my skin would clear up, and my hair would miraculously fall straight. This girl was only seven years old and already aspiring to be sexy and beautiful. I wanted to take the word beautiful and banish it from her head.
We reached the bluff overlooking the sea, and before we started our descent, I asked the kids to observe the view for a minute and then each share something they noticed.
“I saw a sea gull.”
“The water is shiny.”
“There are so many plants.”
When it came her turn to share, the girl with the chestnut hair said excitedly, “The ocean is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!”
So maybe I don’t want to banish the word entirely.
Muir Beach, California
Growing up, I heard the story many times: how my parents were going to name me “Laura,” but when I arrived, it was decided that I was too homely to be a Laura. My mother named me “Jill” instead. I was very much loved and wanted, but it was clear that I was no beauty.
My parents did their best to help me feel better about myself. They paid for braces to correct my severe underbite, and when I was fourteen, I underwent painful surgery to have my ears pinned back. These efforts helped to a point, but I was still far from attractive. In junior high a group of girls used to follow me home from school, calling me “dog” and making barking noises until I reached the safety of my door.
In high school I worked on cultivating my best assets: my sense of humor and my talent as a listener. I became someone boys sought out to talk to about the girls they longed for. I gave them advice and encouragement and made them laugh when they were rejected. Sometimes they said they loved me — like a sister. I never had a date.
I married the first man who called me “beautiful.” When he left me fourteen years later for his pretty assistant manager (a decade younger), I was shattered and spent the next year exercising and losing weight. I colored my hair and learned the art of applying makeup. I looked nice enough, but I could still hear those junior-high girls barking behind me. I resigned myself to being alone and concentrated on building a satisfying life as a single woman. Overall I was content.
Six years later I met Dan. I was forty-two; he was thirty-one. Despite our age difference we became good friends. I assumed that, sooner or later, he would talk to me about the women he wanted to pursue, but there were no other women — a surprise, since Dan was tall, handsome, and successful. He told me that he was a confirmed bachelor, dedicated to his work and to making a difference in the world. It was easy to fall in love with him.
To my amazement he was attracted to me — so much so that he quit a lucrative job and moved to the city where I lived. We dated. He seemed genuinely to like who I was, inside and out, and ignored the lovely women who tried to catch his attention in restaurants and bars. It wasn’t long before he told me he loved me — and not like a sister. It took me some time to believe him.
Dan and I were married in 2002. I know I’m a Jill, but I feel like a Laura.
Jill E. Stevens
Spencerport, New York
What they have told me about beauty since my birth in 1968:
Don’t grow old; it is best to be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven. Be thin everywhere except your breasts. Remove hair from legs, crotch, and underarms, but grow it long and silky blond on top of your head. Tan Caucasian skin without pimples or freckles is the most attractive. Be tall, but not taller than him. Be strong, but not stronger than him. Be smart, but not smarter than him. Blue eyes are best. If your eyesight isn’t 20/20, you will need contacts or surgery. If your nose is too big, you will need to get that fixed as well. Nails should be groomed and polished. Legs must be long — that is why feet belong in high heels: to lengthen your legs. For God’s sake no hair under your chin. No dark circles under your eyes either; conceal them. Stand up straight. Are your teeth as white as snow? If not, bleach them. Smell like perfume but not cloyingly so. Bejewel yourself. Fat is gross. (This fact cannot be overemphasized. If you learn nothing else, let it be this: fat is repulsive.) Makeup? Yes, but it shouldn’t look as if you are wearing it. And remember: Smile. Beauty is on the inside.
My years of drinking, taking drugs, and making poor choices have left me divorced and unsure where my life is going. I see my kids only once a week. They’re active, happy, playful children, but today I am one of those bad parents who wishes they would just be quiet and watch cartoons. My four-year-old daughter wants to dance. She doesn’t know I’m struggling with sobriety. She doesn’t know that she’s visiting me at my aunt’s house because I can’t afford a place of my own. She takes my hand and twirls, and her blond hair floats around her. She looks up at me and says, “It’s magic, Daddy.”
Livermore Falls, Maine
Growing up, I felt confident that I knew all the features a beautiful woman should have. I felt equally confident that I possessed none of them. I sat on the floor for hours, dressing my Barbie dolls in outfits and fingering their tiny waists, voluptuous bosoms, and high-arched feet — perfect for stiletto heels. My own scrawny figure seemed woefully inadequate, my flat-soled feet deformed.
When it was time to put away my dolls, Miss America contestants became the definition of beauty to my adolescent mind. Each September I’d park myself in front of the television and watch the parade of gorgeous young women in bathing suits and evening gowns. In the ensuing days I’d avoid looking in the mirror at my acne, limp hair, and pear-shaped figure.
By the time I reached adulthood, I’d grudgingly accepted that I’d never rise to the level of pretty, let alone beautiful. And it was a good thing, too, because at twenty-three I developed swelling and ulcers in my legs and was diagnosed with systemic lupus. Seven months later I left the hospital with one leg amputated, the other scarred by surgeries. My hair had fallen out from chemotherapy, and huge doses of steroids had left me bloated.
While on the physical-therapy ward, I’d gotten to know some of the other patients: The mom of four, paralyzed in a swimming accident, whose first therapy goal was to hug her children. The fireman, burned over 65 percent of his body, determined to walk despite stiff, grafted skin. The teenager, shot in the face by an ex-boyfriend, who peered at the world through a gauze mask and vowed to spend the rest of her life counseling teens in abusive relationships.
It was in that place that I learned about true beauty.
Kathleen M. Muldoon
San Antonio, Texas
When I was thirteen, Saturday afternoons found me in the living room, watching old movies on our black-and-white television. One of my favorites was Our Very Own, a 1950s tear-jerker about an adopted teenager named Gail who was searching for her biological mother. No matter how many times I saw it, I always choked up at the scene in which Gail visits the “wrong side of town” to meet the woman who gave birth to her. I’m adopted and had always been curious about my own birth mother. I wanted to know what she looked like, and whether I looked like her.
In the movie Ann Dvorak plays the birth mom as a brassy tart with too-red lipstick and too-blond hair. Her character suits the film’s moral: Stick with your loving adoptive family and forget this shameful birth-mother nonsense. I thought, Screw you, Hollywood. One day I’d find the woman who’d given me up for adoption.
After more than forty years of research and thousands of dollars in private-investigator fees, I located her. She lived about five hundred miles away and agreed to a reunion. We decided to meet halfway at a restaurant for brunch. She was seventy years old, and I was anxious to see what my DNA had in store for me in my later years.
At the appointed time I saw a woman striding across the parking lot in four-inch heels. Thick blond dreadlocks fell to her shoulders, and sunglasses covered most of her face. She wore a denim jacket, its front panels crafted of black leather, and matching jeans. Her manicured nails were black.
“Jeanette?” she asked. When I nodded, she gave me a warm embrace that I eagerly returned. After she released me, she removed the sunglasses, revealing flawlessly smooth, cinnamon-colored skin and high cheekbones. Her eyebrows were arched, her lashes lush with mascara. Fire-engine red lipstick covered her lips. She looked like the winner of a beauty pageant for hip seniors. Wow, I thought.
“You look just like your father,” she said.
My grandmother’s hair was thick and black. It is the trait I recall most about her, after the bunions on her feet. Throughout her fifties and sixties and up until her death, she hung clothes on her body merely to cover it. Her glasses were practical and blocky. Purple veins coursed her legs, but she never bothered to cover them.
Two years ago, when I went to kiss her goodbye on her deathbed, she was unable to speak but recognized me and smiled. Her flowered nightgown, which she had owned my entire life, had ridden up, exposing her large legs and underpants. Her shoes — therapeutic, thick-soled size elevens — lay beside her bed, containing an empty profile of each bunion. I noted the gray streaks that now colored her always-black hair: yet another sign, I thought, that her body was surrendering.
Two months after my grandmother’s death, as my mother and I were driving someplace, I pointed out some gray hairs on her head.
“Finally,” she said. “I can’t wait to have a head full of salt and pepper.”
I wished her luck, reminding her that her mother had dark black hair up until her death.
My mother then revealed a secret: my grandmother had been dyeing her hair for years.
I laughed at first. It seemed such an odd thing for her to waste energy on, considering she’d never cared what she looked like. And then my mother remarked on the lengths to which people will go to keep what may be their one source of vanity, their only beauty.
The summer I turned eight, my parents filed for divorce, and my mother moved to an apartment in New York City. I remember the first time I visited her there. We walked together down Madison Avenue, where big yellow cabs whizzed by. There were tall brick buildings and lemony sunshine, and the sky was so blue I wanted to taste it.
My mother wore a gold skirt and a white cotton blouse. Her hair was many shades of blond. At her building on Lexington Avenue she took my hand and led me up the red-carpeted staircase to her apartment. Since I lived at a boarding school in New Jersey, this would be the first time I’d seen her new place. I loved the thick gray carpet and the twin beds covered in gold brocade to look like couches. Gold lamps curved like Egyptian statues on either side of the room. (My mother told me they had magical powers, and I believed her.) The living-room windows were covered with sheer gold curtains, and there was a glass-topped cocktail table with a swan carved into an ivory panel beneath the glass.
My mother and I sat on low black stools at the table and ate the grilled cheese sandwiches she had made for us on a small stove top in the tiny kitchen. She laughed lightly, without the gravel I usually heard in her voice, and she touched my cheek with offhand affection.
“You’re my precious girl,” she said.
We had cold golden pears for dessert.
A year later my mother would marry a man of Machiavellian charm, three of her siblings would die suddenly, and her face would harden with disappointment. Anger — hers and mine — would form a permanent wall between us. But that afternoon, with the hum of the city around us, I watched my mother move through a world of sweet tastes and soft colors that she had created and wanted to share with me. It is my most vivid memory of her.
New York, New York
My five-year-old son can’t draw a picture — not even a stick figure. He scribbles tornado-like loops or makes lines back and forth, always as fast as possible, and describes to me the high-speed hybrid train he’s drawing, or the moon rocket that will cost only ten dollars to operate. If I suggest he use colors other than black or brown, he screams and puts his pen down and runs through our house in what I pray isn’t incipient mania.
My friend’s three-year-old daughter will, unprompted, draw portraits of her mother: egg-shaped head with eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and hair all in the appropriate places. My friend hangs them proudly in her office for co-workers to ooh and aah over. No one oohs and aahs when I say my five-year-old is an abstract expressionist.
Then one day, while describing how his design for an escape hatch will prevent tragedy on his rocket ship, my son stops running to scribble on a sheet of paper. I almost don’t look; then I do: a balloon-shaped rocket with a hole and two stick figures attached to what must be parachutes. He points to the figures and says the small one is me, and the big one is him.
Two months into my freshman year of high school, the popular girls called me over to their table in the cafeteria. Their highlighted, permed hair was teased up in front, and their round eyes were lined with cobalt blue. I would have followed their fashion if my hair had been the right kind and my eyes the right shape, but I could never fit their ideal of beauty.
Brenda, their leader, asked to see my algebra homework, then tried to copy my answers. I flipped my notebook closed.
“What’s the matter?” Brenda asked. “I just want to check and see if my answers are right.”
I glanced at Brenda’s notebook, but she was slow in shielding the empty page.
Melanie and Brenda exchanged looks. I could feel the heat in my cheeks.
“Can you even see out of your eyes?” Melanie asked.
“Your eyes.” She pulled her own eyes out and up at the corners. “I can’t see with my eyes like this. Can you?” she asked Brenda, who snorted. “I mean, how can you even read the board?” Melanie looked left, then right, her fingers still at the corners of her eyes.
Brenda said, “I read that there are certain dogs whose faces and noses are so flat, they have trouble breathing, the poor things.” She looked at me. “Do you have trouble breathing?” The table exploded with laughter.
Throughout high school I distrusted my peers and came to hold teachers in highest regard. They were above the meanness and focused on what mattered: intellectual and emotional growth. Years later I earned my master’s degree in education and my certification to teach English at the high-school level. I was hired at a secondary school in an affluent suburb of Boston. My department head had been a classroom teacher for more than thirty years and had a master’s degree in education from a prestigious university. I respected her and welcomed her guidance.
When she introduced me to my new colleagues, she said, “Look at how young she is: a baby! And such a pretty thing, too.” Though it had been years since high school, I was still not accustomed to hearing positive comments about my looks. It made me uncomfortable, but I refused to see it as patronizing or inappropriate. She was paying me a compliment, I told myself. When she said it a second time, I laughed, and she chided, “Now, don’t pretend to be so modest!”
At one-on-one meetings my department head would lean toward me and, in a conspiratorial tone, ask if I was having trouble with anything — anything at all. Like many first-year teachers, I found myself overwhelmed by the numerous tasks, and I freely admitted to areas in which I was weak. She listened and offered advice. When she cited these same areas as my faults on evaluations, I told myself that she was simply trying to improve my skills.
