Beautiful, Girly, and Other Words What Disconcert
An uber-femme gayboi arrives at the home of his lesbian best friend, to prepare for a night out. Before they leave, he primps and preens, even rummages through her things in search of glitter gel. (He clucks with disapproval when she explains she doesn’t own such things.) Out on the town, some asshats harass him for his self-expression, and his face falls. He asks, “Am I… ugly?’
“No,” she says. “You’re beautiful.”
This scene — from an unpublished story a friend brought to a writing workshop years ago — has stuck with me for nearly a decade. I think often of the beautiful gayboi and those who resemble him, men whom I’ve loved and wanted to love, protected and wanted to protect. I think also of the girl at the story’s heart, a girl not unlike the friend who wrote it: fantastically, comfortably masculine, disgusted at the thought of owning glitter.
This boy who craves beauty; I seem to always have his back. I rush to his defense when he’s a five-year-old, getting his nails painted in a J Crew ad and when he’s a seven-year-old ballerina in the Halloween parade. I defend him when he’s a cheerleading middle-schooler. When he’s elected to his high school prom court, I applaud his right to own that tiara. I cling to the right of the boys in my life to pursue beauty.
So. Why do I dismiss it for girls?
Why do I cringe when I see the disproportionate amount of pink in my niece’s closet? She’s adorable in pink, just as she’s adorable in red, in blue, in brown. The pink alone unsettles me. I worry about the sparkles and the sequins; I encourage her love of books and downplay her love of dolls. I relentlessly retell stories of her — the time she held a rattle to her eye and declared it a periscope, the time she cut paper into “chicken salad” to feed a hungry monster — yet I somehow skip over the plastic baby constantly crooked in her arm. I would be decidedly more comfortable if her baby brother were to study ballet, learn gymnastics, or try his luck on the pageant circuit than I’d be if she did the same. I’d be quicker to offer him make-up tips — (provided I had any). I’d squirm less applying his eyeshadow.
I’d protect girliness in my nephew. Yet, I discourage it in my niece.
The Tiny People have a way of making baggage blatantly obvious. I cut myself some slack on this one, knowing that — in large part — my stress over the pinkification of my niece’s world is a desire not to see her horizons limited. In this sense, it cuts both ways. When I see my nephew boxed into masculinity at the tender age of 21 months, I want to rip that box back open, hands and teeth. I want to counterbalance the social pressures on niece and nephew alike. I want my nephew to carelessly pull on a tutu, tenderly comfort a doll. I want my niece to love (and wear) all colors. So, I defend her right to have more than appearance, to have intellect, humor, and athleticism. I defend her right to more.
Still, I worry. I worry that “more” will default into “instead.” I worry I’m teaching her to make the same bargain I spent too many decades making: don’t be beautiful. Be smart. Be funny. Be kind. Don’t be beautiful. Be talented. Be creative. Be loud. Don’t be beautiful. You’re so much more than that.
That “more” — far more often with my niece than with my nephew — morphs unpleasantly into “except.” Be all of these things, so you won’t be that. Be all of these things in case, some day, you need a fall-back. My niece puts this thinking to shame every time I see her; she effortlessly integrates her inner and outer marvelousness. Instantly, she reminds me how thoroughly her humor, creativity, and smarts infuse her giant smile, her ripe cheeks. She challenges the notion that “beauty” is something we trade in for more worthwhile qualities. My niece reminds me that “more” means the full deal, the all that and the bag of chips.
I do not remember being my niece’s age. I ever-so barely remember being comfortable with how I looked, comfortable in my body, comfortable with myself as a girl (and a beautiful one). Pretty and girly — words forever intertwined for me — are words I still struggle, daily, to understand I can claim, as much as I want, in any of the ways that appeal. That struggle confirms for me how little we solve by dismissing beauty. It confirms that there’s a difference between believing you have the right to walk down the street without make-up and believing you fail somehow by wearing it. There’s a difference between insisting you can wear a tuxedo to prom and feeling like a poser in the dress. There’s a difference between proclaiming that you don’t have to be beautiful and believing you aren’t.
I stand by every statement I’ve made about the need for beauty to not be required, constrained, or appropriated to cause harm. But I also stand for our rights to be beautiful, to feel beautiful, and even to pursue beauty. Femininity, fashion, beauty — these things are not inherently bad. The demand for them can devastate certainly. But the demand that they be abandoned, as superficial or unachievable goals– that, too, can harm.
The last time my niece was in town, she played happily with her reflection in a hotel mirror. After a few minutes, I walked up behind her, wrapped her in my arms and asked, “Who’s that beautiful girl?” She replied immediately. “That’s me, Mayee!”
Her certainty sticks with me. I expect — like the scene from the unpublished story — it will stay with me for some years.
So, yes- I want this girl to be smart and political, deep and well-read. But I also want her to hold onto that assurance, to claim — and be allowed — the beauty I’d so readily hand to her brother. I want this for myself as well. If I can’t remember feeling the confidence she shows, I demand my right to learn it from her. I demand the right for all of us to claim in ourselves the sparkly, the pink, the princess, and the queen.
This post was created as part of the Self-
Discovery: Word by Word series. For
more marvelous posts on “beauty” —
keep an eye on this month’s host blog,