Monday, September 26, 2011

On Beauty, Part Two

I remember it clearly. I was twenty, and I was driving across country to visit my parents. I had been driving since 5 am, and I stopped to get fast food for lunch. As I walked back to my car, a group of teenaged boys were sitting at a booth by the door. They looked me over, and I heard one of them declare to the guffaws of his friends, "Man, she is ugly. She is so ugly."

Even then, I understood what was happening. I knew that to childish and lonely boys, claiming to be an authoritative judge of women's beauty is a way of pretending you have choices in the matter. It was a pose, a pretense that women offered themselves to him regularly and he only accepted the extraordinary few.

But that did not keep me from believing him.

When I think about it now, I realize that I believed beauty, unlike character, was best judged by the people who knew me least. I had believed in the lie of "objective" beauty, that there exists a standard of loveliness that excludes love. Once you believe this, the fact that someone loves you means they have only unreliable opinions on your beauty. I saw love as an enemy of accurate perception,  which inevitably meant I believed I was seen most accurately when I was rejected most harshly.

The truth, on which I have only a tenuous hold, is that the people who love us see our beauty most clearly. I do not mean love fabricates beauty that isn't there. I mean love gives us new perceptions of realities we might, in other circumstances, be blind to. Love reveals, not masks.

Most parents know this. When we raise and cherish a child, the failure of their prospective romantic partners to recognize their unique beauty can cause us almost violent offense. It feels like a rejection of a profound and obvious truth. We have a thousand platitudes in response: you're better off without him; if she doesn't appreciate you, she doesn't deserve you, etc. This is not parental blindness; it is the full-spectrum vision of love.

I have been thinking about these things recently because of our fifteenth anniversary. After fifteen years of marriage, I think I am obligated to accept that my husband genuinely finds me beautiful. Isn't that a strange thing to say? I realized recently how many times I have dismissed his compliments as either a compassionate attempt to make me feel better when I'm low, or a practical plan for getting sex from the only person he's allowed. I have too often denied him credit for simply meaning what he says.

He has told me for fifteen years that my hair is beautiful, and I had supposed, without really thinking about it, that he said this because he preferred long hair and it was the only way to keep me from cutting it. But it dawned on me when looking at a snapshot the other day: no, he really thinks my hair is gorgeous. Like if he were daydreaming about the ideal woman, she would appear with thick, wild, long, curly hair. He loves my hair. He glories in my hair.

And if I reject that, if I insist on the self-lacerating misery of "I'm too fat," "I'm too short," "I'm too old," or whatever worried canker most appeals that day, I am telling him that his love makes him unreliable.

I cannot clutch my fears and wait for his assurances to overwhelm me. Marriage means letting go of fear so I can take the hand he holds out to me. Marriage means seeing him see me, and knowing I am beautiful.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

On Beauty, Part One

When I was eleven, I caught my sister smoking in her bedroom with her friends. We already knew she smoked, and my parents had leveled creative punishments in an effort to make her stop. I knew if I told my mom, the house would be filled with big stormy arguments and my sister would be in big, big trouble.

"Please don't tell on me, Veronica," she said, her eyes wide and pleading. "Please?"

My sister has beautiful eyes. Big and melting brown. I remember thinking, as I promised not to tell, that I would find it easier to reject her plea if she had beady little snake eyes.

Beauty is persuasive. It appeals to us. It moves us.

It has become normal in our culture to speak of beauty strictly in sexual terms (it's a greater compliment, apparently, to call someone "hot" than to call them beautiful), but, as significant as sex is, portraying beauty only in sexual terms trivializes its power. Beauty moves us in many ways that are not sexual.

I remember coming home from seminary once and catching my breath when I saw my mother. She and my dad had raised four kids, and seen the youngest leave for college and then get married. For the first time in twenty years, my mother could buy clothes for herself before she bought them for someone else. She wore a neatly tailored red dress that showed off her long, lean frame and short, dark hair, and she looked beautiful. I felt proud of how she looked. In its own way, that dress reflected well on  us kids: it meant we had grown up and learned independence and mom was free to take care of herself instead.

"My beauty is for my husband, " I have heard conservative women say, usually as explanation for a shapeless dress and unstyled hair. (And why the unstyled hair? Even if their sect teaches that women should not cut their hair - is lankness also a religious duty? I don't understand.) But they are wrong. They have accepted a sexualization that assumes the only response to beauty is desire. They are rejecting the way my sister's beauty moved me to pity (even if misplaced), or the way my mother's beauty moved me to gratitude.

The reality is that beauty is for everyone who looks on it. My children are beautiful, and the joy I take in their strong limbs and sparkling eyes has nothing to do with desire. Beauty is profligate; she offers herself to everyone who can see (and the blind too, who, I am sure, find beauty in the sounds and scents and touch of the people around them). I have prayed for a lonely friend, and been rewarded with the blush on her face after she has fallen in love. I have agonized with a sick friend, and been refreshed by the glow of good health in her skin after a successful round of treatment. Our eyes hunger for beauty, and few things bring us more joy than finding it.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Requisite Beginning-of-the-School-Year Complaint

My first grader and second grader have been in school for three weeks now. They have adapted to their new situations, mostly. I have not.

If I were to sum up everything I hate about the public school experience in only one word, it would be this: homework.

Our girls have had homework since kindergarten. Sometimes it can be done in twenty minutes. Other times it takes over an hour. Last night the first grader had double homework to make up for a missed sick day. It took us almost two hours to finish.

The kids get home around 4 pm. I make dinner. We eat together as a family. Then we read aloud as a family. Then there may be baths. Fitting homework into this evening means squeezing out something else important.

And like every other parent, I wonder, What do they do all day? Why can't they get this work done at school?

I hate homework because it requires me to organize my home life by the public school's schedule and priorities. I work hard to encourage my children to be lively, curious, intelligent people. Books are central to our family life. Every teacher the girls have had asks me at some point how I raise such smart, interesting kids. And the same teacher (because of school policy) assigns homework that interferes with my efforts. I do not think I should have to give up family reading time or shared meals or imaginative play so that my child can repeat on paper exercises she already did in school.

It is exasperating.