The Art of Faking Beauty

      My name is Alissa and I am in a relationship with Myself and it’s complicated. Not myself as in the person I see when I look in the mirror or the version of that girl that types up witty Facebook statuses and deletes them before posting because she worries that somewhere out there in the big bad world, somebody may actually be funnier. Spoiler alert, there are an awful lot of those somebodies.

    No, I mean Myself. The capital letter M pronoun personification of this Alissa person viewable to the world around me. I’ve learned a lot about her. Through social media, through gentle whispers, through empathetic shoulder squeezes and hands tossed in the air as if to say, “Well, what can you do about her? She’s out of your hands.”

    Of everything I have learned about this wide-eyed and so apparently unfortunate young woman, three things remain clearest: she is insecure, she is overweight, and she is in denial.

    Let me preface my explanation by saying this: Of those three things, the very last thing I am as of now or have ever been is in denial. As if the rest of the world hadn’t already embarked upon a mission to shed light upon every imperfection I possess, I have been painfully aware of them for at least half of my twenty two short years on this planet – and that’s certainly low-balling it. 

    Let’s hop on the memory train and spring for the one way ticket all the way back to my childhood. The moment in question: the first time I noticed my weight. 

    I was eight years old, stretched out on a plastic sun lounger beside a friend’s pool, donning my favorite two-piece tankini when suddenly her mother appeared. She clutched a brand new pair of jeans in one hand, the tags still attached.

    “I was able to exchange them for a bigger size,” she told her daughter, flushed pink on the chair opposite me. “We’ll go with these for now. Until you lose your baby weight.”

    When she disappeared, I turned to my friend in confusion. 

    “What’s baby weight?” I whispered. 

    She shrugged, reaching across the table between us to poke her finger against my soft, round belly. It pressed in and bounced back like memory foam. 

    “You’ve got it, too,” she said. 

    And I sucked in my belly for the first time. 

    Two years later and I am ten years old, clad in shorts and a tank top and seated on a folding chair in my grandparents’ backyard when my father reaches over and pokes at my thigh. It jiggles in place and I splay my fingers over its surface to cover it.

    “You need to do a little more in gym class,” he says.

    Fourteen now – my first boyfriend assures me that my face is pretty. My body just isn’t as good as the other girls in his class.

    Fifteen – an obese girl on the school bus tells her friend that I am not fat like her. Just kind of fat. She emphatically assures them that I am not skinny like they are, that their slim bodies and narrow hips do not bear any resemblance to mine, and they thank her for the reassurance.  

    Sixteen – a certain relative tells me that I am a beautiful girl. How much more beautiful I’d be if I worked out a little. She repeats this sentiment every time I see her for years. 

    Seventeen – a girl in my gym class explains to me amid a group of cute boys that if you are pretty, you have to think you’re ugly. Otherwise, she says, you’re a narcissist. I ask if she thinks she is ugly and she wholeheartedly agrees. She then tells me that you also have to think you are fat. The boys around us nod, hmm and ahh in agreement, and for the first time, despite those around me drilling it into my head for nearly a decade prior, I wonder if I really am ugly and fat. 

    Eighteen – I pose for my graduation pictures in a size 2 dress. I have not eaten a full meal in weeks. I’ve been swallowing diet pills by the handful for months, stowing the bottle away at the back of my sock drawer. I pin my hair back to fit my cap in place and notice a sliver of pale scalp exposed towards the back of my head. I’ve lost the weight, but also my hair, and I can’t help but wonder what else I may have lost in this process. My dignity? My self-esteem? Did it matter that they were gone so long as I was in that dress?

    Jumping forward to present time. I am twenty two years old. I wear a size 10 in jeans and some of them are tight. My belly presses outward when I sit. It pushes forward over the waist band when I lean forward. I can fit into a size medium thong if the band is stretch lace, but if I’m planning to cover any surface area whatsoever, I’m going for the larges. Only semi-recently has the shift in cultural norms made this a positive.  

