Friday, January 15, 2010

Thinking About Beauty

I am working on a new YA novel. Whenever I write a book, I am reminded of how difficult it is to be a kid. I mean, it’s hard to be alive, period, but as an adult, you have resources, you have the benefit of your own experiences, you have credit cards. As a kid, you are so vulnerable to almost everything.

I try to remember back to a time when I had no experience. What did I have, back then? A good brain, unceasing and mostly unwanted parental advice, a certain fearlessness. Those seem like meager weapons in the face of all the bad things out there.

My book is about a girl who is beautiful. I’m so lucky, she thinks again and again.

When I was a girl, I wanted desperately to be beautiful. Not beautiful of spirit, not beautiful in an it’s-what’s-inside-that-counts kind of way. I wanted to be Christie Brinkley beautiful. Cybill Shepherd beautiful. (It was the early seventies.) I don’t think there’s a girl alive who doesn’t want that. And what it must be like to be one of the few who is truly, demonstrably physically beautiful! Even now, the idea of such a gift takes my breath away a little. What a different life such a child must have from the rest of us.

I was astounded when, as a volunteer in my children’s kindergarten classrooms many years ago, I realized that all five-year-olds are beautiful. It is absolutely true. But something happens to most of us by the time we’re nine. It’s subtle; it’s not as if we should be walking around with bags over our heads. But it is undeniable: we become part of the masses who are blessed with ordinary looks. Or, if we are more fortunate than most, we become someone described as “pretty” or “cute.” But most of us, sad to say, are not beautiful. It is maybe our first experience of having something important taken away. It takes many of us a long time to get over the unfairness of it all.

Being the curmudgeonly realist that I am, I don’t really believe that beauty confers happiness on anyone. To the extent that I am right, I think it must be difficult to be a beautiful young person, because people aren’t very patient with you if you’re beautiful and unhappy. They assume you are whining or fishing for compliments. They are also a little jealous, and probably a little bit glad to hear of your misery. Whether they know it or not, they are thinking, It serves you right. They are relieved to see evidence of cosmic retribution.

So I am writing about a beautiful girl who is unhappy. I have a lot of sympathy for her (as I must if I’m going to write anything interesting about her). Every once in a while, I allow myself to remember the way it felt to be myself at age twelve: not beautiful, wishing with all my heart that I was.

I know now what I never knew back then: there is no easy way to be young.

Sometimes being fifty-two sucks. But sometimes, I can’t help thinking, I’m so lucky.

1 comment:

  1. This post struck a chord. My niece is 13, and she is one of those beautiful girls. Stunningly so at times. Model beautiful--including the height (5'7" already at 13) and even a beauty mark/mole on her cheek. But wouldn't you know it, she is convinced she is anything but beautiful. She has a full head of wavy, light brown hair, and all she can think about is how to straighten it. She agonizes over how "ugly" she is. And of course, nothing her mom or dad or aunts or uncles or grandparents can say will allow her to relax into the knowledge that she is beautiful. Isn't being a teen grand? I do wonder what she'll think when she looks back on these days. Will she, too, remember herself as desparately unhappy?