Sometimes words are used so often and so variably that I can’t decide if it’s awesome (there’s one of those words right there!) that their meanings have expanded to cover more terrain, or not awesome because their meaning has been irrevocably diluted.
Beautiful is one of those words.
Some people use it to crown everything they like with sparkly enthusiasm.
Some people only use it to refer to things that they perceive as breathtaking or unusually perfect: the very best example of that thing that you could possibly see.
Sometimes it’s a thing you look at: a beautiful sunset. A beautiful person. A beautiful flower.
Sometimes it’s experiential: A beautiful day. A beautiful song. A beautiful experience.
But it’s always subjective, always. Even if a whole bunch of people agree that something is beautiful, someone will not agree. Because beautiful is not the same as perfect, is not the same as exact, is not the same as balanced, is not the same as true.
It’s just beautiful.
And though I know it’s ubiquitous and audacious and emotional and biased, I’ve chased it.
I’ve prized it.
I’ve wanted it.
And I’ve fallen short of it, though where that measure lands is still a mystery.
To my parents, to my best friends, to the five year-old who has lovingly placed 35 barrettes in my hair, to people who open that word up like a whirlpool that should suck us all in, I am beautiful.
To my husband, I am beautiful, though I will question that in the most awkward way sometimes.
By total strangers, I’ve been told I was, once or twice or three times (though levels of sobriety and transactional need and mental illness have modified the impact, no doubt.) I say thank you and blush, or give a fierce side-eye… whichever is the right thing to do to keep me out of trouble or appreciate the gesture.
And by plenty of people, I’ve been told I am not. Not by using the word beautiful with “not” in front of it, but through impassioned antonyms, from “ugly” to “hideous” to “fat” (did you think “thin” was the antonym to that? Technically, yes. Out a car window as it passed me? No.)
Sometimes I’m told that part of me is beautiful, without any modifiers. Sometimes I’m told that part of me is beautiful, but with an unspoken modifier in place: face vs. body, perhaps.
All of this rigamarole around one word should have robbed it of meaning for me a long time ago. If it’s subjective and overused and arbitrary and impossible and unquantifiable, why should it matter?
But it does matter. Very much. Even when it shouldn’t or doesn’t or you don’t want it to, because like the word itself, I am arbitrary and impossible at times.
When I was younger, much younger, I had big eyes and a big smile on my giant lollipop head atop my reed-thin body, and high-contrast hair and eyes and cheeks and lips like a Technicolor Disney princess. My mother made me dresses that were better than whatever anyone else bought in a store (another arbitrary judgment, but I stand by that one.) I was in possession of confidence like a banshee on top of all this, having been told that I was beautiful and smart and capable from the moment I first took air into my lungs. You could tell me at the time that I wasn’t any of those things, but I had so much stimuli in the opposite direction that it would have been easy to brush you off.
And it’s not that I was the most beautiful child or the smartest child or the most extraordinary child, because I have no idea who that child is — certainly not me. I was sure of myself, though, and that’s all I needed to be. But I don’t think it manifested itself with arrogance, honestly — more effortlessness. I can half-remember it.
When everything changed in my teenage years, though, and the set of attributes that had most often garnered the use of the b-word were revoked with a vengeance, I stopped hearing that word from anyone but my family and my closest friends — family and friends who used it sometimes genuinely, and sometimes out of kindness. I knew which was which.
That’s another a point you could argue with me, I guess, but.
I was short and overweight with thin hair and crooked teeth and odd fingernails that turned up and a strange torso and mini arms and legs and a tendency to trip on things. Walking in heels was as awkward for me then as it is now.
The opposite of those things seemed to be what boys wanted, though I saw that you didn’t need to be the opposite of all of those things — just enough of those things that they found themselves unable to resist. Or maybe you just had to be confident.
When I would hear the people in my church-infused social circle talk about how “real beauty” was deep down inside of us, I would comfort myself with that notion: that I could choose or not choose to be beautiful on the inside. That I could work on it. That having a good heart and a good brain was as good as having a good face and body.
Then I watched the prettiest girls I knew get married first, unless they refused to for whatever reason, and that just resulted in men chasing them further. 22 year-old me had no perspective on why that was or how that worked, but mostly it just seemed like the whole inner beauty thing was, well… bullshit. Even the beautiful girls who were kind of atrocious, character-wise, were sealing that particular deal, in spite of themselves.
So… yep, bullshit.
And it didn’t help when the mother of one of my dear friends handed me this sage bit of wisdom when I was 28 or so: “You know what, there are two moments in a woman’s life where she is unquestionably beautiful: when she’s a bride, and when she’s becoming a mother.”
She said it because she figured those things would eventually happen to me like they happened to every woman she knew… or at least one of them did. Forget for a moment that there’s no guarantee of either and neither should be required, because I wasn’t in a place to absorb that at the time.
I was devastated.
I think there’s still a part of me that thinks it’s true: that my last shot at “beautiful” passed the Best Before date when I learned I was infertile, or when I went at the whole Getting Married thing without all the frills.
That’s just dumb, though. Why would I carry that around?
And honestly, why do I care about beautiful?
Why does it matter how often people do or don’t use a word to describe me?
Why don’t I let myself buy into the broader, deeper, kinder, wiser definition of beautiful that (not just) inspirational posters and women’s conferences and Dove commercials would have me adopt, but also utterly sane people I know and my WHOLE LOGICAL SELF?
Why don’t I stop rolling my eyes at my husband’s genuine, heartfelt compliments?
Why do I take pictures of myself from flattering angles, trying to convince the snarky voice inside of me that if people look at that picture and say, “Beautiful!”… that I am?
Why? Seriously, why?
Because THAT is the difficult thing about Beautiful.
Once you’ve told yourself you’re not, you will defend that truth more passionately than nearly anything else you hold to be true. You could say that’s just my experience, I guess, but it’s not.
Do I fight as hard to defend my loves, or my intelligence, or my skills, or my ethics, or my passions, or my sense of humor? Nope, because screw you if you think I’m lacking. I won’t even justify it. In fact, watch me mentally sashay in the opposite direction. Three snaps in a Z-formation.
Talk about my face, however, and okay, okay, you’re right. It’s too round and I have a lazy eye and two chins and blah blah blah.
THAT is bullshit.
Which is another thing we both know to be true. And something I need to get through my thick skull.
I’m one of those people who says, “Beautiful!” all the time. I’ve put that stamp on everything from a grilled steak to a cathedral ceiling to a newborn baby to a song to a dragonfly to a piece of fabric to an old woman to the smell of the ocean to a perfectly ripe peach.
But that profound ubiquity and willy-nilly-ness and generosity does not extend to me. You, definitely. Hell, even your socks.
I’m working on it.
It’s difficult. You might know that because you’re working on it, too.
But, deep down, just as sure as we know we need to work on it, we know it’s worth it.
Because the result of all that work?
Is a beautiful thing.