I have been labeled as thick, curvy, hippy, chubby, and a litany of others that no longer carry the weight I was so concerned about. 

    I don’t have a gym membership. Occasionally I go for a walk with my roommate. I might stroll down Chicago’s lakefront for a particularly captivating Instagram shot. I eat marginally healthy, save for a minor dependency on Cosmic Brownies. You know the ones. Small and square and so dense you could use them to shingle a roof? I try to keep them out of my cupboard, but somehow those little devils manage to find their way back every time. 

    When I jump, my belly jiggles. When I wave, my arm fat waves with me. I carry weight in all places – even my earlobes, I am convinced – but somehow, by miracles unbeknownst to those critical, cyber-stalking old ladies that hold titles on my family tree yet have not seen me in person for years, I like my body. 

    I truly do. 

    I am reluctant to use the word love here. Perhaps because somewhere in my subconscious lies the conception that to say that I love my body and all of its imperfections would be to say that I never questioned them, never hated them, never wrestled with them as mightily and futilely as one wrestles a boa constrictor. But if I had to, if I was in a quiet room with a subtle breeze to send my whisper upon, with the assurance that only the girl in the mirror would ever hear it, I could use that word. I could say that I love my body. 

    It was a long road to get where I am in terms of those four little letters, but here we are: me and Myself, together at last, battling it out against the odds with clasped hands and a will to survive whatever storm life may bring our way.

    So why now – now that I have overcome my insecurities and taken this magical mystery concept called self-confidence – why now am I faced with the proposition that I don’t have the right to this relationship? Why now am I facing the idea that the love I share with Myself is not only nonsensical, but not deserved?

    I am no longer the insecure young girl I once was, desperate to fit into that size 2 dress. So why now is everybody so determined to bring her back, to tell me that I am insecure?   

    How can I love her, Myself, after all, if she is what she is? Thick, curvy, whatever article you see fit here. Still hanging onto that Freshman 15 and Sophomore 10 and Junior/Senior who-knows-how-many-pounds. I smile wider. I stand taller. I speak with confidence and I square my shoulders and I stride into a room with all the fierceness of Beyonce’s back-up dancers. 

    And still I hear the same mixtures of shame and encouragement. 

    You’re pretty, but you would be so much prettier if you did something with your body.

    You look great, but lose the weight now before it gets out of hand. 

    No, Alissa, I’m not saying you can’t eat the Cosmic Brownie. I’m saying you shouldn’t eat the Cosmic Brownie. 

    Admittedly, that last voice may have been my own, but what can I say? It’s an ongoing battle. Me vs. the brownies.

    And now that I’ve come to terms with the curves my mother gave me, now that I’ve learned to accept my body and feel pride in calling it mine, now that I’ve looked back on every man who’s stroked his hand down the length of that body in starry-eyed, post-coital glow and called it beautiful and regretted the moments that I pushed those hands away and told them otherwise, told them it was too big or too wide or too soft, now a new battle arises. Now it is no longer my body that society and those all too close to me deem my insecurity. Now it is my face, too.

    Objectively, the arc in this story is simple: first I learned to love my body, and then I learned to love my face. However, while my formative years seemed to be one giant struggle to pound these practices of acceptance into the innermost corners of my mind, my twenties seem to have become the time during which they must be strategically and forcefully removed. Because neither is appropriate anymore. I must not love my body and I must not love my face and somehow I’m supposed to learn that to do either will only be acceptable when they meet the standards of not just society, but of those nearest and dearest to me. 

    I’d like to think that I learned to love and appreciate my face in much the same way as an artist begins his first masterpiece. First you’ve got to fall for the canvas. Then you create the art. 

    I learned to think of myself as beautiful and to mean it, and from there I became inspired. When my grandmother lost weight, she went out and bought new clothes. When, in my own eyes, I became beautiful – the bare-faced canvas I was – I binge watched makeup tutorials and bought my first Urban Decay Naked pallet. 

