By Western standards, I am not a beauty. My face does not have those fine features nor the synchronicity that is apparently pleasing to the eye. My hair is long and graying, and in a perverse act of rebellion, I refuse to either dye it or cut it. I am not rake thin, but my body services me—and those who keep me company in my bed—rather well. When silence is often preferred, I am branded too assertive, too opinionated, too difficult, too particular… while the softness and gentleness and empathy and kindness is conveniently ignored.
The world judges me according to whatever standard it sees fit, and I can do nothing about that except to dodge or accept attempts at contradictory categorisation. I am an ageing woman yet I am energetic and confident and youthful. My mind is sharp: I can think and process and learn as well as I ever could, if not better. While my body is thickening around the middle and everything is going south, I can still run and swim and cycle with the zest of someone half my age. The face that looks out at me from the mirror has lived a life of adventure and laughter and pain and disappointment and joy, with each wrinkle and line and mark telling a chapter of my story. There is beauty in a life well-lived.
(Conversely in Vietnam, where I currently live, the opposite is true. I am constantly being told how beautiful I am by both men and women of all ages, and it’s so lovely to hear these words. With each utterance, I feel Western standards slipping away, replaced with something more timeless and wise.)
While I am not perfect, I can largely go about living my life without being bothered. And everything works. And I am grateful, so very grateful, for that.
I want us to get past superficial exteriors and dig in deep. Get to know people. Really know people. Ask questions, because everyone has a story, everyone has experienced pain.
I have a friend—a young, beautiful friend—who attracts male attention (generally unwanted) wherever she goes. She has long blonde hair, and a lithe dancer’s body. Men see her beauty and want to own it, to possess it. Women are probably jealous of it. But look past her beauty and there is a razor sharp mind, and a dogged determination to live a life of freedom that makes a difference to others. She says what she thinks without pulling punches. She doesn’t suffer fools. She is kind, warm and funny. She has not had an easy life. But I know this because I have gotten to know her: we worked together briefly and formed a solid friendship over eye rolling at our (now former) bosses. Others—men and women—have not had the privilege of getting to know this lovely, young woman.
A few weeks ago, I met a young man with warm, brown eyes, and a warm, wide smile. I sensed a gentleness about him from a life that had been lived hard. A soulful acceptance of hardship and difficulty, rather than a bitterness.
This young man had been accidentally dropped—as a baby—into a pot of boiling water. His face has been burned beyond recognition. He has had any number of skin grafts, and still has another seven operations to go. I can begin to imagine what it is to be this young man.
Does he ever wonder why him? What does he do with the stares, of both shock, and of sympathy? Does he feel judged? Are his emotions amplified as and when he experiences kindness and cruelty? Does he ever wonder if he could have been as handsome as the other Vietnamese boys who surround him day in, day out? Does he wonder if anyone will take the time to find out that he is a beautiful soul? Will he experience the pleasures and intimacy and heartbreak of sex and love? And in a culture that is underpinned by family, does he wonder about having his own one day? Were there days when he thought of just giving up?
I started this essay thinking that I would write about never complaining about my looks again because of this young man. That this young man could be any of us. But it’s more than that. I want us to get past superficial exteriors and dig in deep. Get to know people. Really know people. Ask questions, because everyone has a story—it’s what makes us human—and everyone has experienced pain to some degree.
It’s just that it’s more obvious with some than others.
This is the 10th essay in the #52essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’ll be writing (or trying to write) one personal essay a week: 52 in total. And I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! And if you are interested and want to join the #52essays2017 challenge, you can find out more information here, and join the Facebook group here.