“It’s not my responsibility to be beautiful. I’m not alive for that purpose. My existence is not about how desirable you find me.” ~Warsan Shire
As an aspiring poet, the words of Warsan Shire hold a special sway over me. It’s not only her eloquence that draws me to her writing, but also the depth of her wisdom. I’ve always felt that it’s not enough to say something well; our words must also be full of substance. The quote above is exactly that. It calls on me to reflect on the deepest, most radical, and most luminous parts of myself.
Interestingly, it isn’t actually from a poem. It’s from Shire’s Twitter. Since being posted, it has made its way all over the internet through blogs, memes, and social media. For every individual who repeats them, they take on a totally new meaning. Our life experiences, and the intersections of our identities, create a completely unique relationship to beauty in each of us.
My own relationship to beauty is complicated. On a macro level, we learn to understand beauty in relation to traits such as race, age, ability – in short, the various elements of kyriarchy. On a personal level, each of us is enculturated differently on the subject by our families, friends, and the media. For me, these have been intertwined going all the way back to my childhood. My mother projected onto me her idolatry of whiteness, patriarchal constructs of femininity, the gender binary, and more, all through the medium of beauty.
It’s a widely held sentiment among Armenians that our noses are ugly. They tend to be big and hooked, stereotypically Middle Eastern-looking. Nose jobs are very common, primarily among women. My mama especially hates so-called “Armenian noses.” When I was small, she actively took pride in what a white-looking nose I had. It was something that, in her eyes, made me more beautiful than the other Armenian children.
Then when I was ten, I broke my nose in an accident. Once it healed, it was bent a little, and had a small bump on the bridge. After that, she would say to me, “You had such a beautiful nose, Jenny. It was small, and straight, and not hooked and perfect. Now it’s crooked and there is a big lump. Your nose was so perfect and now it’s ugly.”
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She did this most days. She would constantly look at me and sigh. Sometimes she would start crying, or tell me how it made her cry herself to sleep. I wanted not to care about that, but after eight years I couldn’t help it. The chance to have surgery randomly fell into my lap, I let her push me into it. Part of me wanted to breathe a little better, but mostly I couldn’t stand another day of her fixation. I told myself that at least she would feel better, and she did. But I felt like shit about it, and I still do.
She was the same way about gender norms. When she wasn’t forcing me into dresses and skirts and pink or frilly clothing, she was rolling her eyes and putting up a fuss about my t-shirts and jeans. To this day she laments, “You’re so beautiful, Jenny, why do you have to dress like a boy?”
She mocks me for not wearing a bra, for not shaving, for not waxing my lip. “Stop it! Just grow up already.” She says outright that I am making myself ugly. I think she sees it as her duty to bully and repress me into her vision of femininity.
All she has ever accomplished by doing this is to place undue stress on my psyche. That stress has shaped me into having a highly volatile and excessively critical relationship with myself. This has ultimately led to self-harm, self-suppression, and toxicity and abuse toward others.
With time, I’ve come to understand my mama’s behavior as the product of internalized oppression. She has adapted to comply with the demand of our world to conform, and she has done so under the threat of extreme violence. Her worldview is one where beauty is absolutely owed – and where desirability is a responsibility that cannot be shirked.
I, too, have felt crushed by the burden to conform, not just from her, but from everyone. I’ve suffered bullying, ostracization, random acts of violence in the street, all because I stood out as different. That’s part of why these standards have taken such an immense toll on me. They exist at every level, from the broadly social to the intimately personal. That’s what makes beauty such a potent tool of oppression: in ways that few other social concepts can, beauty penetrates every aspect of both our psyches and our lives.
Men must be macho. Women must be dainty. Fair skin is better. You’re too hairy. You’re too queer. These are the constructs of beauty set forth by systems of power, such as patriarchy and white supremacy. They mirror our social hierarchies, but they also reinforce them by prescribing to us which people are valuable and desirable.
Even at the institutional level, the politics of beauty are significant. Our incarceration system is one where the privileged people on top are less likely to get caught for their crimes, less likely to do jail time, are getting shorter sentences, are more favorably reported on in the media. People are more willing to believe in their humanity, and to recognize the value they might bring to society. In other words, they are viewed as inherently desirable.
Meanwhile, narratives that deviate from mainstream palatability are stigmatized. Marginalized bodies are shunned aside, exploited, terrorized, and brutalized precisely because our social hierarchies place no value on them.
The right to safely exist is dictated by desirability.
In my mother’s mind, beauty is the thing that can save me from oppression. From racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism. It’s the one thing that can keep me from languishing at the bottom of the chain of hierarchies. To this day, it is her greatest desire for me. Not happiness, not self-actualization, but beauty.
What I’ve realized is that beauty can never save me. That even if it could, I will never be beautiful anyway. That being beautiful would mean giving up every defining element of my identity.
Ironically, I gained this wisdom watching my mother closely. From watching our whole community. Respectability, success, assimilation, idolatry of the West, constant fawning over whiteness and wealth – all of those things together failed to earn us basic respect. I still got spat on, my mama still got detained, my grandma still got attacked, and we all three were still called racial slurs. I saw that no amount of conformity can exempt us from racism, nor can it do anything to change the violence inherent in our social systems. At best, it could only deflect that violence onto others.
So, I just got tired. I got tired of hiding and changing myself so that I could feel safe or successful. Tired of feeling like every step I took toward better embodying my true identity was a step I took toward ugliness. Tired of feeling like the more I loved myself, the less attractive I became.
I needed desperately to come into a healthier relationship to myself, and beauty was holding me back.
I wanted to enrich my life, but every time I glanced down at myself or caught my reflection in the mirror, I felt worthless. My self-love was conditional on my beauty, and it was making me miserable.
I had to deconstruct my entire relationship to myself, and undo all of my internal shame and volatility. That meant realizing that beauty is a fundamentally insubstantial basis for a relationship with the self, and resolving to remake that relationship in ways that are truly meaningful to me – ways that reflect my own values rather than those of others.
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I stopped engaging habits and compulsions that felt obligatory, even if I was uncomfortable with the result (like letting my mustache grow). I intentionally emphasized and took on attributes that I felt reflect my true identity, even if they frightened me (like shaving my head). I made the decision to prioritize self-actualization over any social concern.
Each step, however small, was absolutely terrifying and inarguably liberating. I used to be too scared to even leave the house. Too convinced of my ugliness, my unworthiness, feeling like a walking bullseye for abuse.
Now I stand out more than ever, but I hold my head high.
I have come to accept that, on a fundamental level, my identity is not acceptable or desirable to society. It simply isn’t, and that’s okay. If who I am is ugly to society, then I would rather get used to the idea of being ugly than fight my whole life trying to make myself appear beautiful.
The irony is that as I become uglier to everyone else, I see more and more beauty in myself. My nose, my breasts, all my many hairs, my identity, and my life story are all beautiful. But that’s something I give to myself, something I’ve fought hard to define on my own terms. It’s a sense of beauty that stems from an appreciation of who I am – not who I “ought” to be. If I am the only person who sees it, that’s fine. As long as I value myself, I have no need for you to desire me.
My existence is about more than my desirability. My only responsibility is to myself. If you tell me that I am ugly, I will tell you that ugliness is a radical state of non-conformity. My identity is for me to determine, and I have the right to inhabit that identity unapologetically – however undesirable it may be.
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[Feature Image: Two individuals stand outdoors against the a brightly colored graffiti wall. The person on the left has long dark hair pulled to one side under a black skull cap and black shades and wearing a white tank top. The person on the right has long curly brown hair, glasses and is wearing a plain button-up shirt. Flickr.com/RegaPhotography ]