Growing up, I can’t say that I ever felt beautiful. I was tall and scrawny with big, frizzy hair and a gap in my front teeth wider than the Grand Canyon. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs from the girls at church, so they were often out of style and far too short for my gangling limbs (when capris came back in, I cringed, recalling all of the jokes about waiting for a flood that were banal in my childhood), or too big for my tiny waist—I actually went from ages 10-14 without a back belt loop.
My parents weren’t wealthy. We always had what we needed; anything more was a treat. I was never what one would consider “stylish,” since my clothes had generally been worn by three other girls before me. I recall longing for a Hypercolor t-shirt in seventh grade—I yearned for one of those shirts more than I did for my crush to notice me. My mom even humored me one day and took me to the mall, only to loudly proclaim how ridiculous it was that a t-shirt would cost $50. It was a repeat of the year prior, when I begged for a pair of LA Gear high tops, to no avail. No matter how I longed for just one token of socially acceptable fashion, it just wasn’t happening on my parent’s budget.
As the eldest child of a mixed-race couple at a time when such a thing was seemingly foreign to a vast part of society, it took a while for me to realize that it wasn’t my clothes that made me different, it was the fabric of my ancestry. Growing up not white enough to be white, but not black enough to be black, I wasn’t ever sure where I fit in. Add to that enough Portuguese blood that a regular wax is necessary to keep me from looking like a Mexican boy. By sixteen, it seemed that I was in the midst of a never-ending awkward phase.
In elementary school, I used to get questions from classmates that were so unbelievably ridiculous to me.
“Is that your real dad?” (Yes.)
“What are you, anyway?” (Um, American?)
As I got older, the questions were more random and bizarre.
“Do you know how to make chitlins?” (I didn’t even know at the time what that was.)
“Is it true that you can’t wash your hair?” (Um, why not?)
“Is that your boyfriend?” (No, that’s my dad. Gross)
“What nationality are you?” (American.) “No, I mean, where did you come from?” (Arizona.)
Struggling to identify with a race or culture left me with just as obscure a perspective on beauty. I poured over the pages of my teen magazines that showed my teen idols (Tiffani Amber Theissen, Candace Cameron, and Paula Abdul, to name a few) and their beauty routines and style choices and truly believed that those were the things that I needed to feel beautiful.
I used to lament to my mom as a teenager that none of the boys at school liked me because I was nerdy and wore unfashionable clothes and didn’t hang with the popular kids. She would tell me that they were just intimidated by my unbelievable beauty. I believed she was full of shit.
What I didn’t realize then is that the saying “beauty is skin deep,” isn’t actually true. Sure, my mom saw my olive complexion (“that so many women pay tons of money to have”), and my crooked smile, and even saw beauty in my straggly hair. But she also saw an incredibly gifted young lady with a big heart, who was willing to help someone out whenever the opportunity arose. She saw that no matter how many bigoted questions I got, I answered them honestly, but still made friends with anyone and everyone. I used to believe that she saw all that because she was my mom, but as I have gotten older, I have learned that beauty radiates from the inside out. I still have frizzy hair (when I don’t flat iron it). I still have a crooked smile. I almost never wear makeup. And I’m cool with that.
My most beautiful friends today don’t fit the picture-perfect standard of beauty. Some are carrying extra weight in all the wrong places. Some are tall and gangly. Some fight physical disabilities. It’s easy to see past all that because they have gorgeous hearts and souls and are out making this world a better place. That is a beautiful thing.
This post is part of the Beauty of a Woman BlogFest VI! To read more entries, and potentially win a fun prize, visit the fest page on August’s McLaughlin’s site between today and 11pm PST March 11th.
Aurora Jean Alexander says
You know, I read this post with a permanent nodding. My ancestry is different, but it was my mother who tried to form me into someone she wanted me to be rather than letting me be me. And I never fit in. I was bullied, I was beaten up for being different. (Until my Dad taught me the first tricks of self defense but that’s another story) In a way I feel how you must have felt. Only that it was my Dad who saw my heart, my character and my personality. And I still love him for this and so many other things.
Thanks for this wonderful post!
I know all too well that feeling of being expected to live up to a false perception of who you are. Especially when you hear the feedback, “you’re not acting like yourself.” Or my mom’s favorite, “I know you better than you know yourself.”
It breaks my heart that “beauty” is often defined in particulars we have no control over and are 10000% as worthy of love and embracement. And OMG, those comments you heard growing up. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that.
Your conclusion is spot on, IMO. Here’s to celebrating our differences and making the world brighter. 🙂 Thanks for joining the fest!
Totally agree! I don’t know how our society got so ingrained to hold a universal standard of beauty and to keep perpetuating it so strongly when our differences are what make us beautiful.