At the end of my second year I had to move to another city, where my husband had taken a new job. During my final meeting with my department head, she asked if I thought my two years at the school had been challenging. I said that they had, but I felt I had made some strides. Then she leaned toward me in her chummy manner and said, “Now, tell me, did you expect it all to be easy? I bet everything in life has been easy for you because of your looks.”
When I was twelve, my mother remarried. I had trouble adjusting to my Russian Orthodox stepfather. He wasn’t a bad person, but I felt out of place around him. One day we were visiting his family, a lively bunch who both laughed and cursed freely, much to my mother’s horror. I was sitting alone in another room, playing solitaire, when my stepfather came to me and said, “I have something to show you.”
We left the house and walked a mile along a tree-shaded dirt road, then down an old mining trail that was overrun by weeds and saplings. “I used to come here as a boy,” he said.
We came to a clearing, and I saw a small lake surrounded by scrub brush and slag heaps from the mines. The water was murky and shallow, with dried cattails and algae. Raccoon tracks dotted the mud around the shore, along with the occasional boot print left by a deer hunter. My stepfather pointed to where trees grew out of the water and said he used to trap muskrats there for money. I wanted to see what was beyond the trees, but it was time to go back.
Four months later, on another visit, I returned to the lake by myself and found it frozen over. Determined to see what was beyond the trees, I stepped onto the ice and began walking. The ice was swirled and lumpy, as though the lake had solidified while someone was stirring it. Tufts of grass and old logs poked up, and a thin dusting of powdered snow blew across the top.
As I made my way around a large, leafless bush, I stopped. Ten feet ahead of me the rusted-out cab of a truck rose from the ice as though frozen in a dolphinlike leap. The engine housing was gone, the windows lacked glass, and the roof was one big rusty hole. I touched the steering wheel and the places in the dash where gauges had been. My fingers brushed the rusted metal and the last spots of blue paint. But for the truck, there was no sign of civilization.
I sat on a downed tree and just stared at the relic. It was an old heap of junk, but to me it was an artifact from the ancient world, a thing of beauty.
St. Petersburg, Florida
When I was a stripper, it was my job to be pretty. I worked the Slipper and the Naked Eye, and sometimes I left Boston and went on tour across the country: New Orleans, San Francisco. I worked every night, rotating from stage to dressing room to floor. I wanted to be a “feature,” which meant being the most beautiful. It also meant buying a lot of costumes and having a not-sleazy agent to arrange your gigs and hotel rooms. I might even get to go to Hawaii.
My friend Lizette had the same dream. She was tiny and athletic and could stand on her hands in the middle of the stage and drop her legs down one after the other like signal flags. Men wanted to keep her. They would buy her drinks and propose to her by the end of the night. That was the difference between us: no one ever wanted to keep me.
When we’d started dancing, Lizette and I had stuck “Organically Grown” stickers on our nipples, but Hawaii called to us, and we decided to get breast implants. We saved three thousand dollars each. At the last minute I had second thoughts and made a down payment on a brand-new Toyota instead. I promised to drive Lizette to Canada for her surgery, and she promised to take me with her to Hawaii.
The surgery went well, but a few days later her left breast felt hard. We returned to the surgeon, who held her breast in his big hand. “No problem,” he said. “It will feel better soon.” By the time we got home to Boston, Lizette had a cold. I fixed her some tea. When I came by a day later, she was in bed. I brought her a plant and some crackers. She asked me to call the plastic surgeon. I sifted through the papers on the floor for his number but couldn’t find it.
The next time I saw Lizette, she was in the ICU. Her roommates said she had turned blue. The emergency-room nurse called it “toxic shock.” A priest had read her the last rites. The doctors had to remove the implants to find the infection. The medications they used to save her life also reduced blood flow to her extremities. Lizette lost her fingers and feet. They said she would never walk again.
A year later she walked into the hospital on two prosthetic legs and shook hands with the nurses who’d saved her life. A few years after that, she moved to California and joined a professional troupe of both able-bodied and disabled dancers. She spends every day dancing.
When I was eleven, my nose grew out of proportion to the rest of my face. Until that time I’d thought of myself as brave and outgoing, a golden child with white-blond hair. All that changed when my older sister revealed the horror of my grotesque nose to me in a three-way mirror at JC Penney. Stunned, I emerged from the store no more than a nose.
