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On Beauty

I was a cute kid. Like, a really cute kid. I didn’t have a sense of what that meant or what value it had, I was just told that I was pretty all the time and it didn’t have much meaning to me. It was as if people kept telling me “Your hair is long” or “You’re wearing shoes.” It was just a neutral fact to me. One time, I was maybe around 5 or 6, I was with my mom and some lady told me “You’re very pretty.” And I responded matter-of-factly with “I know.” Things suddenly felt very tense and icy, and I honestly wondered what I had done wrong. Later when it was just my mom and I, she told me that it’s not a good idea to acknowledge that I knew I was pretty to anyone, that people would think I’m full of myself, a narcissist, and people wouldn’t like me because of that. I should modestly say “Thank you” and leave it at that. I felt ashamed and confused. I truly didn’t care that people thought I was pretty. I didn’t do anything to become pretty, I just showed up like that. I had no sense of pride or accomplishment about it, and I didn’t understand why I had to pretend I didn’t know that’s what people thought of me. To be fair to my mom, she wasn’t shaming me, just letting me know how the world operated. She didn’t agree with it, she was just teaching me how to get along in our culture.

I promise this isn’t a woe-is-me piece complaining about how awful it is to be pretty and asking for sympathy. I fully acknowledge that pretty privilege exists and I have definitely been the beneficiary of that privilege. I’ve gotten a lot of free shit and I’ve received plenty of preferential treatment. My aim is to explore my complex relationship with beauty throughout my life and offer my perspective on why our culture’s unhealthy obsession with physical beauty harms us all, wherever we are on the spectrum of the current arbitrary cultural beauty standard.

In adolescence, it became a customary cultural practice for girls to look at themselves in the mirror in disgust and exclaim, ”Ugh, I am SO fat! My ass is huge! Doesn’t my ass look huge?” to which it was customary to say, “No, you’re SO skinny! I’M the one that’s fat!” which was met with the response of, “No you’re not, you’re SO skinny and so pretty and I HATE you for it!” It sucked. I loathed this performative skit I felt forced to act in on a daily basis. Being repeatedly told that I was hated wore on my self esteem and sense of belonging with my friends. I felt like the enemy because I was born fitting into the current cultural beauty standard. It felt lonely and isolating. It seemed from everyone's view that I should be on top of the world because of the way I looked and therefore was treated, but I felt the opposite, and I felt ashamed about it. I started to hide my body, slouch, wear my hair partially covering my face, and generally avoid bringing any attention to my looks that might make anyone feel bad about themselves and retaliate against me for it. I felt that the way I looked threatened my ability to connect and belong with friends, which was devastating for me as I felt so lonely and desperate to connect, so strived to look less attractive.

I was a bit of a tomboy and a lot of my friends were boys. I liked doing boy stuff just as much, if not more than girl stuff. When we got to the age where crushes started happening, my guy friends started crushing on me. And when their feelings weren’t reciprocated by me, they felt hurt and rejected, and responded by rejecting me as a friend, often with anger and retaliation. This was heartbreaking for me, and I felt resentful that our friendship was destroyed, in my mind solely because I was pretty. In these cases, I didn’t think we were well matched for a romantic connection and was confused and angry about why the relationship had to shift, and often end. I told myself that if I was less attractive, they would feel satisfied with a friendship and wouldn’t want a romantic connection with me, though I now know it’s more complex than that. I should also mention that I’m mostly gay. So yeah, this happened a lot where I didn’t reciprocate romantic feelings with my guy friends.

My friendships with these boys also affected my friendships with girls. They felt jealous and threatened when I interacted with their crushes, and worried I would “steal their boyfriends.” I was told by friends that they don’t want me to be friends with or even talk to their boyfriends, the same boyfriends that I had no romantic or sexual interest in. At 16, I lost a very important older friend and mentor named Thomas because his girlfriend felt threatened by our connection and demanded we end our friendship. It broke my heart. More experiences with losing connections I cared about because of what I looked like. My resentment against my appearance grew.

In my teens, I became a target of harassment and sexual violence. Of course this happens to all people perceived as female (and many people perceived as male too), but I felt a constant stream of attack everywhere I went, and started intentionally covering my body even more, slouching more, dressing like a boy, lowering my voice, and doing conventionally unattractive things like burping and farting loudly, spitting, and shooting snot rockets out of my nose. Anything that was considered “unladylike.” I wanted to renounce my prettiness and did everything I could to diminish my attractiveness. But I was still the target of harassment and violence, because that’s just how our society operates. It’s not about sex, it’s about power.

At 19, I shaved my head, and it was incredibly liberating and eye-opening. For many years up until that point, I had long blonde hair that added to my objectification. I was working at the Whole Foods in Berkeley at the time, and there were all these guys I worked with that were SO nice to me. They’d chat me up frequently and do favors for me, hold doors open for me, etc. I thought they were just really nice guys. When I shaved my head, this chivalry came to a screeching halt and I was left shocked. I knew the way I looked affected the way people treated me, but I didn’t realize how far it went. I was glad to see how people treated me when I stripped away a major marker of femininity and beauty and I was grateful to see it go. More interesting people started approaching me. Women started flirting with me more, and I was very happy about that. I started dating actual out queer women for the first time in my life. People would often call me “sir” or “man” and I always reacted with joy and excitement. I’m happy being a woman, but I loved being mistaken for a man. I even got mistaken for a gay man a handful of times by other gay men, and that elated me! When I am attracted to men, they tend to be pretty feminine, and almost always queer, so this was delightful. I kept my hair shaved, or short and dyed black for the next five years or so. This helped me with exploring my queer identity and in connecting with people as a more androgynous presenting person, less readily objectified by your average man.

When I went to art school, I was focused on experimental fashion, but wasn’t into looking sexy or designing clothes that encouraged that perception. I was more interested in warped, unexpected silhouettes that turned bodies into unusual shapes, and conceptual approaches to fashion. I was also incredibly overworked and exhausted at all times, so I really didn’t have any desire or space to try to look attractive. But I gained a huge amount of self esteem and self worth through the work I was producing, and that made me feel genuinely attractive from the inside out. It was in this incredible phase of my life that I met the friends I felt like I was looking for my entire life. I felt truly understood, admired, and loved by people I truly understood, admired, and loved. I didn’t feel like the way I looked mattered much to these friends, all artists, activists, and environmentalists. They were more interested in who I was and the art I produced. I swear I didn’t join a cult! We all just kind of organically found each other based on common interests: mostly visual art, music, dance, filmmaking, activism, and environmentalism. We all collaborated on projects with each other and played lots of beautiful music and spent a lot of time with each other. I started feeling a lot more comfortable in my own skin.

After graduating from college, I moved to a tiny coastal village in Northern California. A lot of my friends had moved there too and I felt so happy and at home there. In this small, chilly, foggy town, there was very little motivation to look sexy. I mostly settled into a cozy uniform composed of elements I found in the freebox. Lots of layers, sweaters, big shapes, and comfy clothes that doubled as pajamas. I never wore makeup or tried to look pretty. My aesthetic was comfy, functional, experimental, and playful. A wonderful thing about this sweet village populated with artists and environmentalists was that the women aged so beautifully there. Hardly anyone wore makeup or “got work done,” but they didn’t look like dumpy grandmothers who had given up on themselves either. Everyone had a unique sense of personal style and a beauty that radiated from within, achieved by living a beautiful, healthy life steeped in nature, community, and creativity. I’m so glad I had the example of these women and it will stay with me for the rest of my life. While living there, I met one of the most beautiful women I’ve seen of any age. Soozy Mills was 75 years old when she passed away of liver cancer in 2020. She was a true beauty inside and out, with incredible style, a deeply glowing smile, and an infectious sense of joy, playfulness, and adventure. She showed me photos of herself in her thirties, and she was pretty then, but in her seventies, she was GORGEOUS.

Also during this time living in the little coastal village, my partner was an incredibly talented interdisciplinary artist who painted and took photos, in addition to many other mediums. He took lots of photos of me and painted my portrait a bunch. I was usually naked in these images. Also, one of my best friends is a brilliant artist and photographer, and I happen to be naked a lot, so she was taking a lot of photos of me too, and releasing them publicly. I should note that both of these people got my permission first. Images of my naked body in painted and photographed form were put out there in the world for anyone to see, and I had no problem with it. This was definitely a progression from when I felt uncomfortable being looked at by the world. At this point, I wouldn’t have chosen to put images of myself out there, but I was comfortable that my body was being utilized in my loved ones’ art practices. I even started to enjoy it a little.

In January 2020, I made the move from my little paradise which I loved, but I felt like I retired too young, and headed to Los Angeles. Bad timing, yeah, but I had a bunch of close friends that lived in LA already and I settled into a wonderful but funky basement live/work space with cheap rent and hunkered down for the pandemic. Living in a warmer climate and being in a city, I started getting excited about clothes in a new way, and feeling pulled towards new aesthetics.

