beauty

The Body Series :: On Faces + Symmetry

When I start to look at faces too long, I feel like an alien. Human faces are so weird. They’re so different. They communicate so much information, but they are weeeiiiirrrdddd. And I love them. I love interesting faces. 

I remember in my human sexuality class, we learned about how the more symmetrical a face is, the more “beautiful” it is considered by the population at large. Studies have shown that famous movie stars, models, etc all have very symmetrical faces. This was not great news for me at a time when I very much judged my worth by my perceived attractiveness.

Over the years I have come to know very well the ways in which my face is very much not symmetrical. My nose slants to the left. Not only is it the rather large statement piece and focal point of my face, but it’s definitely a little crooked. Today, I love it. I actually believe it when I say “it gives me character,” a phrase I first heard in middle school and clung to with a fervent desperation. However, it took awhile before this smelling machine I not so lovingly would call a bazonker became a welcome part of my face.

Trying to smile, but the right side is not cooperating...

Trying to smile, but the right side is not cooperating...

I also experienced a several month bout of Bell’s Palsy the summer before I went away to college. For those of you who don’t know, Bell’s Palsy is a pretty mysterious virus that paralyzes half your face. That’s right. Two months before one of the biggest transitions of my life, the right half of my face literally stopped moving. I wholeheartedly believe there is some sort of psychosomatic connection to that happening, but that is analysis and speculation for another time.

It happened slowly one sunny summer day. At first my lip felt weird when I put on my chap stick, but I didn’t think much of it. Then, as I was driving my beloved blue Mini Cooper, Syd Barrett (I was way into Pink Floyd in high school… and I should note I’m actually wearing a Pink Floyd shirt as I type this), I caught a glimpse in the rear view mirror and noticed my eye wasn’t quite blinking. I called my mom who panicked at the possibility that I might be having a stroke, before we sorted out this whole Bell’s Palsy diagnosis. 

During those months I was devastated. My high school boyfriend and I broke up the day before he left for UNC, and most of my friends had already gone away. I, however, was starting my first semester at Northwestern in September and had been spending my days working in my dad’s office. I remember calling my ex one night in tears while he was at a party. I was so devastatingly sad. I felt like a monster. Sometimes it was hilarious, but sometimes it was horrible. I was very attached to the idea of being “hot.” I hadn’t yet learned the medicine of laughing at yourself.

I went to physical therapy which included exercises to try to wake up the sleeping muscles and nerve endings along with some electric shock to get the muscles to twitch. What a bizarre time. My sister introduced me to the person who would become my freshman year roommate who later told me she thought I hated her when we first met because I tried not to smile and had a weird time chewing and eating. I also slept with an eye patch because my eye wouldn’t close on its own. 

As the first day of college approached, I grew more and more terrified of meeting new people with a not quite perfect face. It had gotten better, but wasn’t quite right. To my surprise, no one really noticed and by the end of my first month there my face had gone mostly back to normal. The right side of my face still feels a little different sometimes. Especially around my eye and cheek, but other than the echoes of paralysis, I’ve pretty much got full functionality. 

That whole episode has left me painfully aware of the uneven parts of myself. The whole right side of my body it usually stiffer, it’s the side with the bigger bunion (more on that next week), the tighter hips, the weaker glutes, the knottier shoulder and back. Sometimes, I feel like a lopsided mess, but over time I’ve learned that unevenness isn’t a curse. It’s information.

And faces… well, they’re still weird and beautiful, symmetrical or not.

The Body Series :: Skin: On Blemishes + Color

My skin is comprised of stripes and spots. Dashes and dots. Morse code collections of imperfection littered from head to toe across, over and around the expanse of my epidermis. The freckles I never had an issue with. Unlike Jan from the Brady Bunch, I reveled in the speckles that framed my nose and cheeks. That popped up along my arms and legs. The one precious dot northeast of my belly button. I have always loved my body constellations adding pops of coloration to a delicate canvas. It was the hidden spots I despised. Cellulite. Just the word makes me cringe. Hell, I still don't love it. Even if I learned to love and admire the expanses of my body, the shapes of fertility goddesses and warrior women, what statues show those thigh dimples? What paintings of the overculture express those tiny depressions echoed by the spirals of darkness that swirl inside me? (BTW if you know of some, my eyes and inbox are open.)

