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.