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.
top photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash