The Beauty of My Autistic Child

The Beauty of My Autistic Child

Beauty of Artistic Child ARTBy Alysia Abbott


Before I had children I didn’t think I would care very much about their looks, certainly not in any remarkable way. Doing so would reveal a gross degree of superficiality, a collusion with a society that already places too much emphasis on attractiveness. I believed that to cultivate the value of beauty in my little girl (my first born) would be to short-change her other virtues—the openness of her heart, the spark of her imagination, the steel determination to get what she wants when she wants it.

But something changed when I had my little boy. I know that every parent believes her child to be beautiful. Even the most unfortunate face is the face that only a mother could love. It’s clichéd. So please, take this statement with a grain of salt: My son, Finn, is beautiful.

With large green-speckled brown eyes and cupid-bow lips, soft wavy brown hair that manages to look good no matter how badly I cut it, with the velvety peach fuzz of his soft rounded shoulders, skin that is exquisitely, prohibitively soft, I cultivate, even fetishize his beauty. I praise his looks to his teachers and his babysitter all the time. I take picture after picture of him using every lens available in my iPhone arsenal, studying his face in different states of repose and concentration, sharing the best of these on social media.

I’ve embraced Finn’s beauty because it’s one of the few areas where he can truly thrive. He can’t catch a ball, or throw straight; he can’t draw a picture, or sing a song, say my name, or a write a word. I’m quite certain he’ll never be an academic or even a good conversationalist. If I walk him through the house, pulling him forward by the hand if I’m not carefully watching, he’ll knock his head against the door-jams like a pinball. A teacher once advised us to put him in a helmet. This undiagnosed visual processing disorder was just another complication in his already complicated diagnosis of autism and PDD-NOS (persistent development delay-no other symptom).

Without possessing the means or desire for the sort of communication that forms the basis of typical relationships, Finn may have to rely on his beauty to get the support he’ll need to thrive. I’m hoping his beauty will charm people, as it has charmed his caregivers and teachers. I want him to be protected from the bullies I imagine waiting in the shadows for this soft mute boy.


How do you form a meaningful relationship with a boy like my son? I can’t relate with Finn intellectually. I can’t ask him how he’s doing. I can only learn about his interests incidentally. Watching him interact with toys and books and nature, I can tell you that he likes best digging his hands in dirt, throwing rocks into ponds and street drains, playing musical toys with the speaker pressed tightly against his right ear. If I fall and cry out, he’ll as likely laugh, just as he laughs at any emotion expressed with great intensity, including alarm and anger. He’s not yet shown a facility for compassion or generosity. Yet we—his mother, his father and sister—are incredibly attached to him.

In Finn, I’ve had to learn other ways of relating, of attaching and loving. And with Finn, that’s a physical relationship. Without the understanding that’s achieved through language there is only Finn’s predilection for touch, his extreme sensitivity. The way he slips his narrow fingers between mine, or curls his warm body into the crook of my arm, or wraps himself around my neck like a long mink stole when I’m sitting on the couch. In our relationship touch is everything.

This is how all of us bond with Finn. We lay with him. We breathe him in. We kiss his face. But there have also been times when I’ve bit him. Anything to get a reaction. Anything that would wake him up to my presence. I am here. I am your mother. I’m not like any another. Recognize me.

When I used to come home from a day of work and tried to seek him out, he’d pay me no mind. Distracted, focused on getting his food, or playing with the iPad he would, in these instances, see me only as a distraction, an intrusion into his world. If I was too assertive with my interruption he might try to bite or pinch me. Hard. But it’s me. I wanted to say. I am your mother. You love and miss ME. Hello! But recently, Finn’s been waking up.


I’ve come home from a night and a day in NYC. I call out his name and when he enters my line of vision at the top of the stairs he jumps up like and down like a spring and flaps his arms with excitement. I greet him there, stooping so I can meet him at his level. He would rush over to my lap were it not for the therapist, who stops him. “Who do you want to see, Finn?” she asks. “You want mom?” She prompts him to sign mom: thumb on chin, palm open, fingers outstretched. He holds the sign and the therapist verbally confirms it’s intent. Mom.

He starts to move forward again and again he is stopped, “What do you want from mom?” She prompts him to fold his arms across his chest. “You want to hug mom?” He nods, holding the sign. “Ok, hug mom.” The therapist over enunciates each word, to make sure he understands their assigned meanings. Finn is hugging mom.

And at last he is released into my arms, free to join me for a quick embrace before being ushered back to the table to complete his work for the day. After the long build up, the hug is brief, too brief for me. So I scroll through all the other motions and signs I know he understands that will deliver me the proximity I long for after so many hours away. “Kiss,” I command and he moves his stiff lips to mine for a light peck then quickly pulls way. And I make a kiss sound: Mwah! One of the simple noises I know he can reciprocate. He makes the kiss sound. And I smile. It’s our special thing.

Then his therapist leads him to the table where he will work for the rest of the afternoon and he whimpers, starts to cry a heartbreaking cry. I want to say to the therapist, “It’s okay. He doesn’t need to work now right.” But I know I can’t get in the way. He didn’t used to be able to nod “yes” or “no,” let alone sign “mom” or “hug.” ABA, assisted behavioral analysis, is working for him. It’s how he learns best. Sign “mom” and you will see mom. Sign “drink” and you will have your drink. I’m a tool, a means for him to try harder to adapt to our typical ways of communication. And I’m glad to play the role.


Today, I feel more accepting of Finn. I appreciate his beauty but I also appreciate him as an individual, not despite his peculiarities but because of them. That Finn-ness that is uniquely his, even coupled with his maladaptive autistic behaviors—the biting, the pinching and the hitting, the chewing of rubber-bands, and breaking of beloved things—is still him. And that touch. Jeff likes to say that though developmentally delayed Finn’s abilities to cuddle are freakishly advanced. “He’s a cuddling genius,” he says.

Finn’s sensory disorder, the amount of pleasure he derives from being tickled or having a stiff bristled brush run over his legs and feet is truly awe-inspiring. His expressions of pure glee, a squealing with a face stretched to a toothy grin, accompanied by a sort of thick purr are brilliant, a thing of beauty.

How could we ever trade these qualities for the temperament of another boy? This is a boy made to love. And we four are bound together by this love. Seeing in him a potential that has only grown. This is where he’s been. This is where he’s going. This is who he was. This is who he’s becoming.

Author’s Note: Since writing this essay Finn’s home therapy has been interrupted and his behavior has taken a turn for the worse. These days his touch more often used to communicate frustration (pinching, kicking) than it is to communicate love. But this is part of motherhood too, to absorb and to listen, and to find balance between the mountains and the valleys.

Alysia Abbott is a writer and the author of Fairyland, A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton, 2013). Her work has appeared in Vogue,, Slate, Real Simple, TriQuarterly, and Psychology Today, among other publications. She lives with her husband and their children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can find her on twitter at @AlysiaAbbott.


You’re Beautiful

You’re Beautiful

By Kelly J. Baker


“You’re beautiful,” my daughter says to a sixty-something waitress with a halo of wild gray curls. The waitress looks tired and worn. The compliment seems to take her by surprise, as if it unsettles her. She pauses, tentatively smiles, and murmurs a hushed “thank you.” When a five year old offers a compliment, you take it, even if it doesn’t resonate. You say, “thank you.” You smile. Maybe, you even offer a compliment back. The child says, “you’re welcome” with bright smile. Sometimes, she just nods and grins mischievously.

My daughter makes these pronouncements of beauty daily: at the grocery store, at her elementary school, in parking lots, in the street, in nature, and at home. She uncovers beauty in birds and squirrels, sunsets and cloudy days, the green grass and the autumn leaves, her toddling brother and smiling babies. Beauty appears everywhere as if waiting for her alone to identify it. She finds people, especially women, beautiful and never hesitates to tell them so. Shape, size, skin color, and age don’t matter. Beauty appears to her as inclusive and expansive.

There’s no stopping these declarations of who, or what, is beautiful. They erupt from her in a clear, singsong voice. Her excitement telegraphs through her inability to stay still. I cannot bring myself to try to contain them. The words emerge when I least expect them. She catches a cashier off guard. She shouts at teenagers walking in our neighborhood. She lovingly tells her grandmother, my mother, how beautiful she is. She compliments her friends, and they shrug off her words in the midst of play.

Many women appear stunned by her pronouncements unsure what do when a now six-year old offers a compliment seemingly out of context. (Is there a context for compliments? If so, my kid refuses to acknowledge it.) Others focus on her “cuteness” to return the favor, as if the compliment must be reciprocated. Some ignore her outright. She doesn’t appear to mind. Once she’s declared someone is beautiful, that beauty exists whether acknowledged or not.

I wonder what my daughter means by beauty. I want to ask her. I stop myself before I can utter the question because I’m afraid the question will change her. If I make her define why someone or something is beautiful, I fear I’ll make her question her visions of beauty. So, I don’t ask. Instead, I try to embrace her lesson of limitless beauty and apply it generously. I want her to keep finding everyone beautiful. I want to find everyone beautiful too.

My daughter also finds beauty in me, usually in the moments when I think I’m anything but. In the mornings before coffee, without my trusty under-eye concealer and the benefit of a hair brush. In the afternoons when my energy and patience are low, she tosses the compliment around haphazardly ignoring whether it landed. In the evenings while she snuggles close, she whispers, “You’re beautiful.” She touches my cheek or holds my hand. I hold her tightly, forcing myself to remember these fleeting moments and her kind words.

No matter how I look, she finds beauty. Glasses or contacts, yoga pants or jeans, make-up or none, I appear beautiful to her. She’s pronounced my beauty, so it exists.

Like the strangers she compliments, I’m often stunned by her words. I find myself at a loss of what to say. Most often I respond with a rushed “thank you,” but in trying moments, I hold back an exasperated “seriously?”—she finds me beautiful, even though I rarely think of myself in such terms.

Instead, I can enumerate my flaws, and the many features I dislike: my nose, crooked bottom teeth, chubby cheeks, and squishy tummy. I want to say I’m not beautiful, but I would never say this to her. This is my opinion, not hers. What I look like does not define who I am, I remind myself. This is not all of me. Yet, my disquiet with my appearance remains. This is my burden to bear, not hers, so I smile and offer my thanks. My daughter finds me beautiful, so I am.

I revel in her appreciation of beauty without judgment. I look for beauty with her. I point out what I find beautiful. I hope her visions of infinite beauty can make my definitions more expansive and forgiving. I attempt to ignore the cultural pressures that assert beauty is limited rather than limitless. She sees no limits to what can be beautiful. I hope she always does.

After listening to her declarations of beauty for over a year, what I realized is that “you’re beautiful” is more than a compliment. It is also my daughter’s way of saying “I see you.” For her, there are no flaws, just human beings. When she tells me that I’m beautiful as she holds my hand, she’s explaining that she sees me. “You’re beautiful” is “I love you.” These words become her way to articulate that I bring beauty to her life as we encounter the world together. I’m her mother, she’s my child, and beauty is all around us. I’m glad she points to beauty, or I would miss it because of my limits. She sees me, and I see her. She loves me, and I love her. She’s beautiful too.

Kelly J. Baker is writer, who lives in Tallahassee, Florida with her husband and two kids. She can be found online at or on Twitter @kelly_j_baker.

Beautiful Girls

Beautiful Girls

By Anndee Hochman

WO Beauty Art

The problem was an infected earlobe.

Sasha, my 13-year-old daughter, had been diligent about swabbing the new piercing twice a day, but the air is full of germs, and somehow one of them had crept inside. Now the ear throbbed scarlet, and a lymph node had swollen just behind it, an unforgiving pea beneath the satiny skin of her neck.

The doctor was not Sasha’s regular pediatrician, but a warm and competent partner in the cozy suburban practice. She wiggled the earring from its hotbed of infection, while my stoic daughter held back tears and my partner winced in empathetic pain. Then Dr. B. prescribed an oral antibiotic and a prescription cream.

The visit was over, nothing left to do but grab coats and write a check for the co-pay, when the doc called out, “She’s beautiful…does her daddy lock her in the closet on weekends?”

Suddenly, we had a new problem, far more inflamed and resistant than the pinkly painful earlobe. There is no daddy in our family. Closets aplenty, but we’d spent years breaking out of those, thank you very much. The only things closeted in our house were winter coats and warped umbrellas.

You could write off the incident as a moment’s thoughtlessness, one of those times when the ancestral brain overrides all rational filters. Except the comment was no fluke. Just a few days earlier, my cousin had said, nodding in Sasha’s direction: “She’s gorgeous. You guys better get a shotgun.”

And the day before that, in the moments immediately following Sasha’s bat mitzvah, during which she had chanted words of Torah and spoken eloquently of “everyday miracles,” my mother’s boss offered similar caution. “She’s a beauty. Better lock that one in the closet.”

How do I even begin to unpack these remarks, let alone respond to them? What I said to my mother’s boss was, “We don’t believe in locking kids in closets. We believe in teaching them to manage the world.” Humorless. Preachy. What my best friends later called “a classic 1980s feminist response.”

So, okay, how about humor? I wish I’d told my cousin, the one who recommended we arm ourselves to preserve our daughter’s innocence, “Yeah, we’ll put that shotgun on the shopping list, along with a chastity belt and a windowless tower.” And oh, for the presence of mind to lob the good doctor a snappy rejoinder: “Lock her up on weekends? Gosh…don’t you think that would be…child abuse?”

Here’s the truth: My daughter is indeed beautiful. And smart. And tough. And it enrages me when acquaintances, colleagues and strangers in the food co-op see only one aspect of her gorgeous complexity, then feel entitled to say something Medieval about it.

On Sasha’s birth announcement, we quoted Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” And fierce she was, even at one hour old and less than six pounds, when she did a one-armed push-up in her hospital isolette. At three weeks, she flipped herself from tummy to back with a torque of her tiny legs and an exertion of sheer will.

Fast-forward 13 years. Late on the night of her bat mitzvah, I found Sasha doing push-ups, barefoot in her silver party dress, on the carpet outside the synagogue’s social hall. Some nights, between face-washing and tooth-brushing, she hangs upside-down on the pull-up bar that is bolted into the bedroom doorway, her fleece pajama shirt bunched to reveal abs hard as cedar.

My daughter loves a good gel manicure and likes to fringe her ice-blue eyes with dark mascara. She also likes to argue, arm-wrestle and run a mile in less than eight minutes. When my partner, Elissa, explained what the doctor meant by her unfortunate remark, Sasha declared, “No one’s going to touch me unless I want them to!”

So when people suggest we keep Sasha under lock and key, they’re grossly underestimating her strength, ingenuity and pluck. But that’s not all they’re saying. Embedded in those remarks are centuries of poisonous myth: Beauty is dangerous. Women are helpless. Men are wolves. Parents (fathers, especially) must guard their daughters’ sexuality by any means necessary. And of course, there’s the assumption that she’s straight.

It would be laughable, except that it’s a short walk from those deep-seated beliefs to cultures where daughters are forbidden to read and wives are forbidden to drive, where girls suffer painful genital mutilation because their sexual pleasure is so suspect and their virginity so prized.

But my daughter isn’t being raised in Afghanistan or Somalia. She’s growing up in a progressive pocket of Philadelphia in 2014, a century and place teeming with strong, funny, competent women and men who call themselves feminists. Why, then, these retro words from the mouths of people—including a female pediatrician, for heaven’s sake—who certainly should know better?

