Ugly Beautiful

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picture of a place i went one weekend that probably changed my life that i never really talk about because how does one talk about stuff like that

 

A guy friend in college once told me I could be hot if I tried. I wasn’t offended. I knew what he meant. He meant I had socially-acceptable features that, if I made more of an effort, would be attractive to men. He meant I should wear mascara more often. He meant I should ditch the frumpy thrift store sweaters. He meant I should straighten my hair, and buy jeans that fit, and exercise a little bit more, a little bit harder.

There are many times I do not want to be attractive to men.

There are many times I want to shave my head and burn every article of clothing I own that isn’t black.

There are many times I think I’d look better dipped in blood.

The first and only time I smoked a cigarette was in college. A boy I knew told me that if I didn’t smoke with him he would kill himself. My friend and I exchanged glances and agreed to the slender stick of nicotine. I remember the pulse and glow of traffic on Forbes Avenue as we sat on a concrete ledge passing the cigarette between us. Students walked by laughing, and I envied their nonchalance, their freedom because that evening I’d never had a choice at all.

That’s what being ugly is to me. A choice.

And when I say ugly, I mean not trying.

And when I say not trying, I mean fuck you, men.

And when I say fuck you, I mean I want you to know what it feels like to stand waist deep in the ocean scraping your own fingernails against your bare skin, howling into the moonlight, and no one hears you, no one hears you, and undertow is just a synonym for gentle drowning, and this is what it feels like to be a woman, this is the tithe for having skin so soft.

College is when I first learned anger. It wasn’t listed on the syllabus.

The problem isn’t with beauty, but possession. About being beautiful for boys, and boys clutching on to it with savage fingers, thinking the world was made for them, that they are entitled to have and to keep and to judge. I often think of that Helen Oyeyemi book I still have yet to read. What Is Not Yours Is Not YoursMost things in the world are not ours.

When we think of beauty we don’t often think of danger. But an entire war was started for Helen of Troy and for which man got to claim her. Do you think she ever just wanted to be ugly? Do you think she dreamed of being Medusa, having snakes for hair, being feared instead of desired? Can you be both? I want to be both. But what does it mean that men killed for Helen, but men killed Medusa, and both were considered a victory? All I taste is blood.

Sometimes I try to look nice. There are days when I wear makeup. There are days when I hope men notice me and think I am beautiful.

You could be hot if you tried.

I could be anything if I tried. But sometimes I don’t try. And when I do try, I try to be a longleaf pine, or a timberwolf, or magnolia petals carried on a bed of wind.

And when I try to be beautiful, it is the type of beauty you see when the sun is just cresting and shadows stretch on your hardwood floor, and the kitchen smells of yeast and coffee, and this feeling bubbles up inside of you and you feel like you might burst open like a volcano, like a sunrise, and you wonder if black holes ever dream of you, if any stars know your name, and it is magical, this feeling of being beautiful, of being alive.

 

(Pssst… You should read this. And probably this, too. And most definitely this.)

where do we go from here?

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I used to sit in Washington Square Park and watch this punk rock pianist play classical music on the weekends. I bought one of his albums and still listen to it all the time.

But I needed to witness someone wrestle
With what it means to just exist
-Dawes

Existing is hard. A pair of lungs, working legs, synapses that fire and illuminate, you’d think the biology of it all would be the difficult part of it. But often it’s not.

I’ve had a lot of what happens next conversations with people lately. It’s partly the field I’m in—seasonal work is transient, and movement in every sense is always on people’s mind—but it’s partly age, as well. Twenties are a messy decade. Life plans and road maps only get you so far.

The moment I realized that my plans were broken and that my map had gotten me lost was in New York City. I’d expected to love New York. I was a new college graduate, and I’d romanticized the city as a place where I’d be young and poor, struggling but successful. My life was supposed to be an episode of Girls, only with moderately better choices and a less irritating protagonist. I’d spend entire afternoons combing through the grid of Manhattan by foot, hoping that by walking I’d find a way to make the city home or a way to escape, but my sojourns never brought me either.

Ever since New York, I feel like I’ve been living year-to-year, never making decisions with an endgame in mind, but just living to live, gaining experiences and figuring it out, knowing that I have the tools and resources to make something of this all when the time feels right.

(When does the time feel right? Maybe you just know. Or maybe you don’t know and you just do it anyway.)

We don’t prepare people well for the world beyond college. We tell them to get a job, to work and save, but if that doesn’t happen, we tend to shrug our shoulders and wish them luck. Life feels very narrow sometimes.

What I struggle with the most is the shadowy judgment I feel from others watching me navigate my own life. It’s nothing outright. It’s hidden in the subtleties, the nuances that inform me that they think I’ve strayed too far, that I am too old for such instability. It bothers me when people no longer see me as the smart and motivated woman I was in college, that, for some reason, I can’t be smart and successful and wandering all at once.

Formal education isn’t the only form of growth that matters. Academia is only as high as the pedestal you put it on.

I’m not really sure who reads these posts (besides my few vocal, dedicated readers; I see you), but maybe you need to hear this because sometimes I do: You will find your way. You will find your way because you are capable of choice, and life takes the shape of your choices. It’s going to be alright. You will make it work. The days of thorns and bramble will become memories, and one day you will miss this struggle. Appreciate the bruises and flowing blood while you can. You will find your way, and it will be as golden as you always dreamed it would be. There’s courage in the choices you’re making, in choosing differently, in seeing differently, and I hope you know I’m proud of you. I hope you’re proud of yourself.

My senior yearbook quote for high school was from Atlas Shrugged, which, despite my conflicting views on the novel, I still find motivating:

Do not lose your knowledge that man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do no let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.

You’ve got this, dear reader. The world is yours ❤