“Mehmeh, are you pretty?”
The question came from my 10 year old granddaughter, Gianina. That caught me by surprise, as we were preparing the table for dinner. I was even more surprised that I couldn't answer it.
I, instead, answered with a question, “What?'
“Are you pretty?” Gianina asked again.
The question is pretty straightforward. It could be answered with a yes, or a no. But I couldn't answer it. Not so much because it came out of the blue, but because I found it complicated.
All I could manage was a lame, “I don't think so.”
The simple question brought back all those growing pains of searching and trying so hard to believe in myself. Am I pretty? Am I worthy? Am I good enough?
The answers to these questions feed off from others' perceptions. It begins in the cradle. Relatives come to visit the new addition to the family. They gather around the crib, look at the baby, a lot of oohs and aahs all around. Then comments can range from,
“Oh, look at the nose,” “what a pretty baby – so fair, mestisa .” Immediately, there is the standard by which this little girl will be judged, by others, and then, by herself. It starts with how you look, currently mainly dictated by fashion and media. One could say, however, culture and history also plays a part. In this case, it goes far back to 300 years of Spanish colonization. Hence the term, mestisa.
Where I grew up, pretty is fair skin, long, sleek, straight hair, aquiline nose, tiny waist, belly flat as a board. I could check only the last two, mainly because I was too skinny. I was the dusky one, with curly hair. And because I was what is called, morena, I was discouraged from wearing bright colors.
“Stick to pastels,” I was always told. Red, orange, fuchsia, electric blue, emerald green do not go with my dark complexion. Gushing over these colors from afar, I settled into the safety of light yellows, olive, very light pinks and blues.
My hair was always cropped, to tame the curls into place. How I envied the girls with long hair. I would imagine having braids, and would flick my head to one side pretending to take away my braid from my face. I had to get used to the joke, “mahangin ba sa labas?” (Is it windy outside?) every time I entered a room with my tousled, curly hair. To this day, I still have the nickname, “Colot” (Curly), thankfully now affectionately shortened to Lot.
It wasn't until I entered college, that I gained some confidence to make some changes and decisions about how I want to look. I grew my hair long. I was so happy to discover that the curls dropped to the tips! I learned to wear my hair, parted in the middle, and sleeked down and tied into a low pony tail, or twisted with a ribbon threaded through it. Fortunately those were en trend in the 60s.
Meanwhile, the race to look like that perfect, beautiful woman goes on. The TV ads are flooded with products and services to stretch and straighten the hair, powders and creams to whiten the skin, teas to melt away the fats, sauna belts to sweat away the inches from the belly and the waist.
Store shelves were, and still are, crammed with Lyna and other brands of pearl cream guaranteed to whiten your skin like a Kabuki face. There was even White Princess, the powder you mix into a paste, spread all over your body, and leave it on for something like 3 or more hours, until it dries, rinse it off, and voila (!) - fair complexion! It doesn't end there. Now there is Glutathion! It is a capsule you take, and it turns your complexion from dusky to fair!
And when all else fails, there is always now, photoshop, so you can lull yourself into believing, as you gaze into your image, “Yes, you are beautiful.”
Thank goodness, school, and the business of growing up, although fraught with fears and yes, pains, had kept me too busy to worry about my complexion and my hair and my shape. Surprisingly, I began to discover vast spaces and places where true beauty lies, not only outside of me but even within me. When I look at the face, I do not see the complexion, I see the eyes, where the smile begins. When I look at a person, I do not see the hair, or the shape, I see the heart from where love flows. When I hear someone speak, I do not see the lips from where the sound is coming, I listen, to the voice from which bits of wisdom and feelings fall. I found that as this capacity to discern and see beyond what just meets the eye, developed, albeit slowly, so did my self-confidence, my self-esteem, my self-worth. It feels wonderful to be able to say to myself – Yes, I am worthy. I am good enough.
I can even look at my image in the mirror today, and I see wrinkles and call them laugh lines. I see grey hair and I say silver. Maybe I can even say to Gianina,
“Yes, I am pretty.”
“Yes, I am pretty.”
March 8, 2014
Round Rock, Texas