Fcuk Pretty

 

Coming out to my 91yo grandmother, that spring I first broke the news to her about dating a woman, did not proceed according to plan.

My mother’s mother took a long moment, squinting at me intently, before she spoke.

FP_madeup-eyes

“So…when are you going to lose the weight?”

I sputtered back incoherently, shifting quickly into defensive mode while still trying to confirm if she had heard and understood what I had said. But once begun, Gram was not to be dissuaded. From critiquing my body, she moved on to my brother’s, and then my brother’s wife. When her litany of complaints reached the circumference of my preschool niece’s thighs, I stood up to leave the room.

“I don’t understand what happened,” my grandmother’s querulous lament followed me. “You used to be so young and thin.

“You used to be pretty.” 

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This is not a story about living in a fat body, though I do and I could tell it. Nothing has felt so loud as flesh pressing out against my clothes, belly spreading across my seated thighs.

This is not a story about living in a thin body, either, though I have and I could tell it. Nothing has felt so fragile as bones emerging from flesh, the butterfly wing of my collarbone arching delicately below my throat.

This is a story about sight.

About the reclamation of seeing.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Living through the verdict of someone else’s eyes, we are always vulnerable.

Just before I met the man I would later marry, I lost a third of my body weight in six months. Lost it through the proverbially healthy “diet and exercise” approach, like pacing my kitchen floor at 2am, wondering do I dare to eat a frozen grape. Lost it with the prayerful wish never to find it again.

When my new lover spoke three magical words — “you are beautiful” — I wept.

I wept because what I heard him saying was, “you are pretty.”

I heard: You are finally thin enough to be pretty. Thin enough to be looked at.

Thin enough to belong.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The memory of that moment fuels my disgust with the Dove Real Beauty Sketches. Few designed-to-go-viral advertisements bother me more than these, which all build off the premise that every woman deserves to be told she is beautiful. (Which is mere stand-in for tell a woman she is beautiful — and she will buy your products.)

One of the best known of these advertisements is the 6-minute short, “You’re More Beautiful Than You Think.”

Perhaps you’ve seen it? A series of women sit down with their backs to a sketch artist, who then draws their faces according to the self-description each woman provides. Before she can see what he has crafted, however, the sketch artist does a second portrait, this time based off a description of the woman provided by another project participant. The grand reveal is meant to show how we are all more beautiful in the eyes of others than we let ourselves feel.

It’s not a horrid sentiment. It is, however, a horrid film.

All of the women are thin, conventionally attractive, and (with one exception) white. When asked “general questions” about the face of a woman they had met earlier, what word do they repeat again and again? “She was thin, so you could see her cheekbones.” “Her chin was a nice, thin chin.” “Her face was fairly thin.” 

Asked to evaluate her portraits side by side, how does at least one woman describe what she sees? Her self-description, she says, “looks closed off and — fatter. Looks just kinda shut down, looks sadder too. The second one is more beautiful.”  The whole commercial weeps even sappier tears than I had at my most grape-starved.

The word “beauty” used in this way is a lie, a trick. It is the brittleness of “pretty” dressed up in a mink coat.

Thin and pretty.

Thin as pretty.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I can gauge how “pretty” I look to my family by how they treat me. At my thinnest, my father will take picture after picture of me. “Our daughter looks like a supermodel!” he once exclaimed in an aside to my mother — then bought us all champagne at dinner. My mother herself later told me that when I had passed the bread basket without taking a slice, she nearly wept from joy.

On fatter visits, they buy me not champagne but coats. Fall jackets, full-length raincoats, woolen overcoats. The coats are black or otherwise drab: navy blue, mud brown, olive green. Shapeless and voluminous, always with a hood to hide my bulky face. The last time I wore a gift from my mother in the rain, a cabbie refused to unlock his taxi doors until I first flipped back the hood and showed him my lack of menace.

During a recent winter visit, I refused my mother’s repeated offers to buy me yet another of these shrouds, showing off instead the coat I had recently acquired for myself: fitted, no hood, blood red.