Old stories take a long time to wither and die. The image of beauty bespoiled is a potent one. In a culture that sometimes feels as though it’s spinning out of control—Sexting! Online pedophiles! Thongs marketed to pre-teens!—maybe the sequestered adolescent or the shotgun-wielding papa is an appealing trope.

But not where I live. So, no, we will not be installing a padlock on Sasha’s bedroom door. No rifle on my shoulder as she strides down the front walk to meet her sweetheart.

Yes, the world of social and sexual interaction is rife with risk (chlamydia, pregnancy, almost-guaranteed heartbreak), but it’s not my job, as a parent, to police Sasha’s journey. It’s my job to help her learn tools to navigate on her own: Audacity. Self-regard. Candor. Communication. It’s my obligation to share every story I know about girls and women—stories from mythology and Torah and history, stories to critique and stories to admire. True ones, too, from Elissa’s life and mine, about times we said yes and times we said no and with whom and what happened next and how it all felt.

And this: When I was a teenager, my mother passed along the words of her grandmother, Ethel, a woman always described in family anecdotes as “a feminist before her time.” Ethel ran the business side of the bakery she and her husband owned in Philadelphia; she took a train to Chicago alone to visit relatives. And she advised her granddaughters, in salty Yiddish, that if a guy got fresh, they should “varfn im inem yam un pishn arayn zayn oyer.” Throw him in the ocean and pee in his ear.

Now, there’s an idea.

About the Author: Anndee Hochman is the author of Everyday Acts & Small Subversions: Women Reinventing Family, Community and Home, a collection of essays, and Anatomies, a book of short fiction. She writes about family health, the arts, and spiritual life and community for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Hair Today Gone Tomorrow

Hair Today Gone Tomorrow

By Anndee Hochman

Hair Today art 2“Ama, you should grow your hair long,” my 11-year-old daughter Sasha says, watching me in the fogged mirror over the sink, her round brush paused mid-stroke. I shake my head like a terrier, scattering warm droplets. Then I reach around her—it’s small, this bathroom—to the shelf where Elissa and I keep the tools of our pragmatic grooming routines: mint dental floss, paraben-free deodorant, contact lens solution, a tweezer to tug the occasional wayward hair from one another’s chins.

I rake my fingers through my short, damp hair, fluffing it with a dab of green gel—the bargain brand, $3.99 with my Acme supercard—to keep my curls standing at shiny attention for the next fifteen hours. Sasha continues to brush her own tupelo-honey tresses, like some Victorian heroine, 100 daily strokes in pursuit of radiance and contentment.

“If I grew my hair long, it would be a mess,” I say. “A fuzzy, tangled mess. C’mon, you’ve seen the pictures.”

I’m thinking of a photo snapped in the courtyard of Trumbull College my sophomore year. I’m wearing the khaki-colored sack I favored in those days to hide my body’s bulges—overalls cut loosely through the thighs and hips, cinched at each shoulder with a strap poked through a buttonhole and then double-knotted. My round cheeks are framed—no, more like swallowed—in a cloud of wild, coal-colored frizz. It looks like a long-haired animal, in shedding season, has draped itself miserably over my head.

I am not going back. I am not going back to Barry Leonard, Crimper, circa 1975, where Barry himself, rayon shirt unbuttoned nearly to his copper belt buckle, stands behind my chair, comb in one hand and mournful look in his limpid brown eyes. “Such hair. Such texture. Some day you will just let it be,” he says, lifting one thick, wavy section. Women in hot pants serve Chardonnay and brie to waiting customers; a white shag carpet hugs the walls. Pink lava lamps undulate on the reception desk.

