By Jessica Bram
We had a new baby sitter living with us last year, a 19-year-old college student who could only be called beautiful. She had classic Scandinavian looks: wavy blond hair, gray-green eyes beneath an ivory brow and flawless white teeth. Tall and slender, her body was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit ideal: long legs, slim thighs, tanned young skin that wouldn’t know the meaning of cellulite for years to come.
When we first spied her as she rounded the luggage carousel after her flight from Wisconsin, I couldn’t help thinking: “Oh, no, now look what I’ve done. Did I have to hire someone this gorgeous?” But the thought dissipated when Julie got down on her knees, introduced herself to my two rapt young sons and, while we waited for her luggage, described to them the animals at her farm back home.
I was, however, frequently reminded of my initial reaction as my friends caught sight of Julie and registered their opinions. “Who needs such a beautiful girl in your house?” they asked, half in jest, watching her crouch on her long, tan legs alongside my children, sunlight gleaming off her gold curls. “You’re not going to leave your husband alone with that, are you?” A neighbor, eyeing Julie’s lithe young body in her swimsuit at the pool, took me aside: “I think you should pay her her whole salary in advance, and tell her you hope she has a very nice summer . . . back where she came from.”
Slowly I began to sense a cutting, almost sinister undertone to my friends’ comments. I found myself questioning to what degree their remarks were serious, and what unnamed feelings they masked. What were my friends really saying? Did they truly fear for my marriage — or their own — if our husbands caught sight of this dazzling 19-year-old? Would we learn some terrible truths about ourselves if forced to compare at poolside our post-pregnancy, time-softened bodies with Julie’s? Or was this some kind of covert misogyny, secretly shared even by women, cloaked more acceptably as simple envy? And why should a kind, good-natured girl deserve such calumny?
All this fuss over Julie got me wondering about beauty. About why beauty is so intimidating and, in the case of a young summer visitor, so feared and resented.
I am what I would call reasonably attractive. I have even, at times, been called beautiful, although I can honestly say that I never experienced myself as a beautiful woman. It is usually enough to have my husband assure me I’m his physical type, although he has occasionally been known to use the word “knockout.” More often, I am content with a kind of not-bad-lookingness that has never caused a prospective employer to believe that I wouldn’t be serious about the job. It’s been many, many years since those preadolescent days when I would search my face in a mirror asking the critical question: Am I beautiful? Am I ugly? It was impossible to know, although I knew enough not to trust my mother’s pronouncement that yes, I would one day most assuredly be beautiful.
And why was it so important to be beautiful? This was something I never questioned, and neither did my mother, It was a simple fact of life–a prior notion that beauty was, for a girl, a basic requirement. Fairy-tale maidens were rescued from drudgery simply by virtue of their innocent beauty, so potent it was feared by stepmothers and evil queens. Not only an end in itself, beauty possessed a magical, inexplicable power: for achievement, for success, for salvation.
The promise of beauty was that with it came the prince and the shimmering castle and all the other rewards that one could imagine in “happily ever after.” It was the essential key without which doors to happiness would remain locked. (Perhaps the beast, being the male, could get around this requirement, but no such luck for a homely princess.)
Years later, I found this same hope of redemption in the glossy, headily ink-scented pages of Seventeen magazine, whose fresh-faced models – Cheryl and Lucy and Colleen – could, like me, be transformed by the magic of make-overs.
Although my mother’s promise to me has always dangled somewhat tantalizingly beyond the horizon, I have, over the years, made peace with my looks. That I do not receive the kind of stares and double takes that Julie did, I assure myself, has only made it easier to focus on other things, like grades and friends and life’s decisions, large and small. And I remind myself that my marriage has survived threats far worse than Christie Brinkley. But to see it as an issue of appearance or even sexual rivalry is, for me, to miss a larger point.
For when I looked at Julie, I remembered that old promise of beauty. Her crown of gold curls, bestowed by God Himself, seemed to me the very embodiment of limitless potential–a sign that Julie, unlike the rest of us, had some kind of guarantee of happiness. This told me that my old fantasies about beauty’s magic are still very much alive. Yet I realized that it is these very imaginings, fabricated out of fairy tales and magazines and thin air, that are the key to beauty’s true power. By believing our own storybook assumptions, we somehow make them, for the beautiful, come true.
I began to understand the accusatory stares leveled at Julie, as though she had committed some grace offense or insult. Perhaps the insult was this: that she had painfully reminded us of the promise of beauty once made, as it was to me by fairy tale and fantasy and a well-meaning mother. A promise that, like so many other promises, would never materialize. Perhaps she reminded us that the kingdom is a nice community in the suburbs with good schools and a pool club. That the prince, for better of worse, does not exactly relish an endless waltz at the ball – if he’ll go near a dance floor at all. That even achievement ends not with a heraldic trumpet blare but with a satisfied stretch of the muscles at the end of a day of hard work. That so many of childhood’s sparkling dreams for the future, while we were busy elsewhere, became dreams laid to rest.
In the weeks that Julie was with us, I somehow came to stop noticing her beauty. What I mostly saw was how kind she was to my children, how helpful and cheerful to have a round the house. And I discovered that there was, after all, really nothing terribly powerful about this girl who liked to draw Magic Marker pictures with my sons and eat big bowls of chocolate ice cream every evening with her long legs sprawled in front of the TV. In other words, as my neighbor said to me about Julie, “You know, she’s really so nice, you can’t even hate her for her looks.”
About the Author: Jessica Bram is a writer, radio commentator and author of Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey (Health Communications, Inc. 2009). She is the director of the Westport Writers’ Workshop, which she founded in 2003, where she teaches workshops in creative nonfiction, personal essay, and memoir.
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