If anyone, relative or not, is going to avert their eyes from me in public?

I want to be sure they have first seen what they are looking away from.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

FP_raccoon-eyes
“Washing Up”

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Mine has never been a face one calls pretty. Nor have I much cultivated “pretty,” preferring to spend most of my adulthood somewhere on a continuum from “couldn’t be bothered” to “get out of my way.” I get angry, ugly haircuts that stylists occasionally refuse to perform, insisting that I see a barber instead or their coworker one chair over, who has less compunction about shaving a woman’s head to the felted length of putting-green grass.

I’m not sure what lies at the root of this: did I reject pretty, did pretty reject me? Did anger tempt me like forbidden fruit, or drive me forward with its drill instructor’s bark? Or maybe ugly simply felt like the safest travel companion, the only one of the lot that did not salivate at my approach but lumbered along in silence, grateful for whatever company I offered.

Nearly 20 years ago, I came across Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, a book that spoke to me less through its language and more through the images Halberstam had collected: faces and bodies actively rejecting the terms I was wrestling.

Forget pretty, forget ugly, transmute angry.

[Beauty, though. That still shone through, spirit revealed through certain electric crackles in the eye or set of the jaw.]

A pair of photos by Catherine Opie haunted me. One, a delicate woman’s back with the word “DYKE” tattooed in ornate font across her neck; the other, the back of the photographer herself, with two stick figures and a child’s drawing of a house cut into her skin and bleeding. Why these two photographs?

Perhaps for all the days home feels carved into my back also, even as longing is painted across my face.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

FP_selfie-series
“Self Portrait as Quadruplets”

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I did not remain thin long, after getting married. The reacquisition process common to human metabolisms, in part, and also the fear that arose from living in a thin-pretty body, unprotected. Beneath their tender sheath of skin and muscle, my bones felt mere porcelain — one swift drop and they would shatter. Or perhaps the porcelain was my flesh itself, awaiting its own moment to break into pieces.

Nor have I returned to thin, five years after my divorce.

This fact distresses my mother immensely. We tried to discuss the issue once, each of us stepping carefully through our words as if they were landmines, both of us as reluctant to blow the other up as ourselves.

“I love you so much,” my mother explained, “that when I look at you, all I can feel is how that fat must feel. It must be so uncomfortable. I feel so uncomfortable, looking at you and loving you like I do.”

As I tried to explain how it seemed the furthest thing from loving, to tell me she feels physically unwell every time she looks at me — as I tried to suppress the shuddering desire to eject my mother from her imagined donning of my flesh, my body is not a coat for you to wear — I looked into her sad, stony face and knew no explanation could reach her. She needed this to be true; she needed this to be how a mother loves her only-and-precious daughter.

A quiet echo in my head: “So…when are you going to lose the weight?”

My mother hurts my feelings the same way her mother for so long hurt hers. She loves me the same way, too: just as she herself was mother-loved.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Motion swells. Emotion swells.

Hearts can swell with pride or love. Bellies swell with new life. Music swells to its climax, and a swelling river overflows its banks. Swelling waves threaten arctic sea ice.

Swollen is the leftover and the damage. Swollen and bruised. Swollen ankles. The swollen rhetoric of a bombast.

“Your face looks the same as always, only swollen,” a long-time friend remarks on my continued weight gain of the past few years, then pops a hand over her mouth, abashed by what she has just said aloud.

“Yes. I look mostly the same,” I nod in soothing agreement.

The same, only not swollen. Swelling. 

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I began trying to photograph myself at the start of this year, after several years of not only not taking selfies but also forbidding others from capturing my face.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I captured fragments instead: one ear, the top of my head or the curve of my gut, the healing scar on my left leg. Anything but what made me not-pretty: what made me enough to turn my mother ill.

I last communicated with my mother on Valentine’s Day. While I ache each day to hear her voice, I will no longer make myself available to a love unable to distinguish between feeling hurt and causing hurt, between feeling shame and being shameful. Between her body and mine.

I hope one day we can repair the rift between us.

In the meantime, I have begun taking selfies.