My mother is paying Barry Leonard $25—a lot, at the time—to be one more adult telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, insisting that today’s stinging regret will, eventually, morph to gratitude. I really don’t care. I am 13 and I want straight hair like Cher, like Karen Carpenter, like Lise Abbott, the tallest and most stunning girl in my class. “Please just blow-dry it,” I say. I can see myself in the infinite mirrors, endless tunnel of shaggy-haired Anndees, all of them lock-jawed with impatience. My mother, complimentary wine in hand, fades toward the carpeted wall. Barry Leonard looks as if he might cry. The blow dryer roars, and he pulls a hank of my hair taut with the wire brush, lashing it over and under, over and under, with electric heat.

I stopped trying to straighten my hair at 16, around the time Josh and I began making out on the black leather couch in his father’s study. I’d like to say it happened in this order: I threw away the giant rollers, unplugged the blow dryer and, with a joyful, newly liberated spirit, attracted my first real boyfriend. But I think it was really the other way around: Josh gave me a stuffed koala bear, wrote cards in barely legible print saying I was pretty, and his sheepish affections buoyed my confidence enough to stop fighting my natural instincts—or, at least, the natural instincts of my hair. Josh managed to blaze a path through the tangle; his tongue found my earlobe, and he held my curls when we kissed.

Fast-forward eleven years. I live in Oregon, I kiss girls—including the one who will become my life partner—and, one impulsive afternoon, I ask Mary Newcomer at the 37th Street Salon to cut my hair short. Really short, I tell her, making a chop-chop motion around my ears. I watch as eight-inch squiggles, threaded with gray, tumble to the floor.

My mother, when she sees me a month later, will think I have done this because I’m a lesbian; short hair goes with the ripped jeans, second piercing in the left ear and requisite copy of Sinister Wisdom on the bookshelf. She’s worried: what next? A motorcycle? A labrys tattoo on my left hip? But she’ll be wrong. I’m not cutting off my hair in order to join the club. What I see in the mirror as wavy skeins fall from Mary’s shears is this: a woman who no longer needs to hide in a khaki sack or a helmet of hair.

Yes, that was me in Barry Leonard’s salon chair, crackling with want, cringing in self-mortification. Me, blistering my forehead with blow-dryers. Me, staggering through freshman year on a diet of coffee and Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. That was me, at war with my hair, with myself, until—gradually, finally, blessedly—I grew up and made peace. Such hair. Such texture. Let her be.

Fast-forward once again. Sasha wants contact lenses and high-heeled sandals and permission to wear pink lipstick out of the house. She wants to look like the girls in the Justice clothing catalogue, willow-legged and flirty in their flounced skirts. We compromise and negotiate. We give in on lip gloss, stand firm on the strappy heels, promise contacts when she turns 13. She rolls her eyes. We raise our voices. And each Friday night, we lay our palms on her silken head and whisper: “Hayei asher ti-yih, vehayi b’rucha, b’asher ti-yih. Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.”

She can barely tolerate our murmured blessing—”Stop. You’re messing up my hair,” she hisses before we’re finished—and I know, in the end, we can do only what my mother did—fade toward the wall, witnesses as Sasha finds her way.

Back to the present, our steamy little bathroom. “If you grew your hair long,” Sasha muses, “you could put it in a high ponytail—look, Ama, like this—and tie it with a pink ribbon. It would be so cute. I want you to have long hair. Did you ever? I’m going to let mine grow, down to here, and then get it layered…Will you make me a ponytail? Really tight. It’s bumpy on top; I don’t want it bumpy on top. Make it so there aren’t any little strands sticking out? No, not like that! Why won’t that piece tuck in? I. HATE. MY. HAIR!”

“I know, sweetie.” But I’ve moved on, my one-minute beauty routine is wrapped up for the day. I poke earrings through my lobes, shrug a silver bracelet onto my wrist, grab socks from the basket in the corner. Sasha continues brushing her hair, alternately beaming and scowling at herself in the mirror, trying unsuccessfully to tame the wild, electric strands.

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Beauty Calls

Beauty Calls

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.”Beauty Calls Art 2

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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