Beautiful. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “generally pleasing” or “exciting aesthetic pleasure.” Synonyms include “attractive,” “appealing,” “delightful,” “ravishing,” or “stunning.”
Personal addendum: beauty is also commonly used to enforce hierarchies, perpetuate toxic standards of attractiveness, and sexualize women without their consent.
Growing up in a predominantly white / Asian neighborhood, I acutely felt the weight of not living up to the traditional beauty standard of having light skin. When you hear comments your whole life about how brown your skin is and what you should avoid to keep from becoming darker in order to be prettier, you learn quickly that the shade of your skin is something to be self-conscious about.
At one point, a neighborhood kid—someone I called my friend—told me on our school playground that he didn’t want to play with me because I was too dark. And so I started to learn that having dark skin was an offense that meant you weren’t quite as good as other people. Slowly, it begins to seep in that the color of your skin is something you should apologize for.
I also began to hate anything that pointed out how different I was from the people I saw on TV or in magazines. When a friend pointed out how my smile made my nose flatten and “disappear,” I was mortified and hurt by the teasing that followed. I spent some time futilely trying to make my nose more pointed by pinching it, before eventually giving up. When someone commented on how small my eyes were, I started looking up tips on how to make my eyes seem bigger.
When puberty hit, those things no longer seemed an issue. Instead, I was now being called “beautiful” by all different people. At the same time, my shorts were suddenly too short, my skirts were too revealing, my shirts were too tight. My girl friends refused to introduce me to boys they liked. I had no idea how to reconcile my self-image as a person no one would be romantically interested in with these comments about my body, the sudden distrust of my female friends, and my family insisting I needed to be covered up when it had never mattered before.
When I was sixteen, a family member, not blood-related, touched me inappropriately. We were in the living room, waiting for the rest of my family to come in from the garage, when the conversation took a strange turn. Suddenly we were talking about my body and how nice it was as his fingers brushed the curve of breasts, hips, and ass. I froze, terrified and unsure what I should do, as my senses screamed that this was wrong, he was too close, he shouldn’t be touching me like this. Luckily, someone came through the door a few seconds later and he stepped away from me, so casually, as if nothing had happened.
Later that evening, when I was ordered to walk him to his car, the fear came rushing back, but I was also too scared to refuse. As we neared his car, I turned, faced him, and said if he ever tried to touch me like that again I would punch him in the face. I’m not sure if my voice actually shook as I mustered up my courage or if it was the feeling of my knees shaking, but he apologized and said it would never happen again.
I turned and ran back to the safety of my room. When the deadbolt slammed home, I sank to the ground and called my mom, trying not to cry and terrified she wouldn’t believe me. Luckily, she did. And so did the other people she told. But she didn’t tell the person closest to him, because, as she explained it to me, they were worried she would take his side over mine and blame me. When another family member told me “that’s what you get for wearing tight clothes,” I fought back and told them it didn’t matter what I was wearing, that kind of behavior was inexcusable and shouldn’t be blamed on me, and I stormed back into my room.
No one spoke of it afterward.
But the scars stayed. Even though I had declared so vehemently what I knew to be true, I remember the deep, abiding sense of shame and fear of what had happened and how my body had been “the cause.”
There was another time, when I was traveling with my teammates at an out-of-state tournament, when one of my guy friends blew up at me because I was unsure of my feelings toward him. After I left to keep an appointment with some other friends, I started receiving a barrage of hurtful, hateful texts calling me a flirt, insinuating I was a slut, telling me that other people were right when they called me a tease. When I read them, I broke down and cried for hours because I never thought someone who I thought knew me so well could say such horrible things—could use all of my insecurities, vulnerabilities, and secrets laid bare and weaponized against me because he was angry I had told him “no.”
I had never felt so alienated, alone, and heartbroken as I did that night, trying to find a deserted corner of the hotel where no one I knew would be able to see me cry as more and more texts came in. I called my best friend and told him what happened between gut-wrenching sobs. And I was afraid to go back to my shared hotel room where I would have to face the people who had told him those things in the first place.
There have been so many other instances, moments that repeat until they build a lifetime of experiences: all the times when I felt threatened by men who approached me with “You’re so beautiful,” or “Hey gorgeous,” with that proprietary tone in their voice, when my “no’s” have gone unheard, ignored, and dismissed, when I have been touched without permission or consent. I learned that my body was something to be ashamed of: a source of harassment and hurt and unwanted sexualization. But I didn’t even know I’d learned it until a friend casually mentioned how he and another mutual friend had noticed how I tried to play down my curves, but that it didn’t work. I was stunned. I hadn’t realized how deeply the idea that I shouldn’t draw attention to my body had seeped into my mind. I disliked wearing anything that emphasized my breasts. I had felt uncomfortable buying my first pair of skinny jeans because I thought they drew too much attention to my hips.
As a woman of color, as a Filipina-American, there are so many conflicting narratives about beauty and what it means that, often, the nuances get lost in the telling. We strive to be beautiful because society has taught us we should be, but our beauty does not belong to us. It has taken me years to realize how deeply ingrained it is in our society for women to hate their bodies. We are told over and over again we are not beautiful the way we are: from the color of our skin to the shape of our nose to the curves of our hips. We are simultaneously too much and too little, not quite the right shape or size. Or else our beauty is fetishized, found “foreign” and “exotic.” Our looks are subsumed into narratives of colonization, race, and sexualization. We cannot own our bodies because other people own them first.
I was taught that the color of my skin somehow made me “less” because darker skin was not considered beautiful. I was taught that my body was not my own because other people’s perceptions, criticisms, and attention came first. When I got sexually harassed, it was my fault because I drew their attention by being “beautiful” or “sexy” or simply having curves. I have learned that usually when a man calls me beautiful, it is because he wants something from me. I have learned that somehow I am showing off by complaining. I have been told so many times, even by other women, that I should feel gratified by this attention, as if I am ungrateful for feeling threatened when a man approaches me and sexualizes me against my will.
But realizing those things has also given me the ammunition to replace them with other, more radical ideas of self-love, acceptance, and rebellion against these pervasive beliefs. It took years of effort, trying to find aspects I liked, before I could honestly look at myself and think, “I look pretty the way I am.” I remember texting one of my friends what had happened and her response was a blasé, “Of course you are. I could have told you that.” But that day marked a huge milestone for me: the beginning of claiming my reflection as being good enough, not for others’ attention or opinions, but for myself. I had begun the revolutionary process of reclaiming my body as my own and no one else’s.
Now, I have reached the point where I can look at the mirror and smile at my own reflection. And I am proud of the way I look, but even prouder of how I can practice a kind of radical self-love that fights against everything society has told me is unlovable or negative about my body.
For all the years I spent learning to hate myself, there are still so many more in which I want to grow in love and self-love for all the people who were taught that their bodies were not meant for them to nurture, take care of, and feel comfortable in. See, the thing is, I don’t need external validation to be content in the way I look. I don’t need strangers or acquaintances to tell me I’m beautiful, as if somehow telling me is a boon. I don’t care if other people call me beautiful because I don’t need their opinion of my physical appearance. I’d rather be complimented for how I live than how I look.
I am tired of being told that I cannot be comfortable in my own body. I am tired of dealing with what society tells me is “sexy” or “exotic.” And I am tired of men using the word “beautiful” as leverage in their quest for sexual gratification. I do not owe anyone any aspects of my body, from my smile to my skin to my sexuality. I refuse to engage in and perpetuate the colonial rhetoric that tells me my body is not good enough unless someone else wants it sexually. I refuse to let my personhood be dependent on misogynistic narratives of race and sexuality. And I refuse to let my life be one where other people’s recognition of and opinions about my body dictate how I live, work, and love.
The hashtag trends. A status, copied and pasted, is shared: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Soon, the status is altered – “women” becomes “people” to be more inclusive. Depending on your platform, depending on your connections, sometimes the message is simple. Sometimes people customize with a personal story, an identifying detail. Some are explicit. Some call out names. A spreadsheet circulates, disappears, and reappears. A blot of mold blooms. The stomach roils.
Amidst the outpouring of #MeToo, some women begin to talk about why they don’t hashtag, why they don’t share. Even though they are in the #MeToo (who isn’t, they wonder?) – what does or doesn’t count as serious enough to stand up and claim your space? One woman writes in to an advice column that #MeToo is triggering, an additional reminder of her rape everywhere she goes. Some people are private about certain parts of their lives, and even a cause like #MeToo isn’t likely to fundamentally change the way they use social media, especially with a part of their lives they’ve held soft and dear, cocooned close, and told very few.
In fairy tales, the wolf is never really a wolf, and no matter what he says, “hungry” isn’t quite what he means. If a man kisses you when you’re sleeping or dead, he thinks you’re beautiful and you’re meant to be together. If you want love, give up your voice for legs: you can either call out, or run – but not both. Who needs either anyway . . . it looks like a handsome prince is headed your way. Perhaps fairy tales are an archaic and covert version of #MeToo.