In middle school the kids teased, tormented, ridiculed, and ultimately ostracized me. One boy stopped me in the hall, put his arm around me with a laugh, and entertained his friends by saying, “Look at that face. Isn’t she beautiful? Hey, gorgeous, where have you been all my life?”
“Hiding from you,” I replied, pushing him away.
High school followed: no dates, no friends, no social life. I blamed my nose. Literature became my savior. I would escape into the classics, become a scholar, an author. I would find a job where looks did not matter. Still, books told me that ugly women were better off accepting a spectator role in life (War and Peace). They were sidekicks to the important characters (Pride and Prejudice) and lived a brutal existence (The Catcher in the Rye).
Unwilling to accept these fates, I thought about getting plastic surgery. I ran the idea past my mother, who went apoplectic: “God gave you that nose, and you should live with it!”
Her hysterical rages had long since ceased to have an impact on me. She threatened to kill my siblings and me almost daily, slapped us without provocation, and when outraged struck us (usually across the face) with the first blunt object she could lay her hands on. I ignored her and began saving money from a series of summer jobs. When I had enough, I made an appointment with a plastic surgeon.
I remained awake during the operation. As I felt the bulging, bony mass leave my face forever, joy surged through my sedated veins.
“Your nose was broken at some point,” the surgeon told me calmly. “I’m suctioning bone fragments now.”
In my early teens I thought I was pretty and found it a shame that I was the only one who realized it. I had long, frizzy hair parted in the middle, a freckled face, round glasses, and skinny limbs that occasionally earned me comparisons to Popeye’s cartoon girlfriend, Olive Oyl. To top it all off, the few articles of clothing I owned that hadn’t been chosen strictly on the basis of functionality and affordability were intended to communicate my rebellious spirit — which is another way to say they were unflattering.
But I wasn’t totally without admirers, and in high school I had a steady boyfriend, whose attention made me feel pretty the way I was. We were together for two years before he fell in love with someone else — a girl who styled her hair, bought trendy clothes, and wore makeup.
There was nothing quick and painless about our breakup. Twelve years later it remains one of the most painful experiences in my life. When I finally surfaced from the months-long misery, I cut off all my hair and traded my glasses for contact lenses. I lovingly folded my plaid shirts and stored them in the back of my closet, replacing them with girly tank tops. My friends covered their mouths and screamed when they saw me for the first time. People came to realize what I had known all along: that I was beautiful.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy my newfound power to pick and choose my boyfriends. The abundance of possible candidates briefly interfered with good judgment, but I soon learned that just because I could have a boy didn’t necessarily mean that I wanted him. What I wanted was someone who would like me even when I took out my contact lenses, put on my comfy sweats, and let my frizzy hair fly free.
It was a perfect June day: eighty degrees and not a cloud in the sky. I was lying on my front lawn daydreaming when my mother’s voice floated through the air: “Can you come inside for a minute?”
Here we go again, I thought. We’d had a fight the night before over my desire to wear makeup — “war paint,” my father called it. My mother’s feeling was that beauty wasn’t on the surface, so why bother? I was a teenager and just wanted to catch the eye of the new boy at school. Besides, all my friends wore makeup. I was still a little ashamed of the ugly things I’d said to my parents during the argument, but I wasn’t about to admit it. I hitched my chin up a little higher on the way into the house.
I found my mom and dad sitting hand in hand at the table. Worry creased my dad’s brow. I knew then that this had nothing to do with makeup.
I sat there feeling unable to breathe as my mother told me she had ovarian cancer. She’d been given an 80 percent chance of survival, she said, and could live many more years if the treatments were effective.
Wait a minute. What did she mean “could live”? Of course she could live: she was my mother. That’s what mothers do. All my friends’ moms were doing it!
It took only eight months for the cancer to ravage her body. During that time my father rarely left my mother’s side. He was her nurse when she got sick from the chemotherapy. He was her ambulance driver when she needed to be rushed to the hospital. And he was her best friend when she just needed someone to hold her hand.
During those eight months I came to understand what my parents had been trying to tell me about beauty. It wasn’t in the makeup we put on our faces or in the clothes we wore. It was in the way he looked at her, in the way he cared for her, and in the life they lived together.
