There is a giant mirror in my hometown in Ireland. It covers one side of a building that you must walk past to get from my mother’s house to the town centre. When I was a teenager, I learnt to take a different route. The mirror was always sparkling clean, a burst of reflection in the middle of a dull street. It showed me, abruptly, how others saw me.
With other, smaller mirrors, like those in my bedroom or the camera on my phone, I could prepare myself and decide my approach. But with the mirror on the street I saw myself as I was, plodding down the little hill without grace or charm. All at once I could see the truth so plainly. No matter how long I had spent applying make-up or adjusting my outfit or psyching myself up to go out, I was not beautiful.
When I was younger, I wanted to be beautiful so badly that I could taste it, and it tasted like blood. It was a hard, painful desire. I didn’t want to be cute, or pretty. I didn’t want to be more attractive to men. I didn’t want to be sexier. I wanted only to be beautiful, and the fact that I was not beautiful hurt more, not less, for the fact that I so nearly was. What I wanted was to be undeniable, to be all clean lines, to not be debatable. I wanted to be like a drawing of a beautiful woman you might do in a game of Pictionary.
I think now that I idolised beauty so much because I was often embarrassed and ashamed as a teenager and beauty seemed the opposite of embarrassment to me. To be beautiful was to have power over others. It was much more difficult to make a beautiful girl seem foolish than it was an average-looking one, I thought.
Eventually I grew up, and my preoccupation, seemingly, faded. Much worse things than not being beautiful happened to me.
I spent the first month of this year back home in Waterford, living with my parents because I was too broke to return to real life. I was depressed and anxious about the fact that my life keeps stalling, this time as a result of a late rent cheque.
I was ashamed that I was relying on my parents’ food at the age of 28. It was the longest stint I’d been back home in years — and yet what hurt me with the most acuity was the returning overwhelming awareness of my physical shortcomings, the mirror’s sharp reminder.
The embarrassment I felt as a teenager about not fitting some ideal of beauty never went away. It simply hid out back there in Ireland, waiting to remind me that whatever else I am, I’ll never be that.
Now, for the first time, I’m trying to understand that I don’t have to be.
I’d tried to love myself as I got older, tried to look with clear eyes at my physical flaws and not just accept but admire them. I tried to believe that, actually, I was beautiful, because everyone was, not just the chosen few.
I tried forcing myself to concede this, through a fake smile and gritted teeth. I’ve said it aloud, as advised by body-confidence self-help gurus, while looking at myself naked. It’s always felt absurd.
What if I tried something that has always been too frightening to think about? What if I tried accepting that I will never be beautiful, and that I do not need to be?
Challenging social norms about who can be beautiful is vital work, and of course it is true that representations of beauty in the media are pathetically white, thin, able-bodied and hetero, and of course this should change. But somewhere along the way, the message of inclusivity went from “every kind of person can be beautiful” to “every person beautiful.”
I’m increasingly convinced that this message isn’t only less radical than we might like to believe, but also actively harmful.
Wouldn’t it be freeing to admit that most people are not beautiful? What if we stopped prioritising pleasing aesthetics above so much else? I wonder what it would be like to grow up in a world where being beautiful is not seen as a necessity, but instead a nice thing some people are born with and some people aren’t, like a talent for swimming, or playing the piano.
It has seemed to take up so much of my life, being desperate to not only be acceptable to look at, but also beautiful, exceptional, enchanting. What might I have experienced if I had not been trying to claw my way towards beauty? What things might I have thought, feelings might I have felt, if that space were freed up inside of myself?
What would it have been like to pass that mirror in my hometown, and to see myself — on the way to the library, or a party with friends, or a walk in the park — and simply feel glad that I was able to do those things, that I have a body that allows me to? What would it have been like not to look at it at all?
Everyone is beautiful, we’re told. But why should we have to be?
— New York Times News Service
Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, fiction and criticism.