FP_mirror
“Selfie Reflection”

“Fcuk Pretty” is part of an ongoing memory project. 
The entire series can be found here.

427 thoughts on “Fcuk Pretty

  1. I know a little about how you feel. I’m schizophrenic, and about 10 years ago I was going through a very traumatizing break up when I left my very abusive mate. He had often made comments to me that I was unattractive and belittle me. I had also started cutting myself and had carved UGLY in big capital letters on my wrist. Well, I went through a time saying to GOD to stop me from ever dating again. Something came to me and asked would I be ugly (I know this sounds unbelievable and yes I do have mental issues but every bit of it is true). Of course I didn’t not want to be ugly but it didn’t matter. I was absolutely tortured with voices and emotional disturbances which literally told me “YOUR UGLY!” Torturous and debilitating it went on literally 24 hours a day and still does to this day. In ten years time I have 2 huge holes in my hair (2 more than I had), my skin is constantly breaking out on and off and I swell from head to toe and doctors don’t know why. I’m probably bringing you down so I’ll stop writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing some of your own story with me, kestee. I have some slight familiarity of my own with the horror of psychosis, and with hearing voices we can neither control nor shut off — please know that you have my deepest sympathies and admiration for how you are surviving.

      I accept your story humbly and with gratitude. And I say to you in return: You do not deserve what the voices tell you, you did not deserve what your former partner did to you, and you do not deserve to feel tortured in your own body. You are valuable and unique, just as you are. I hope that someday you come to see yourself as you truly are: a being made of light, who shines in the darkness. I wish that for both of us, in fact.

      best wishes, alice

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just read your comment just now. THANK YOU! I needed someone to say this to me today. Especially with what’s happening to me now. I feel very low and have spent a lot of my day today on frustration and tears.
        In 20 years of this, the only person who’s ever said this to me is my son. I miss nice people and am glad to meet you.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad to have stumbled along your blog. Your courage and candor is refreshing, something that I’ve been struggling to maintain since I started blogging.

    Fuck pretty. Fuck society’s hold on us and our little girls. Fuck my own life long struggle with eating disorders and body dismorphia.

    Fuck the constant desire to be accepted and told I’m pretty, a desire that is so deeply implanted it sometimes seems to be the foundation I’m built on.

    And at the same time, fuck how the image I’ve cultivated, somehow, to some, makes me lesser of a person: a mask that can’t be removed to reveal the real person underneath.

    In short, thanks for this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. and my thanks back to you, Shipwreck! we are all on this journey together, whether we fully recognize it or not — all learning to own our own truths, to forge our own values, to honor our own strengths.
      thank you for this reminder that I am not alone either.❤ alice

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My mother-in-law was disgusted by fat. She once bought me a full length mirror and told me it would help if I saw the whole picture. As she declined and her body lost its beauty she was sadden by her lifelong attack at my size. I thought that seeing her genuine regret might have pleased me somehow. But surprisingly it saddened me to have this once vain woman suffer. We were very close in her last months. Once the burden of the superficial was gone we were free to enjoy each other. I miss her always. And I will alway be fat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Rosie, how touching. That story ended up in a *completely* different place than I expected. Your MIL’s decline and regret saddens me too, and I am moved to hear how close you become in her final days. What a gift for you both, in the midst of such loss.
      alice❤

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  4. It’s a shame that your family can’t except you for who you are and the wonderful writing talent that I have been fortunate enough to experience through your blog post. Continue sharing your struggles and victories. Keep writing. I’ll keep reading! There are many who would not allow us to be ourselves, having lost their identity to the unrealistic expectations of others. However, when you finally claim yourself, kissing off unnecessary labels, shattering the glass ceiling of sexism and shedding the mold of Stepford wife femininity, the war with your self-esteem is won.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is most definitely unreasonable, any time someone else holds an expectation of us that we do not hold for ourselves. The best thing — the _only_ thing — we can do is to find ourselves amidst the noise, cling tight to that Self, and never waver.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Alice. I feel less alone now that I know others experienced the same things I went through. My mother says she loves me, and I know that in her own way she does, but I have never felt like she accepted me. That’s all I’ve ever wanted from my family, but I have to come to terms with the fact that to them, I’ll never be anything more than that stupid little fat girl. They don’t know me at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear my writing helped you. This is the power of personal stories, I believe — shining light into lonely spaces, reminding us all that we are not in our pain alone.❤

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  6. >>“I don’t understand what happened,” my grandmother’s querulous lament followed me. “You used to be so young and thin. “You used to be pretty.” <<
    Exactly what my grandmother (86) tells me pretty much every time there's a familial gathering. And she wonders why I like to keep my distance. I'm really not into her spouting all that toxic bullshit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some family is just toxic. Whether or not their intent is to be hurtful doesn’t change the fact that it IS. Good for you for setting (and keeping!) the limits you need for your own health and sanity!

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  7. Thank you! Beautiful writing by a beautiful person. You have said so eloquently what I feel and have never been able to express in words.
    I have emotionally distanced myself from my mother for those very same reasons. People who don’t meet her standards of outward appearance are not worthy of her love and respect.
    I am FAT. I willingly ‘let myself go’ instead of holding my body in rigid self-inflicted control. I do not want to be ‘pretty’. I want to be ME!
    I will forfeit mother-love for the right to be my own person.
    Thank you for sharing your feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And thank YOU for sharing yours! I am sorry for the pain of what you have experienced — but glad to hear my words helped you express it for yourself.

      “You” sounds awesome. I’d definitely choose to be her, if I were you…😉

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  8. Your skin is beautiful; the shape of your face is beautiful; your hair is beautiful; your eyes are deep and emotionally connected. Your mother’s love (read acceptance) is not required for you to love yourself. See the truth of the world through your eyes, not the eyes of the ones who judge. Be not the judge of others (do not become your mother, or her mother), but open the words to others who need to hear the words that are not pretty, but make them feel connected.
    I think you are beautiful, in the way you look, in the way you say your words, in the way you have connected to people who have shared (some will still feel) those feelings of rejection for not being ‘acceptable’ – you’re right: f*@k pretty!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really is, isn’t it. When everyone’s body is constantly changing — and surely physical appearance is the least significant aspect of what makes each of us who we are!

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  9. So much to reply to here. Rather a whole life of unpacking.
    Nicely done.
    My family (gosh I love my family) have always been supportive while I swung through my extremes. Yes it’s always extremes. They would especially my father and grandmother would make comments at either side of my rollercoaster of body dysmorphia and the accompanying eating disorders/habits. My family rather went with it, I never viewed their input as hurtful, just out of love and concern.
    Yes on can shop in my closet.
    Now all this being said.
    I don’t think by reading this fantastic post that your family ever meant to be hurtful, hateful or packed with judgement but as with my own family only spoken out of concern and love.
    Still unpacking…
    I think the key to this is your own (our own) journey of self acceptance, learning to love ourselves enough to make ourselves feel worthy of being loved for exactly what we are, how we are, when we are at any given moment. But I know that’s an on going battle that has to happen constantly…
    There is so much to unpack here but this was my first thoughts.
    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Quite true: the path to self-acceptance is a journey each of us must take for ourselves. I’m glad my writing felt meaty to you, and inspired your own thinking. Thanks for reading, and thank you for your comment!🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I wrote so much and kept trying to edit it down. It boiled down to that your post is spot on and I can’t imagine a woman in the world hasn’t felt at least some of what you described. Pretty is at best highly overrated and turns ugly real quick when the inside isn’t on par.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad this post spoke to you — and so glad you told me so! I’ve been so gratified at how it’s been received. Far too many of us out there, feeling far too bad about ourselves.

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        1. Welcome to the blogosphere, then!🙂 Took me awhile to find what worked and felt right for me, too. Including a commitment to responding to everyone who comments — normally a much smaller task than I had with this particular post!