I live on the West side of LA, where many people are consumed with how they look. I’m no exception. Once, I had a course of laser treatments on my face to remove sun damage. I fared fine for the first two treatments, but at session number three I had a severe reaction — so severe that my doctor summoned her nurse to come and slather me in cortisone cream before I left the office. My face was red and blistered as though I had been scalded. By the time I got home, the redness was turning brown. My husband was out of town, and I knew that it wouldn’t clear up before he returned the following evening.
On the night he was due back, I made sure to go to bed early and pretended to be asleep when he came to bed. The following morning I got up before him and went for a walk, returning after he’d left for work. I had lunch with a friend who confirmed that the burns on my face were still impressively awful. I decided to fess up.
My husband was furious and horrified in equal measure. I felt stupid, shallow, vain, and frightened that my face wouldn’t heal. He made me promise never to do anything like that again, and I agreed that I would steer clear of lasers in the future.
We didn’t discuss Botox, or fillers, or plastic surgery.
Last Thursday evening my husband returned from a twelve-day trip to Asia. While he was gone, I had taken it upon myself to have a little tweaking done under my eyes. The left side of my face was fine, but beneath my right eye was an angry purple bruise that hadn’t been improved by three subsequent visits to the dermatologist. The night my husband came home, I made sure that the lighting in our bedroom was low. I reapplied concealer to the bruise and waited in the semidarkness for him to come upstairs. When I hugged him, I buried my face in his chest. He suspected nothing.
Pacific Palisades, California
Mom was having a hard time dealing with her colostomy, so I came to her house prepared to spend the weekend with her. We went digging through her boxes of old photos, determined to get them organized and eventually into albums. The pictures of her as a young woman reminded me of how stunning she’d been. She’d resembled the actress Vivien Leigh, who’d played Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.
I asked about one photo in particular, of her and a young man in uniform. She said his name was Clyde, and they’d gotten engaged right before he went off to war. His plane had been shot down, and he’d been killed. That’s all she said, but it was clear that Clyde had been the love of her life. I looked back at those photos, eager to catch another glimpse of this deliriously happy woman I’d never known.
In the photos of me as a little girl, I wore handmade dresses of crinoline and pale colors that seemed to belong to another, more elegant era. The outfits were my mother’s creations. I recalled feeling mortified at being dressed up like some show poodle when I wanted to develop my own tastes. I suspect I was a disappointment to my mother, who still embraced the movie-star mystique and sat before her large-mirrored vanity every morning with her many creams, perfumes, and lipsticks.
We didn’t make much progress in getting the photos organized, but we did talk openly about the possibility — perhaps inevitability — of nursing care. By the time we went to bed, Mom didn’t seem quite so lonely or depressed about the colostomy. She cleaned the bag, as she had to every evening, and afterward the apartment reeked so strongly that I spent the night with my face right up against a screen window by the couch to breathe the fresh night air. I was reminded that night that she was not going to live forever.
When the weekend came to an end, I stood at the door to say goodbye. Mom reached her hands up to my face, and her eyes held mine for several long moments that felt outside of time. Something happened then. I’m not sure how to put it. I think it was a mutual recognition of each other’s beauty.
Several years ago I got lost in the woods while hiking. It was the day after Halloween, and a night of wind and rain had blown the remaining leaves from the trees, covering the trail. Before I knew it, I had wandered off-track and gotten lost. I was a long way from home, no one knew where I was, and the light was fading fast.
After a couple of hours of going in circles, I felt panic begin to rise in my gut, and my senses became remarkably sharp, as if to better enable me to deal with the emergency. The smell of the knee-deep fallen leaves seemed to permeate my whole being. I recall standing transfixed by the silhouettes of naked branches against the fast-moving clouds. It was as though I were seeing clouds and branches for the first time.
What happened next is that everything I had thought of as “my life” quietly ended, like a leaf dropping from a tree. There was no longer a “me” who was lost. There was only beauty. Everywhere. The whole natural world was aware of my presence, as though it had been expecting me. Everything was conscious and alive, even the rocks. I had the odd sensation of the sky, the world, the universe becoming my body. It didn’t feel like a mystical revelation but like a fact, ordinary and extraordinary at once. I knew then that there was nothing to worry about, never had been anything to worry about.
I found my way out of the woods just as the last rays of daylight faded. A rising half moon lit my way, and I made it home just in time for dinner.