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 Yours. Most 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.