I guess I’m one of the lucky ones. My issues with beauty didn’t come ’til later. Much, much later. It’s not even a question of being a late bloomer, but of whether there was any blooming done at all. The concept didn’t even hit me that hard until I began going to school with dudes who didn’t know me in grade school, when I was still a huge nerd (not even a geek, I was a nerd) with braces.
About the braces though, those came off when I turned 11. I guess if we had to trace any origins of whatever can be defined as “blooming”, we can go back to this point, when the boys in my class realized I had a full set of teeth behind all that metal, and I was capable of smiling without offending anyone.
The requisite indicators followed: crushes, studio shots at the mall, my first kiss. And still, I couldn’t let go of all those years of not treating my appearance as an investment, choosing instead to work on other ways to make myself likable. Around this time, it had been called to my attention that I was a pretty awful human being, but it had also been called to my attention that not only was I pretty awful (but that’s another story), but I sort of failed at being “a girl”.
This was also the time my parents (mostly my Mom) thought it would be a good idea to send me and my sister to a Catholic girls school. The shift to a “traditional” setup, only magnified the plethora of feminine rituals that I had missed out on. The most crucial of these was the reassurance that I was “pretty”, or in its place, letting people know I was trying, and I would get there someday. I wasn’t familiar with the practice of using self-deprecating comments to bait more comments on weight loss or crushes or skin care. Things that up until then weren’t even problems. Before this, I had always felt that femininity was a consequence of the body I was born in, and not an elaborate set of rituals all leading up to a cocktail of subservience and self-worship. I never felt that femininity was something I had to keep up with.
Early on, the distinction had been made that I was “the cute one”, whereas my sister got to be the pretty one. I never really had to know what either one meant–heck, when you’re a kid, cute holds more currency than pretty. Exhaust the word “pretty” on a kid that young, and you could get called out for being a creeper. I was, in Marla’s terms, “blue sister”. I was harmless and nerdy and maybe I would have been called a tomboy had I not shown any inclination towards domestic things, like cooking and sewing, which in the eyes of my parents definitely affirmed that yup, I was a girl.
More importantly, I don’t think I really cared. It’s also possible that I heard too many comments on (what was then) my androgyny to actually read into the backhandedness of it all: ranging from how my parents expected a boy, to the potential damages of being raised as if I was a boy, to how chubby I was, etc. Heck, I thought these were compliments because I also naively believed that adults only said things with our best interests in mind.
I knew I was a girl, dammit. I played with She-Ra, not He-Man. I played house, had a bed covered with plushies and other stupid girl shit. I had what I felt were enough indicators of girlieness, save for that one crucial aspect: I wasn’t pretty. At least no one seemed to think so (or if they did, they definitely weren’t saying anything), and so I didn’t pick up any of the cues on how I should conduct myself to maintain whatever it was that added up to being pretty, and would eventually lead me out of my awkward years as a girl, and into the role I was supposed to fulfill as a woman.
But then couple of years later, at a writer’s workshop where my mom was a participant, I would be introduced to another writer as “one of two daughters”. I forgot the writer’s name, but I remember her touching my face, and in front of my sister saying “Siguro yung kapatid mo yung matalino, no? (Your sister’s probably the smart one, huh?)” Which added up to a lousy first time to have your looks acknowledged, because it tossed in the assumption that looks were probably all you had. Hey, I was smart. All I had until that moment was the reassurance that I was smart (or nice, or at least tolerable), and having to deal with the assumption that I could only be one or the other drastically shifted the discourse on beauty in my head from personal to social, from subjective to dichotomous. It stopped being about simply wanting to be anything in particular, and became a matter of preferring one thing over the other. Smart or pretty, a brain or a face; because you can’t have it all. But more importantly, it affirmed that holy shit, I was turning into a woman, which meant I had to be pretty because what kind of woman wasn’t?
I have trouble constructing a notion of beauty in which gender does not come into play. Heck, even our observations of landscapes become characterized as either masculine or feminine (i.e. trunks vs branches, gentle waves vs thrashing oceans, etc.). The task of actualizing a self in which beauty would come into play was already too daunting a task, especially that late in the game. It sounds ridiculous now to talk about feeling like it was too late for me to be beautiful exactly half a lifetime ago, but that was how I felt. Call it blue sister syndrome.