In 2021, through a series of happenstances, I started working as Kim Kardashian’s tailor. It’s a line of work that I just kinda fell into because I realized I had the skill set required for that job: I’ve been sewing my whole life, I'm a good problem-solver, and I’m good with people. I also don’t know or care who most celebrities are, so I don’t freak out or get star struck on the job. So one thing just kind of led to another and I found myself spending a bunch of time over the last year or so with a person, no, THE person who is wildly famous for her beauty. Funny where life takes us sometimes! Kim is genuinely excited about beauty and fashion, but she doesn’t seem to put a lot of emotional weight on it or obsess over the false idea of perfection. Being beautiful is like a fun game to her, and it’s a job she loves. She’s surprisingly grounded and able to connect with others. I’ve known narcissists, and she’s definitely not one. This was living proof that the lesson I learned as a kid, to never acknowledge your beauty or you’d be seen as a monster, was bullshit. Witnessing Kim up close and getting to know her a bit has shifted my relationship to beauty, and my comfort level with being seen as beautiful. After knowing her for a while, I’m less worried that people will see me as shallow or arrogant if I present myself as beautiful. I’m able to see it as a fun element to play with, removed from the weight it used to bear on my relationships and out there in the world with strangers. The people I surround myself with at this point in my life don’t feel threatened by beauty and aesthetics, but excited about it. It no longer has the negative impacts it used to have in my life.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m mostly gay, but I’ve dated mostly cis men in my life. This is partially because of all those unrequited crushes on straight women, and the subsequent repeated heartbreak that caused me. Plus, men are socialized to pursue women, and as someone who fits the generally agreed-upon beauty standards, men have tended to pursue me, and all I’ve had to do is go along with it, so I just found it way easier to date men. I was too timid to go after people I deeply desired for the most part, so I ended up in many situations where I said, “Sure, I’ll give this a shot,” rather than being strongly compelled. I’ve had some beautiful relationships with wonderful men, but I’ve rarely been the more interested pursuer in those relationships. And when I have been, men have often found that off-putting. This doesn’t mean I’m closed off to people assigned male at birth (aka AMAB), it just means that I’m only getting involved with people I’m very interested in, and that’s mostly people assigned female at birth (aka AFAB) and queer, femme AMAB people. This shift has had a major impact on my relationship with my appearance and my body. I not only am okay with being seen as hot, but at 39 years old, I’m really into it for the first time in my life, and I’m objectively hotter than I’ve ever been. I love that this is happening now, when some bullshit mainstream ideas say that this is when a woman is in her desirability decline, but I truly feel like I’m in my prime.

I should also say that I was blessed with a really cool butt. I didn’t do anything to get it, I just showed up here with it. This is also something I’ve hidden from the general public in the past, but I’ve become more comfortable showing my ass to the world. I recently did a photoshoot with a friend’s underwear company and my butt in a thong was featured front and center. So I feel like the cat’s out of the bag. And I like that my butt makes people happy. It’s almost like having one of those trained therapy dogs that people bring to old folks’ homes and children’s hospital wards. She really lights up a room!

I’ve got a couple close friends that have really cool butts too. We’re all obsessed with each other’s butts and started a text thread that I named Ass Feast. We frequently send each other nudes, mostly but not exclusively featuring our butts. It’s been such a beautiful, playful, celebratory, and sexy addition to all of our lives, and I recommend this for anyone who thinks this sounds fun. It’s really elevated my selfie game to a whole new level. In fact, I recently realized that it’s become a strong creative outlet and a legitimate part of my art practice, and I’m upgrading my photography gear to reflect and honor that. These photos are all private so far, but we’ll see where this road takes me.

I recently bleached my hair for the first time in my life, and I love being a platinum blonde! It has unexpectedly pushed me deeper into this hot phase. I started becoming drawn to hot pink for the first time in my life, and I’ve even found some very comfy heels made by a hiking boot company that I’ve been wearing. I call this new aesthetic that’s emerged “Weird Gay Malibu Barbie” and it’s really working for me.

So here I am. I’ve come from a place where for most of my life I’ve felt deeply uncomfortable with my beauty and tried to present myself as less attractive than I am, to someone who has passed the milestone of becoming comfortable being seen, and has arrived into a place where I’m actually into it. I’m primarily interested in being seen this way by me, my friends, and my lovers, but I’m also feeling ready to show myself to the rest of the world too. It still feels a little vulnerable, as stragglers of fear and anxiety cling to the remains of the shame around being seen as beautiful and as someone who acknowledges their beauty. But I think I’m ready.

On Beauty