Musa Masala says
How wonderful that you now see your beauty. May that remain always!
Thank you! It is my hope that all young girls can see it earlier than I did.
RAS Jacobson says
Wow. We could be soul sisters. Seriously. Your story is my story. I love having friends of all sizes and colors and sexual preferences. My friends are mutts, like me. And I like it that way. Thanks for sharing your words.
I love it! My friends are so incredibly diverse and we have so much fun together. That’s the best way to live.
Shan Jeniah Burton says
When I look at anyone, I first notice eyes and smiles. Not whether the teeth are straight, or the eyes made up – but whether that smile is open and natural and wide, and shines up into the eyes – bonus points when eyes crinkle with the force of the grin.
I have little idea of my own ancestry – I was a very blonde, blue-eyed child who could get a nice tan just LOOKING at the sun. My father becomes dark enough that he could be mistaken for a black man if his china-blue eyes weren’t visible. Someday, I’ll do genetic testing and find out the story of the fabric I’m made from…
I’m glad your mom saw through what you felt was awkward (I had a gap when I was younger; so did both of my children. At 15, my son’s is gone, as mine was. At not quite 13, my daughter’s is going, and I will miss it when it does. I’m rather partial to gaps).
I’m not sure I would have put up so well with questions that rude and not-so-subtly intending to demean. Even if people were curious and not quite able to grasp the invasiveness of the questions, it ought to have been obvious that there are better ways to ask (and maybe starting by asking if it’s not distressing to ask could have been a better starting point).
I long for the day when we can truly celebrate all the wonderfully diverse permutations of humanity, without pulling them apart if they don’t match “us”.
And I’m so glad you shared here, so I could “meet” you!
I hope you do check out your ancestry. That will be such a treat to uncover.
While I realize that there are racially charged comments that are often made, I really think that there is also a level of plain ignorance with the questions. When I was young, I had to ask my Vietnamese friend why I always had to take off my shoes before entering the house, because it was outside of my paradigm. I wasn’t trying to make her feel lesser or different, I was just trying to understand her cultural norm. And I do think that assuming that someone relates with a certain culture because of the way they look is also rooted in ignorance more than prejudice, most of the time. Maybe I’m wrong in that, but I do like to give people the benefit of the doubt!
Lana Fox says
Beautiful, Eunice! Thank you for such a thoughtful, wise and open post. I’m so sorry for all the tough times you saw. I appreciate you sharing your moving journey, as well as the important reminders that beauty is everywhere and doesn’t need to conform to some curiously arbitrary set of rules!
“She saw that no matter how many bigoted questions I got, I answered them honestly, but still made friends with anyone and everyone.” That’s beautiful — true beauty.
Aww, thank you! I love the rag-tag group of friends I have.
Diana Beebe says
It sounds like your mother always saw you for you. What a gift to realize that! Thank you for sharing your story.
I think she did, even though she didn’t always realize it. My mom had a hard time accepting who I was becoming for a long time. But I kept just being me and she realized that was more important than becoming who she wanted me to be.
The differences and imperfections are the most beautiful and interesting parts to me! Thanks for sharing your experience!
Those are my favorites too. And it usually draws me to people to start a conversation and make a new friend!
Kitt Crescendo says
Oh, do I relate to this on more than one level. In my universe I was too Asian to be white and too white to be Asian. Icing on the cake, while living in the Philippines for a few years, I had a principal at my elementary school who pretty much hated “white” people because her husband had been married to a white woman before her. She made no secret of the fact she felt my teachers gave me my grades because they were showing favoritism because of my skin color…white. Ugh.
Oh boy! That sounds truly awful! I can say that I’m thankful for not having really been subject to any overt racism like that in my life. I’m sure mine have been more subtle and I’ve been completely ignorant to it.
Jenny Hansen says
I love your answers! –> “What nationality are you?” (American.) “No, I mean, where did you come from?” (Arizona.) You kept me smiling all the way through with your stunning wit and beauty. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering: why are so many people so rude??
Thanks Jenny! I genuinely would like to believe that people aren’t intentionally being rude, but rather that they are curious and perhaps a little ignorant. I hope that my responses help them to see how ridiculous their comments can be.
Jessica Lohmann says
Beautiful. Just plain beautiful! I laughed throughout the entire read, even though I know it wasn’t funny for you at the time, but I’m so glad you can look back at your experiences and find humor and deep meaning to them and I know it helped make you the beautiful and wonderful woman and mom you are today! Sending much love your way!
Actually, I can’t say that I didn’t ever laugh at some of them. The chitlins one for sure. When I found out what they were, I was so grossed out!