          Blogging, for me, is in large part about making connections. So if someone takes the time not only to read my work, but then to let me know it meant something to them? Writing back to say thanks seems very appropriate!🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Thank you! That is quite a commitment especially in posts with such a strong response but it’s a noble one. No need to reply again or it will be like an episode of Seinfeld and may never end until you want me dead. 😂 I may take a leaf out of your book and attempt the same, but I don’t suspect getting quite this hefty a response ever either. Lucky me to have found your blog on here so early in the game! ✨

          Liked by 1 person

  11. Tune out all the criticism ( negative ones) . I know it’s easier said than done , especially whem it’s coming from your mum. But challenges make us grow and adversities make us stronger. And you’ll emerge stronger and self assured than ever ☺

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  12. I have a deeply rooted adoration of everything coffee. We have a lot in common, we should chat sometime soon. 💙💜💛💚 you’re absolutely beautiful, with a fierce spirit. Keep up the good work! Following.

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  13. Alice, I love this so much! I too have horrible body image! I know that I so not see myself as others do. I too have parents that are critical of me, not my body really but all that I do. I tend to see beauty in everything and everyone but myself and I want to change that. I do agree with you about those commercials though. It is just to make money, however, I do that their believe campaign it right all women have a beauty, even you and I we just have to learn to see it in yourselves as we do others. Thank you so much for the inspiration!

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    1. I’m so glad this piece spoke to you! It can be hard to find our own inner voices and love, especially when it sometimes feels like our families and the media are ganging up to keep us from seeing how fabulous we each are, just as we came.❤

      Liked by 2 people

  14. I enjoyed this, and I look forward to following your journey. A co-worker said “I don’t want to get old” after hearing me complain of hot flashes. I thought that odd since you can’t stop aging, and the alternative is death. I say embrace every year of your life, whether you be pretty or ugly, or thin or fat. I, too, have been all of these.🙂

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    1. Putting so much stock in how your body looks or behaves at any one point in time IS pretty naive and limiting, isn’t it, given how much everyone’s body changes? And how constantly.

      Welcome to the journey! Glad to have you along.🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  15. What is beautiful on a woman is what shines from within. Your journey of acceptance is very powerful and I’m sure taken a lot of courage. It is my wish too that one your mother will realize the true meaning of beautiful and know that you are. Thank you.

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  16. I go through the same minus the mother part. I have gained so much weight past couple of months. It was hard for me to take pictures with my friends but I do take selfies. I have come to realise that if that fat is not causing you any health problems, then it’s absolutely fine. I’m working out when I have free time. May I suggest you the same? 😀 Love you.

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      1. The worst thing about ‘Fat-shaming’ is that it is done under the guise of concern and good advice. To be ashamed of the body we’ve been given or acquired along the way is the worst shame we could ever feel, because there is no escaping reality, the mirror, or even photographs. And the pity in people’s eyes is the worst. It takes a lot to love our body with all that it endures, to hell with the others if they make you think otherwise. Stay beautiful, within and without for you are truly beautiful, popular opinion be damned.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh yes — I HATE that faux concern too. Makes me want to ask if they’ve also read up on the negative health outcomes related to feeling shamed, seeing as how “deeply concerned” for my overall health and well-being they so clearly are! [/sarcasm]

          Liked by 1 person

  17. I’ve been sprinting, crawling, backtracking, and sometimes wandering aimlessly through a particularly difficult piece on accepting that “fat” and “pretty” are not mutually exclusive… I took a break and this was the first post to show up on Reader. I loved every word of Fcuk Pretty and have come away feeling energized and ready to cross the finish li- wait, that sounds too athletic – ready to finish writing, yeah, that’s it. I’m excited to see more of your work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you for letting me know that — I adore the serendipity of writing that we come across seemingly at just the moment that we need them. [I don’t truck with ideas of fate and destiny, generally speaking, but I do believe that words can draw eyes in an almost alchemical way.]

      I’m excited to see what your piece becomes, too. If you wouldn’t mind leaving me a link-back here when/if you post it? I’m a bit overwhelmed with new followers/followees just at the moment (in the wake of this post getting “discovered,” so to speak), and am likely to miss things on other blogs.

      best, alice❤

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