    Fast forward a few years and likely a few thousand dollars and my obsession has certainly grown into an addiction. I buy makeup like suburban mothers trade Xanax at hot yoga. NARS is my heroin, Becca my pill dependency. I spend anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours putting my makeup on in the morning, and the only thing that worries me about this addiction is that I’m not quite sure a limit exists as to how much I will spend on any given product. I want them all. 

    Sometimes I spend an inordinate amount of time evening out my winged eyeliner. Sometimes I won’t leave the house until I’ve filled in my brows. Sometimes, after I’ve made a particularly exciting purchase at Sephora, I’ll wipe it all off just to put it all back on and test out the new addition to my collection.

    Why, you ask?

    Because I love it. Because I am an artist – although some might argue that being a writer doesn’t quite qualify me for that title. So, I will settle for creator. I’ve created the makeup look I am wearing on any given day in the same way that I’ve created this essay – with equal parts patience and passion, and a healthy dose of fulfilment in return. 

    Yet, now I face a new set of “encouragements.”

    You don’t need all of that. You’re pretty without it.

    You don’t have to spend that much time on your face. It’s fine the way it is.

    If you wore less makeup, you’d look more like you. 

    That last one is an interesting sentiment when it comes from someone who has in the past seemed rather determined to send the message that “you” is not what you should aim to resemble, given the bevy of imperfections that “you” seem to have. 

    Now I face a brand new set of insecurities cast upon me where there previously were none. I am eight years old again, sucking my belly in as I shop for a lighter coverage foundation. Now I wonder why we as women are made to believe that feeling insecure is not only self-inflicted, but expected.   

    I wonder how much worse my outlook on all this would be had I not learned to overcome my struggles with my self-image earlier on, how much more damaging those “encouragements” would be had I not become as accustomed to them as I am to a simple greeting or a wave goodbye. 

    There is no redemption for casting insecurities upon an otherwise confident person. There is no redemption for accusing a beautiful girl of faking it because she wears makeup or dresses in dark, loose clothing or colors her hair wildly. The notion that we as women do any of these things in order to distract someone from our real or actual selves is both ludicrous and insulting. 

    Body positivity is not a trend. It is a death sentence. Women cannot do anything – not even accept themselves – without judgement. And let me tell you – judgement is not light on the shoulders.

We’ve all seen the heavily shared Facebook posts. Next time you see one, I ask that you consider not only me, but any other woman you may have cast these judgements upon. I do not wear makeup to impress you. I do not wear tight jeans to give you the opportunity to ogle me. I do not wear high heels so that the clickty clack draws your attention as I walk past. I do these things with one person and one person alone in mind: me. Myself. That girl you have claimed as yours to judge, that girl you’ve claimed as yours to scrutinize and break down and try to tape her back together again in order to fulfil your hero’s complex. 

    I do these things because this body is mine and because I love it and because I’ll only get one in this lifetime. One body to shape and create and mold into the outward manifestation of the soul inside of it.

    However, if I did do those things in an effort to mask my insecurities, to give myself a leg up in order to stand a little taller, walk a little easier down your path of speculation and criticism, then I have only one question to ask.

    What is so incredibly wrong with wanting to feel better about oneself?

    I will not be so bold as to claim that my measly little essay can end the criticism we face every day and I will not aim to try. Instead, I will speak not to the critics, but to the artists, to the women who inhabit these masterpieces we refer so simply to as bodies.

    You are a roadmap. You may see cellulite or stretch marks. You may see sagging skin or acne and you might consider these landmarks as scars. Scars, however, are proof that you’ve lived. You are a collection of bumps in the road, lines connecting point A to B, hills and valleys. You have walked a long way and though your canvas may not be blank, you are not done yet. This road is a long one, but the journey is worth it.  

    Alright, then. I think this calls for a Cosmic Brownie.

I am digested.

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