In my novella, Girling, girls grow up in the contemporary world, but the narrative is undergirded with a reflexive use of fairy tales. They navigate their own desires, but those wishes and dreams have been planted, dusted into the characters’ psyches by the world-as-it-is. The two main characters, Kate and Ann, best friends and almost-sisters, meet wolves and princes and try to discern which is which; they are disobedient girls, and princesses, and evil stepsisters all at once. Kate and Ann realize that fairy tales re-tell these same stories over and over; the hardest part is becoming a queen, which is why there are so few fairy tales that tell a story after marriage –they’ll learn this too.
In one chapter of the novella, Kate and Ann are spending an adolescent summer in Acapulco. They are both fourteen, the time of transformation. Sirens appear. Multiple versions of The Little Mermaid appear. Older Kate intrudes with a line from Eliot. Older Ann’s husband appears to rush around trying to show Kate a manatee. In that summer of fourteen, Kate is exploring her transformation to womanhood, wishing childhood would be quickly done. She’s snuck a bikini into her luggage (something her father wouldn’t allow her to wear at home) – and when they visit the resort hotels, she escapes to the bar and pretends she belongs there. Ann holds on a little more tightly to the child she still is, not quite ready to shed that potentially protective skin. Ann is also protected by her unwillingness to be seen, a glamour of awkwardness. Kate thinks she finds a Prince, but ends up on a pebbled beach, with an insistent frog who never turns into the stuff of young girls’ dreams. Later, Kate will try to tell her mother about this: about desire and shame and what’s she’s learned about their twining.
Kate would be hashtag conflicted. She would worry that her experiences aren’t serious enough for a #MeToo. Sure, there was that thing when she was little, but they were both kids really, so does that count? Sure, there was that thing when she was fourteen and he didn’t listen when she said No, but they were pretty close and maybe he didn’t hear her, or couldn’t stop? There was another time that would absolutely count, but nothing happened in the end, because . . . well, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Anyway, she’s fine. She’s lucky really. She worries more about Ann’s daughter, Luna; she worries about her.
I’ll be teaching contemporary women’s literature this spring, and I’m preparing my book order: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once upon a River.
I was talking with a colleague the other day, and he asked if I ever give a trigger warning for this class. These three novels all have at their center the rape of a child; the last time I taught this class, on the first day, I pointed that out to all the students. I told them why I chose these novels, why we needed to talk about these issues, and that I completely understood if they wanted to drop the class. That was a few years ago, the season of #YesAllWomen.
My colleague said, “But it’s a women’s literature class – do you really have to tell them you’ll be addressing the lives of women?”
It was Campbell’s Once upon a River that inspired me to write fiction in the first place, to try my hand at storytelling, moving from the forms of poetry, from the lyric and episodic, to the narrative.
In River, I met Margo Crane, a young female protagonist who survives, who stakes out on her own, learning to make her own way in the dangerous world, negotiating beast-men who could be alternatingly kind and cruel. If a woman’s love can turn a beast into a man, the tales suggest the opposite is also true. In that women’s literature class, I asked students to trace the underpinnings of fairy tales that moved through Margo’s story.
When my best friend, Carmen, to whom Girling is dedicated, had her daughter, I was driving in the car with her and her husband. They were talking about something – clothes, or toys, decorations, readying for her birthday party, and I was reading Cristina Bacchilega’s Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. “‘Girling’is a continual process,” I said, looking out the window, their baby asleep in the car seat. Her husband looked at me blinking; Carmen laughed a little – I was always saying things like that, apropos of nothing it seemed. Later, I tried to explain. Girling is my fuller attempt to explain.
At the end of that women’s literature class, I asked students to reflect on the three novels we’d read together. The class was mostly women, only a few men. The women allowed as to how they’d been glad to read all three novels, Allison especially, although that had been a difficult read. A necessarily difficult read. It was beautiful and brutal. The men were mostly quiet in this discussion. During that season of #YesAllWomen, a hashtag had answered back: #NotAllMen.
In this season, some have begun to use #HowIWillChange to respond to #MeToo. Many men have pledged to call out harassment, to challenge sexist jokes, to demand better of their friends, to listen when women tell their stories. The hope is that #MeToo isn’t just a conversation among women, because we’ve been having that conversation for a very long time. Perhaps someone –some friend, brother, father, beloved (whether he imagines himself a prince, dwarf, or beast) saw a woman he cared about post #MeToo and thought: I had no idea. Really? Her? Her Too?
As for Girling, I hope some friends, brothers, fathers, beloved princes, and beasts will read the book. They may find themselves there.
A spreadsheet that circulated online for a very short time, that named names, that filled in details ranging from harassment to assault, that warned about men to be wary of, to avoid, that utilized the clean formatting of cells and color-coding, as a kind of organized and efficient clarion call, has had its original maker named. Moira Donegan named herself because she had to – because rumors had begun that she would be named, because she received a call from a fact checker, calling to check the “fact” that she created the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet.