Standing so my cellulite won't show

Standing so my cellulite won't show

I'm also not just talking about the regular old smattering of it across my ass and thighs. The bits that I threatens my sensibilities when I squeeze the upper under arm skin just right. You see, I have this one singular crater that pops inward on my right thigh if I don’t tuck the mass of that leg in when I’m sitting. I first noticed her in high school. When I swam and played water polo, the one piece swim suit left my thighs open to the public and sitting on the benches before practice, there she appeared surrounded by a family of little sisters, but did she stand out. She still does. I still tuck her in sometimes, preferring not to poke at that extra cottage cheese indentation. Fact. I have never eaten cottage cheese because I have heard cellulite compared to it for so much of my life. I’m not really interested in unpacking that in particular, I just think it’s kind of messed up but also deeply hilarious.

To make matters worse, somehow the light of fitting rooms always manages to accentuate the worst of it. Maybe my improvement in self-esteem has to do with the fact that I haven't set foot in a fitting room in over a year. (Except in December at REI to try on ski pants which was way more chill that the barrage of ill fitting clothes at a department store or boutique.) I suspect beauty companies that promise the disappearance of this very normal and very genetic “defect” pay off department stores with too small clothes to perpetuate the cycle of consumerism that keeps them all in our pockets. Maybe that’s why I can't "shop" anymore, selecting pieces to try on one after in a parade of self judgement for not fitting perfectly into clothes meant for a body that is not mine.

Oh, and how could I forget acne. I never had it terribly as a teen. My face flushed with the occasional spot. I had extremely oily skin so it was par for the course. The funny thing is, once I stopped trying to dry out and exfoliate my face, everything sort of normalized and now my face routine is a simple cream whenever I feel like it (maybe a few times per week) and a Korean sheet mask once every month or two. However, it still plagues my back sometimes. Whether it's my sports bras or hair, I'll get painful red constellations back there every now and again, making summer time a bummer and backless dresses and embarrassing nightmare. And then if I am not careful with how much I sweat in my spandex pants, I can occasionally get some on my butt. That's right. I wrote it. You can read it. Sometimes I get pimples on my butt. I am cringing right now knowing I will press publish on this, but damnit, a lot of us do. And if you get pimples on your butt, I want you to know sometimes it happens and it's annoying, but whateverrrrrr. They go away. The end. 

So these spots, the cellulite and pimples, I am not so enlightened that I am thrilled by them. If there really was a miracle treatment that got rid of my cellulite, I would actually consider it if that shit were natural and god for me, but I also don't NEED to love them. They don't take away from the experience of the rest of what my body can do. They appear. They disappear. They are. Again, WHATEVER.

Then we have the stripes. I saw a Tumblr post where a little girl asked her mom what her stretch marks were and the mom responded that they were her tiger stripes. The daughter then exclaimed that she couldn't wait for her stripes. That hit my soul. I fucking loved it. But we’re not there yet. First, we need to talk about the first cracks along the fault lines of my body. 

When stretch marks first show up, they are a pinkish purple. They open up across skin that’s not quite ready to stretch so far. For me, they hit my breasts, thighs and hips pretty hard during high school. They were like a target for the areas of me that were getting too big. Areas that could not be contained by my skin. Streaking me in places I was already self-conscious of. I remember being scared of having someone go down on me because they would see the especially big stretch mark on my right inner thigh. Luckily, I have made peace with him and kind of enjoy playing with the way the skin smooths and indents there, but man did that take time. Because you see, the pinks and purples eventually fade in with the rest of the skin and the stripes and they sink in and snuggle and become a part of you. These guys I don't mind. But maybe you do. And that's okay. You don't have to love your stretch marks. I like mine because I like what they represent. That I cannot be contained by my skin, so it has altered itself to fit me.

Of course, how can I move through the complex relationships we have with our skin, the cocoon that wraps the body in its gentle yet surprisingly tough embrace without discussing its color. Oh boy. Let's dive in. For me, that color is an ever changing extra pale to slightly tanned sprinkled with the aforementioned freckles. And despite my youthful endeavors to constantly darken it, that stays a pretty constant privilege in my life. There are many folks better versed in the complexity of this experience who have explained how this affects individuals and society at large (you can look here, herehere and here for starters), but for the purposes of this series, I’ll stick to how this affects the experience of living in the body, (and if you're bummed this got kind of political, I'm sorry but we live in a world where bodies are political if you're a woman or person of color.)

