A note from the author, Eliza Factor: Parallax Press just published Strange Beauty, a memoir about growing up with my son Felix, and how he deepened my understanding of language, community, violence, religion, and much more--but not beauty! In spite of the title, the chapter about beauty did not fit into the narrative. So here it is. Some of you may have read an earlier version years ago—this one is better! May it release you as Felix has released me.
|Detail from Modigliani's Gypsy Woman with Baby|
The people I saw as I walked to school or work or went uptown to see friends did not look like Modigliani’s French, they looked like New Yorkers, in all their variety and magnificence. I feasted on them. Those noses! Those eyelids! Those jawlines! Even a vein could be beautiful, the purple hue of a seashell, climbing delicate and rootlike up the softness of thigh or flush of cheek. Everyone was beautiful. I would argue about this with my boyfriend, who walked the same streets, yet more often saw wattle, drabness, suppurating wounds. He thought that saying everyone was beautiful devalued the idea of beauty. I thought that his lopping off great swaths of beauty was the devaluation. Beauty wasn’t uniform. It coursed out of some and dripped out of others, and took on different guises over the run of a life. There was the beauty of children who called forth adults to protect and nourish them, the stirring sexual beauty of teenagers and young adults who carried this on but complicated it with the desire for conquest, the beauty of the middle aged and old, which was not so mouthwatering but nevertheless powerful and moving. There was the beauty of the fat and the thin, the beauty of the thoughtful and the exuberant, the beauty of the purple eye-shadowed drag queen and the Amish lady at the farmer’s market selling her cheeses. There was also the beauty that pop culture, and my boyfriend, so adored: that of sexy young women. Over the course of my life, I’ve had two friends whose looks had such a conquering capacity that walking a New York City block in their company was to feel the desire not of one or two, but of a multitude upon you, as if even apartment dwellers watering their plants in the windows were stopping mid-pour to check out what was happening on the sidewalk below. That sort of beauty was a glorious thing, and well worth celebrating, but I knew that it was not the only kind.
Jump forward to my early thirties. Primping for a party, I put on a slinky black dress and spent some time in front of the mirror, arranging my hair and trying out lipsticks. When I was done, Jason, my newish boyfriend, looked me over and said, “Oooh, you got all pretty.” He meant it as a compliment, but I was furious. What?! You don’t think I’m pretty in writing clothes and pencils sticking out of my hair? See if I have daughters with you! Later, when we got married (we now have two daughters), he earned my complete forgiveness when I had the chicken pox. On day two of the disease, he came home from the drugstore with a bottle of Caladryl, which he dabbed over my boil-ridden butt, back, and eyelids. I could barely stand to look at my skin, I found it so repulsive, but he was gentle and unafraid. As he came to my blistered face, he smiled and said, “your eyes are still beautiful.”
I was pregnant with our first child at the time. I recovered my health, but my pregnancy became complicated. The following months centered around unnerving visits to neonatal specialists who would frown into the sonogram and say things like, it will probably be OK, the asymmetries are in the range of normal. Oh, the great relief of Felix’s birth! He was a beautiful baby. Perfectly gorgeous. Jason and I spent hours admiring him, a pastime we dubbed Felix TV. How delightful he was, lying on his baby quilt, arms akimbo, big eyes shining. We never tired of pointing out the becoming chubbiness of his thighs, the curve of his mouth. This is par for the course with most new parents. According to evolutionary biology, mammals are conditioned to find their offspring cute. Birds, too, I would say, judging from the care they give to their fledglings.
Because we were first-time parents, and because of Felix’s pleasing looks, we didn’t realize that he was floppier than most other babies until he was four or five months old. At that point, our doctor referred us to a cadre of specialists and advised us to get Felix physical therapy through the federal program known as Early Intervention. The dozens of doctors and evaluators we saw in the course of getting Felix approved for this program likewise found Felix attractive. The first sentence in most of his medical reports usually included the word “cute” or “adorable.” Jason liked to joke that Felix’s cuteness had been scientifically proven.
As the strangeness of our son’s body grew more obvious, I began to see how very lucky we were that Felix’s beauty was apparent to so many. At seven months, Felix couldn’t hold a rattle, roll over, sit. If you propped him into an upright position, his head would drop over sideways, as if there were no bones in his neck. Though his slump made some passersby anxious, others were attracted by his smooth skin, his plump cheeks, the fetching gleam in his green eyes. His beauty served as a gateway. I treasured it. Provided that it lasted, I trusted that it would serve to cushion the social struggles sure to figure in his future. When I mentioned this to Fred, Felix’s physical therapist, he told me about a job he’d had treating children at a large disability center whose main clientele were poor families who couldn’t place their children anywhere else. Fred’s eyes clouded up and his voice strained when he talked about this place. Most of the children there were neglected. Those who weren’t had the sort of symmetrical and radiant faces you might see in an advertisement for Corn Flakes. They might have been loud and obnoxious, but they were seen. Fred was particularly moved by a girl who could speak but whose face, touched with paralysis, was oddly contoured. She would light up, Fred said, when he came to say hi. He had the feeling she spent the rest of the day alone.
Not long after the benefits of Felix’s looks dawned on me, I became aware of the benefits of my own.
When Felix was sixteen months old, an MRI of his brain revealed the reason behind his floppiness: lesions in his white matter. The doctors couldn’t tell us exactly how the loss of white matter would affect his development, only that it would, and that we should expect him to be “moderately to severely” disabled throughout his life. For the next year or two, I couldn’t say the word “disabled” without choking up. But it was the idea that got me choked up, not Felix, the flesh-and-blood child scooting around the house on his walker. Felix wasn’t scared or sad. He was eager, adamant, adaptive, ingenious. For each avenue that was blocked to him, he figured out alternatives. He might not be able to converse in English, but he was a master of body language. He might not have the balance to walk independently, but he could lift himself up onto the bars of his walker and swing like a gymnast, gleefully racking our nerves with his self-taught moves. I began to see that his disabilities were just things he couldn’t do. I had things that I couldn’t do, too.
Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more I came to understand that we’re all disabled, whether we are aware of it or not. This might seem like a negative viewpoint, but I have found it liberating. As I have an inordinately difficult time finding my keys or remembering names, so my neighbor can’t seem to stop chattering, so that columnist can’t seem to wrap his mind around complexity. So what? That’s who that writer is at the moment, that’s who my neighbor is, that’s who I am. We’ve all got our disabilities. We’ve got our version of cool walker tricks, too.
Breaking the boundaries of beauty took me a little longer. I think it began when a friend gave me Two Whole Cakes, a book by Lesley Kinzel, which I mistakenly took for a guide to eating healthily, as there was some copy about loving your body on the cover. I was so happy when I opened it and found not a diet book but a funny, smart, heartbreaking, blistering, buoyant memoir/manifesto from the trenches of the fat acceptance movement. What an eye opener! I hadn’t even known there was a fat acceptance movement. I had known, of course, that fat people had a hard time of it, and had come to consider fatness a sort of disability. But I had not grasped the day-to-day shunning and snideness that fatness entailed, which sounded worse than anything I’d experienced with Felix. As Kinzel pointed out, our culture expects fat people to be dieting continuously, whether or not dieting works; if they so much as decide to have a treat, say an ice cream cone on a summer day, they are rebuked by strangers. Why? Why should anyone care about how much someone they don’t even know weighs?
I suspect that nasty or repulsed reactions to fat people are not so different from the nervous waves of pity that Felix can plow up when he enters a place where people do not know him. Nobody wants to be fat, nobody wants to be disabled, so seeing the fat or the visibly disabled is a reminder that you don’t always get what you want. People like Felix and Leslie Kinzel stir up fear within us: fear of what we cannot control, fear of the stuff we’re trying to hide within us, fear of being ejected from the group, fear of nature having its way, of inevitable decay. If we can get outside of this fear, so much lifts. The fat person is not a horrifying blot on humanity, but a girl with sparkling eyes and cool earrings. My son is not a tragedy, but a kid who listens to too much Cold Play. So how do we this? How do we become comfortable with that which is deemed abnormal, when often it’s not abnormal at all, often it’s just life, and beautiful life at that. How do we turn beauty from an oppressive force into something more inclusive and celebratory?
Seventeen years ago, the photographer Rick Guidotti left a high-profile career in the fashion industry to start Positive Exposure, a nonprofit arts project that uses photography and film to redefine the general public’s understanding of beauty. He started on this path when, on a break from a fashion shoot, he wandered by a bus stop and saw a young girl with the remarkable pale skin and white hair of an albino. He was struck by her beauty. When he went home to find out more about her condition, he found that the photographs used to illustrate albinism were off-putting and dehumanizing. He wondered what would happen if the girl from the bus stop got the same photographic treatment as his supermodels. So he started taking pictures of people with albinism, dwarfism, genetic mutations and disabilities with the enthusiasm and appreciation usually accorded to the tall, thin, symmetrical and young. His images are gorgeous. Leafing through his photographs, you may wonder what the fuss is all about. Why are these people outcast? That is the genius of his project. When you take fear and otherness out of the equation, when you don’t allow them into your lens, you see people who are attractive and compelling. Rick told me that many who had admired his book of portraits, Change The Way You See, See The Way You Change, had applauded him for “capturing the inner beauty” of his subjects. He finds the comment ridiculous. He is not an x-ray technician. He is a photographer. He takes pictures of the exterior.
