Looking vs. Feeling Beautiful
Clear eyes, wide open hearts, can't lose.
Blue Morning Glory (1938) by Georgia O’Keeffe
Around the time I turned 40, I faced a major reckoning with my looks and my age. I felt old and unattractive (lol I assure you readers, this was an illusion!) because the way I moved through my life was all about self-protection and fear: I was afraid of getting older, which is like being afraid of time or the weather or death or any other inevitable natural force. Which means it’s also like being afraid of life itself! Trying to stop time or turn it backwards or prevent endings or delay reckonings or hide in your most rigid, fearful notions of perfection and purity are all ways of resisting the gorgeous folds of reality, the unnerving mysteries around you, the delirious promise that lies in uncertainty itself, and the sweetness of this imperfect moment — always incomplete, always compromised, always unsure.
I knew I had a problem. I looked in the mirror and I saw a stranger. I hated my dumb eyebrows, my terrible nose, my gray roots, my big round face. Weirdly, the first step for me was to accept the person I saw, to embrace the fact that I’d never look the same as I did when I was younger. For a while I walked around saying to myself in the mirror, “LOOK AT YOU, YOU LUMPY WITCH!” I called myself Milkfat Mary for a few months, due to my inexhaustible appetite for cheese in spite of repeated warnings in the form of high cholesterol tests. I observed out loud, often, “My face looks just like a big ass cheek! Round and puffy and featureless, with tiny little eyes and a nose and a mouth stuck in it!”
This might not sound like an obvious path to self-acceptance. But slowly, as I kept vocalizing my absolute worst thoughts and feelings about myself, some little voice started pushing back: “Your nose is nice, actually!” was one of the first things the voice said. “Your nose is fucking awesome, in fact! You’re practically French, you stupid bitch!” (The voice was still learning how not to use harsh words, with mixed results.)
And just as this voice started telling a different story, my two daughters grew old enough to understand the absurdly vicious words coming out of my mouth whenever I looked at myself in the mirror. So I immediately had to stfu for fear of giving them a warped impression of what beauty is and what self-acceptance sounds like.
Me being me, I shifted into the exact opposite mode and started yelling into the mirror “DAMN GIRL, LOOK AT YOU! COULD YOU BE MORE FINE?” and “HOLY GOD, I’D BETTER NOT WEAR THESE ASS PANTS OUT THE DOOR OR SOME INNOCENT STRANGER’S EYEBALLS MIGHT GET SEVERELY INJURED!”
These statements quickly morphed into running narratives, out in the world: “LISTEN KIDS, THIS COULD GET UGLY BECAUSE EVERYONE HERE IS ABOUT TO TAKE ONE LOOK AT ME AND START WISHING THEY WERE ME SO HARD. IT’S SO SAD FOR THEM THAT THEY CAN’T BE ME! I’M CRYING INSIDE! BUT THERE’S ONLY ONE, WHAT CAN I DO?”
My kids loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever told this style of stupid joke without them laughing or at least smiling, to this day. And they’re teenagers now! They smile for no one!
WHY DO THEY LAUGH AT THIS SHIT you ask? Because they understand that obnoxiousness and absurdity and bravado are sometimes my personal paths to feeling good inside my skin, to feeling better about reality, to feeling more alive, to feeling — yessssss — beautiful.
What’s extremely odd is that I look at old photos now, even from when I was very, very young, and I just don’t look as good to myself as I do now. There are multiple hair and skin and fashion choices behind this, but it’s also just evidence of this evolution of feeling that’s taken place inside of me. Beauty matters to me a lot (can’t do much about it, honestly, it just is!) — in the world, in nature, in others, inside myself. And while I’m not remotely immune to some forms of very conventional, corporate-marketing-birthed notions of what’s beautiful, the more I enjoy the things that make me feel beautiful, the more I can recognize FEELING BEAUTIFUL in others, and the more I’m excited by people who feel super goddamn good inside their skin, regardless of what size and shape and texture they are at any given moment.
So here are some things that make me feel beautiful, which I offer up as examples of how you might start to view yourself through a more accurate and celebratory and satisfying lens, if that’s a thing you want for yourself:
I feel beautiful when I write wild stuff for Ask Molly. This is a major source of feeling beautiful for me right now. I can’t explain it! Because some of the stuff I write is kind of dark and angry and uncertain. But when I create words for that particular space, I feel like I’m tapping into something extremely important at the core of who I am. It feels like taking a sharp knife out of the drawer of my soul and sharpening it until it’s the sharpest knife in the universe. It feels like survival and it also feels like falling madly in love and it also feels like the best sex ever. Now I’m making myself sound crazy! That’s part of the fun, though!
I feel beautiful when I sweat profusely. Conveniently enough, I have moved to a climate where excessive sweating is an inescapable feature of daily life. Now I sweat while doing strength and balance workouts (which also make me feel beautiful, because what’s more beautiful than feeling strong and having great balance?) and I sweat when I’m pulling weeds out of my yard and I also sweat randomly during the day without warning. Sweating is a sweet little reminder that you’re a juicy microbiome, still alive and thriving, a mobile universe teeming with microorganisms — so wet, so turgid, so mysterious, so fucking disgusting and also SO GODDAMN HOT, GIRL, HOW DO YOU DO IT?