The complex layers of colorism within the Latin American community run deep.  You can’t be pasty pale like a gringo, but too tan, and you “look like a housekeeper,” a phrase designed to differentiate the more Spanish of us from the more indigenous and black populations. It’s like a modern day caste system. Instead of criollo and mestizo and mulatto (which are all still used, just less so in the United States), there are jokes about color in a space that feels more mundane and less steeped in colonialism (even though it very much is). I do not condone that kind of phrasing, nor did I make it up and it grosses me out, and it's not only hella racist, but hella classist, but that is the truth of what is said behind closed doors and we need to start questioning it. Sorry for that insane run on sentence, but yeesh.

[Before I move on, I want to say if this is hard for you to hear, I get it. Confronting unconscious bias and shadow shit is messy and uncomfortable. It's not about being right or wrong. It's about looking inside and being very honest about beliefs you hold that have their basis is false narratives. That come from other people "saying so" instead of your own experience. How many times did I hear from white and light skinned people that "black people are lazy"? A lot. How many times has that narrative proven true in the people I meet and interact with every day while living in a predominantly black neighborhood? Literally zero times. This isn't comfortable for me to write. That's the work. That's expansion. Get uncomfortable.]

Unconsciously basking in the sunlight of light skinned privilege...

Unconsciously basking in the sunlight of light skinned privilege...

As a milkier Latina, getting too dark was never an issue for me because I am what you call "passing." (The Netflix One Day at a Time reboot tackles this beautifully and Isabel Gomez talks about her experience with that episode here.) As in, I "pass" for white. We learn that the Spaniards were conquistadors, but we forget that most of us lighter skinned Latinx folks are descended from those conquerors, just like white folks here are descended from the British ones. Spain just lost out in the fight for super powerdom and thus we don’t think of Spaniards the way we think of the British colonialists who went on to go for the rest of the world in the centuries that followed. There are different prejudices for sure, being an immigrant in this country despite your color, and being fetishized by men the second they find out you’re “exotic” (on a first date a man grabbed my thighs and told me, “I bet you have a fat Cuban pussy” but that is a tale for another time), but the elitism and white privilege in Latin America is still the same. I remember reading in a sociology book that Cubans were the most successful Latin American immigrants in the US. Sure, Cubans are the best, and I will shout it from the rooftops, but as I've grown older, I wonder if that success came from the light privilege that accompanied many of the Cubans who were able to leave in the late 50s and early 60s as the Castro regime first took hold. Yikes. I know I keep bouncing from history lesson to present day issues a lot but it’s all connected. 

The tone I aspired to be (and if I'm being 100% honest, I still do).

The tone I aspired to be (and if I'm being 100% honest, I still do).

Why am I talking about any of this? Because the skin we inhabit, its color, its pigmentation, its melanin, affects millions of people's abilities to love their bodies. To feel safe in them. To allow them to feel like home. It’s one thing to move through cycles of imperfection, it’s quite another entirely to feel like your skin makes you a target for violence. I cannot imagine what that must be like. There are parts of me that make me vulnerable, sure, but for the entire surface area of your body to be a calling card for discrimination because of false narratives dictated by colonizers, to make them feel better about owning people is beyond fucked. I've seen videos of young black girls choosing white dolls over black ones because they have been conditioned to believe the white ones are prettier and it breaks my heart. Folks using umbrellas just to avoid the slightest darkening of their skin. Meanwhile, the white girls and light skinned Latinas like me were sitting poolside throughout all of high school slathering Maui Babe Browning Lotion all over our bodies to find that perfect shade of darker, without questioning the unconscious biases we held towards folks who glowed in those tones naturally.

We have beauty brands urging us to “love the skin you’re in,” but what about when that skin doesn’t conform to your BS beauty standards? This isn’t all gloom and doom. We’ve made tremendous progress over the past decade. We’re moving past the “colorblind” motto of the 90s… slowly but surely… and moving into a space where “Black” isn’t a bad word. Where every skin color has beauty and value, just like the souls and bodies inside those sacks of cells. But there is still work to do. So I guess to conclude this piece, I hope you made peace with your blemishes, even if you don’t like them. I hope the skin that wraps you up feels like a home. I hope that one day everyone can feel safe in their skin. I hope we can continue to question the fucked up things we were taught growing up by an ignorant society concerned with maintaining the status quo of white supremacy and create a world that facilitates that safety. And I hope that if you are white or lighter skinned and you hear those shitty jokes, you say something, even if everyone rolls their eyes at you and makes fun of you for being a major bummer. Or thinks you have no sense of humor. Because in your own family, in cleaning up our own root system, that’s where it starts.