It was true, sort of. The original spreadsheet began with her, but it became something much more than her work. As it was online for only a few hours, anonymously, and as it was a crowdsourced document, the work became a collaborative piece — added to by many others. Women added names, added details and situations to names already there, added categories of behavior. If a man was accused of physical sexual assault more than once, his name was highlighted in red. Concerned about the way anonymity could allow for false accusations, Donegan added a disclaimer at the top of the document. The spreadsheet’s clean lines, tidy columns, organizational format allowed for the document to grow to encompass all its authors — a community — writing of their experiences, warning others, bearing witness to the kind of interactions they navigate on an often daily basis inhabiting their bodies and identities in this world.
What does this have to do with poetry? Fair question.
The poet Isobel O’Hare has been creating erasure poems by blacking out the statements and/or apologies of celebrities accused of sexual assault and harassment. So many of these statements are lacking — full of misdirection, qualification, what-about-ism, conveniently faulty memories, long-winded sentences that never track back to what it is they’re supposed to be addressing . . . all in the interest of avoiding/distancing/distracting the reader/listener. O’Hare strips them down to an essence, finding a mystery message of a phrase within the expanse of text crafted by handlers and publicists. These erasures are thrilling to read, as if maybe — just maybe — we could imagine these being the actual words hidden within the words. O’Hare’s erasure poems will be collected and published this February by University of Hell Press, titled all this can be yours (with proceeds going to RAINN and Futures Without Violence). Additionally, O’Hare is editing an anthology/manifesto of feminist redactions. As with the spreadsheet, once O’Hare shared their work online, it engaged others and led to a continuation of that work.
I imagine O’Hare, not unlike Donegan and the community of women who created the spreadsheet, using the tools of the office (the world of work) to create a poetry from these most unpoetic of materials: picture them grasping Sharpies, giveaway pens with corporate logos, and printed text from press releases, and uncovering what is there – what is really there, beneath the surface.
Consider Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes: Gentileschi painted her own face as Judith, her mentor Agostino Tassi as Holofernes. This is an old old story. Tassi had originally denied the accusation, denied ever being at Gentileschi’s house. Later, he admitted proximity, claiming he’d visited to safeguard her honor. He’d been accused of previous rapes, was suspected of the murder of his wife. He was found guilty of raping Gentileschi, sentenced to two years, but the verdict was annulled and just a year later he was free. Gentileschi painted this painting a few years later, her second version of this scene. She imagines the moment of the knife at Holofernes’s throat, his last breath, being held down; Judith is assisted by her maid, a much younger woman. They work in concert and overpower him.
What I mean to say is that poetry, like all literature, must challenge the status quo — must challenge the reader to reconsider what power means, who has it, who should have it, and how it should be wielded. What is more of a challenge to that than the very notion of author, of “I”? Collaborative texts, intertextual texts, and anonymous texts kick the legs out from under the very notion that a text can be owned and controlled. It’s why when Moira Donegan was going to be outed, so many women responded online with #iwroteit; it’s why the erasures Isobel O’Hare began, inspired, and is now collecting are so powerful – they take the words of others and incorporate them into the poetic project, creating a hybrid text where the boundaries of ownership are blurry.
Poetry is also about form, which is another reason I’m drawn to erasures – they uncouple ordinary language from syntax and grammar, summoning a dream-voice from the carefully constructed language of (often, in this case) not-apology, from rationalization. In doing so, they allow to speak the words that have power but were heaped with watered-down, corporate-speak, passive-voice nothingedness; they separate the power of language from the uses those in power often coerce language into. Erasures are an act of resistance — subversive. Gentileschi too worked within a form: a biblical story, an oft-painted scene, working in the vein of artists like Caravaggio and her own father. But she makes some important changes even working within this existing tradition — including the much-younger maid (a warning there); including her own face, her own rage; calling out the identity of her rapist and mentor, ensuring he’ll be remembered for all time for that . . . for what he did, and for that scene of her imagined revenge.
Spreadsheets are useful to keep track of submissions, threads of story, dates and details for character developments. I remember when I realized that they were more than just elegant-looking tables, but rather something I could use — an organism to be crafted and tamed. They could do my bidding, they could morph, they could serve my needs and desires. A well-wrought spreadsheet is a thing of beauty, even when what it tracks is pain. Think of the possibilities for poetry — think what could be tracked within those cells, how to de-couple language from syntax, how to weave language and pattern and power. Thank you to all those writers who added their voices, who painted themselves into the picture, who took the sad pseudo-apologies and fixed them. Thank you to everyone who communicates in words, in a touch of the arm, with the safety of their presence, with a whispered warning, a too-long holding of eye contact — from whisper networks to the more formal spreadsheet, we need to take care of each other.