I feel beautiful when I remember that I had a double mastectomy. Okay, here we are at the summit of The Overshare! I knew I’d make it here eventually, and today feels like the perfect day for it. I haven’t wanted to write or talk about this for two years now because it was all such a work in progress, but I was diagnosed with a tiny sliver of cancer in one breast and a lot of pre-cancer in both breasts back in May of 2020, and then I had five operations, long story, in the middle of Covid. I didn’t have to do chemo. The operations were painful and each recovery was grueling but 2020 was an amazing and important year for me nevertheless. 2021 was much, much harder overall because so much of the fear and reckoning caught up to me. But the central takeaway is this: Even before my first operation, I felt sure that I would be able to make peace with my new body. (No commentary on other people’s trips through this nightmare realm intended or implied here.) I knew that I would find some way to look in the mirror at a lot of wild shit and still declare it special and exciting and good. I might have to work very hard to land there, but I would get there. In other words, I had faith that I could work with reality, and turn something imperfect or even ugly into something that looked and felt beautiful to me — me, the only person who needs to be pleased by how I look and feel. That’s what it means to live like an artist: to take scary, bewildering, ego-destroying shit and turn it into art — and strength, and optimism, and love. And somehow, that process made me feel a million times more beautiful. There’s a lot more to say about death and fear and how relatively easy I had it, obviously. But this is where I’ve landed: My new shape, my scars, my fear, my vulnerability, my survival — all of these things are wrapped up in how beautiful I feel when I think about or look at my body now. I feel more powerful and exciting than I did before, because life has fucking cut me and goddamn, why did it just make me foxier? How did that even happen? I CAN’T EXPLAIN THAT SHIT, BUT I WILL EMBRACE IT NONETHELESS.
I’m sure I’ll write more about this some day. And look, I didn’t plan to go here today! But this is also part of what makes me feel beautiful. “BEING VAIN AND DELUSIONAL,” you might reasonably ask? NO, MOTHERFUCKER!
I feel beautiful when I listen to my intuition — even though it sometimes leads me into a ditch, or is followed by a wave of fear or shame. Now this is actually a tough one to endorse unreservedly, because taking big risks and showing yourself is such a vulnerable thing. I don’t even like to witness it in others if I feel like they’re too far out over their skis and they actually won’t be able to handle the consequences of the risks they’re taking. (A lot of confessional writing about big life events incites this response in me. Sometimes you just know when a writer is on solid ground and when they’re headed for a fall!) And sometimes, I feel wobbly about self-disclosure or a risk I’m tempted to take, too. When I do, I try to slow everything down and ask myself if I’m searching for some concrete reaction (“LOVE ME MORE! MAKE ME FEEL SAFE! BRING ME MORE POPULARITY OR MORE UNDERSTANDING! PUNISH ME!”) or if I’m just turning a sharp corner into a new land, one that feels good and solid and right and more fertile than where I was before. I’ve been slowing myself down a lot lately, in fact, because my intuition is firing on all pistons at the moment, and look, not every impulse represents a wise choice or generative way to encounter reality. But listening to my intuition really makes me feel beautiful, nonetheless. That doesn’t mean I have to act on it! Which leads us to our final way of feeling beautiful:
I feel beautiful when I sit patiently inside a big question mark and don’t fix or change or force anything. Remember my original point about how trying to stop time is a way of not really living? Well, living in uncertainty and being patient with it and learning from it are all ways of welcoming reality (and mystery, and passion, and sadness, and joy!) into your arms. When you do that — when you make space for the terror and exuberance of life on our planet at this particular hour — you (sometimes!) relax into a new feeling of peace and acceptance and love for all of the deeply imperfect people around you, including yourself.
So that’s your assignment for the day: Think deeply about what makes you feel beautiful. Just don’t limit your thoughts to experiences or images or feelings that are defined, traditionally speaking, as pretty or pleasing. Consider mud and rusted metal and jagged scars and storm clouds. Consider disappointments and embarrassments and fragility and fear. Consider exhaustion and loneliness on a long walk down a hot sidewalk that’s suddenly interrupted by an unexpected bar of music from an old familiar song you love. Consider the unnerving grace and potential transcendence offered by a straightforward rejection: I can’t do this. I don’t love you enough. I’m not really here. Let me go.
Consider learning to enjoy and savor the very things you fear the most. Consider sharpening that knife at the core of your being that says: I’m strong — dangerously strong, in fact — and I’m still here.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly. Send your letters to askpolly @ protonmail.com.
I feel beautiful after reading this, honestly. You have to be beautiful to really *get* this letter I think. Heather, you always make me think and make me laugh and make me feel seen. That’s beautiful. Thanks for sharing your story with us. I’m glad you’re okay and on the other side of such a big surgery. Also, I would have shit my pants with delight if my mom had ever said anything like what you say to your kids. My mom used to walk into stores and jokingly ask “Do you have any big fat cow sizes?” when she was looking for clothes for herself. I feel beautiful being a part of this community. Sending love to everyone here!
almost at my birthday and this past year was: long lonely walks, facing my greatest fears, a straightforward rejection that gutted me, swimming in dirty rivers, learning patience, playing music in front of people for the first time, taking risks to follow my intuition. now it makes sense that I feel more beautiful than I ever have