Meeting Rick made me wonder what had happened to that expansive understanding of beauty I had so enjoyed when I was painting. Had too much exposure to mainstream culture curdled it? Had it been my own shift from the visual arts to writing? Walking to pick up my daughters from school, I wondered if I could get it back and began studying the faces of the people I saw on Fulton Mall, imagining that I had a paintbrush in my hand. It worked. I was right back to my twenty-year-old self, gorging on dimples, laugh lines, artful piles of Nefertiti hair. Try it. Next time you’re on a crowded street, don’t look at the advertisements, blown up and trying to get your attention. Feast your eyes instead on the features of the people nearby. Imagine them enlarged, lit up, smiling down from the billboard above you. Why? Because it’s transformative, it feels good, and it’s free. Beauty is manna. If we let it, it can connect us and feed us and ignite us.
It can also serve as a tool of resistance. Consider the fiddler in Louise Erdich’s novel A Plague of Doves. Shamengwa’s arm was twisted and disfigured in a childhood accident, but he retained full range of motion in his hand. When playing the fiddle, he pins his gnarled arm in position with a white silk scarf, not “just any old rag,” and uses that hand to work the strings while the other works the bow. He is known for the power of his music, but his looks aren’t bad either. Here, a middle-aged judge admires him:
Few men know how to become old. Shamengwa did… I thought I’d like to grow old in the way he was doing it—with a certain style. Other than his arm, he was an extremely well-made old person. Anyone could see that he had been handsome, and he still cut a graceful figure, slim and medium tall. His fine head was covered with a startling white mane of thick hair, which he was proud of and every few weeks had carefully trimmed and styled…
He was fine-looking, yes, but there were other things about him. Shamengwa was a man of refinement who practiced clean habits. He prepared himself carefully to meet life every day. Ojibwa language in several dialects is spoken on our reservation, along with Cree, and Michif—a mixture of all three. Owehzhee is one of the words used for the way men get themselves up—neaten, scrub, pluck stray hairs, brush each tooth, make precise parts in our hair, and, these days, press a sharp crease down the front of our blue jeans—in order to show that although the government has tried in every way possible to destroy our manhood, we are undefeatable. Owehzhee. We still look good and know it.
Owehzhee reminds me of Ehzoyhee, a word that Felix coined some years ago. Felix cannot explain what his words mean, but his eyes sparkled and his tone lifted when he said Ehzoyhee. Perhaps it meant something similar to Owehzhee. We still look good and we know it. Knowledge is the key. Once Felix made me aware of my looks, I took to wearing nicer clothes than I had before. I remember in particular a green polka-dot button-down shirt from Boden. Who cared if there were blobs of baby gook smeared on the shoulder? It was a beautiful shirt, it looked great on me, and this strengthened me as I wheeled an unusual child around the supermarket, stocking up on baby formula and applesauce.
|Nancy Mitchell, my grandmother|
I admit there are times when I sag midway through toothbrushing and think, ugh, what a pallid mishmash I am, and the shade of the popular girl from high school returns. But I’m figuring out ways to smite her. One is particularly enjoyable: I imagine myself as a flamenco singer, and not just any flamenco singer, but a woman I saw some twenty years ago at N, a tiny bar in Soho. She had iron grey hair, a short, stout body and lines like half-moons under her eyes. She looked like someone I might have seen on the bus, scowling and knitting, but as she stood under the spotlight and inhaled, the room became still. Her chest expanded and her eyes shone and she became a pillar of beauty and sorrow, strength and sensuality. Flamenco was developed by the Gypsies, Jews and Moors who took flight to the hills of Andalucía, when they were persecuted by the Spanish monarchy. It grew out of determination to survive and thrive in the face of imperial repression. It is not surprising that this is the form I turn to when I am feeling oppressed. I clap my hands and pound my heels with rhythmic devastation. I imagine myself that beautiful woman of the iron grey hair. The gatekeeper disappears.
|Annette Duzant-Tasch, whose selfies stun me with their beauty|
We all are beautiful. That is what Felix taught me--what I knew when I was a child, but had forgotten. So appreciate your beauty as you are right now, not as you were ten years ago or want to be in the future. Treasure your looks and the looks of your neighbors. Rear back in skepticism at enforced uniformity. When you can see beauty all around you, and shining from you, you will feel lighter and freer. It is a liberation we all can attain. You don’t need a Felix. You don’t have to call your Congressperson (though you should, for other things). You just have to open your eyes. As to those who would rank and order beauty, divide and deny it, turn it into an exclusive club: Resist them. Clap your hands and stomp your feet and sing them into dust.