Why I Don’t Want to be Pretty

I’m tired of trying to be pretty. Not so much physically tired (although that’s certainly part of it), but mentally tired. The culture of beauty is exhausting.

To be fair, beauty has never really been my burden. I am attractive to some, but I’ve never possessed the type of beauty that stops men and women in their tracks.

I challenge the notion that women have to be pretty.

We are assigned this task from birth against our will: prettiness is a requirement for femininity. If you are not blessed with inherent conventional beauty, you must acquire it through adornment. You must put on that show.

And do not misunderstand me: I appreciate beauty. I love art and music and many beautiful things. But I do not contend that all art and music must be beautiful — so why must all women be?

Even the label “attractive” makes me cringe: is a woman’s only purpose to attract others? Does she not have value beyond her physical appearance?

Beauty as a feminine attribute has a long history of being a social (and racist) divider and a way of separating those who have and have not. It has been ascribed a sense of feminine virtuosity, along with sweetness, grace and agreeableness.

That beauty applied to some things and not to others, that it was a principle of discrimination, was once its strength and appeal. Beauty belonged to the family of notions that establish rank, and accorded well with social order unapologetic about station, class, hierarchy, and the right to exclude. — Susan Sontag, “An Argument Against Beauty” (2007)

peoplemostbeautifulIf young girls have not already been blessed with this attribute at birth, society tells them that they will ‘blossom’ in puberty, and holds beauty as some sort of carrot to keep them moving forward into womanhood. When this doesn’t miraculously occur naturally, we are flooded by advertisements showing us not just how to modify ourselves to achieve this goal, but also by conflicting messages as to the standards of beauty themselves.

What if I don’t want to be beautiful? Does that make me a pariah?

Is the desire not to be pretty subversive?

I am not against caring about your appearance. Clothing, hair and makeup are all forms of self-expression and I think they are absolutely an outward representation of personality. I just don’t think conformity should be the ultimate goal. And I would prefer that these outward expressions be self-guided rather than wholly influenced by societal pressure.

It is obviously not just cis-gendered women who are hurt by these expectations: gender-fluid and transwomen are harmed as well. The pressure of prettiness (being a perceived equivalent to femininity) to ‘pass’ as a validation of one’s ‘realness’ hurts all women.

A woman’s identity (and value) should be defined by so much more than whether she is (subjectively) aesthetically pleasing. I could trot out some over-worn platitudes about inner beauty, but I hesitate to create a list of what makes a person ‘valuable’, because there is no one answer. Some women are intelligent or clever. Some are kind. There are a million attributes that make for interesting women. And yes, some are beautiful, but that shouldn’t be the only thing that makes a woman. And not being beautiful, or not even caring about being beautiful, shouldn’t need to be an act of rebellion.

Chopping your hair off should not be ‘brave’, any more than wearing it long is. Going without makeup should not be brave, any more than wearing dramatic lipstick and eye shadow is. Wanting to focus on other things than one’s physical appearance shouldn’t be a subversive or radical concept.

It shouldn’t be. But I think it is.

/rk

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Ways My Life is Exactly Like Downton Abbey

The problem with ditching cable and subscribing to Netflix is that you tend to binge-watch shows, especially if you you’re procrastinating. (Of course, as writers we are never procrastinating, we’re ‘gaining life experience/cataloguing creative fodder’.)

It should come as no surprise that watching 10 straight hours of period drama tends to shape your perception of reality, and you start seeing yourself in not just one, but all of the characters.

For instance…

If you’ve read my writing, you’ll note that I have a bit of a persecution complex:

failurefamily But I struggle very hard to be heard:

impolitical

Although I sometimes forget to be particularly diplomatic:

sharptongue And occasionally say things that have people shaking their heads in disbelief:

isshemad

Working from home means I tend to lose track of what day it is:

whatisaweekend And although I try to maintain optimism that I’ll accomplish something worth sharing:

looking forward I fret that writer’s block and apathy will derail my efforts:

defeatist

And I tend to beat myself up over it:

stopwhining

So I cook:

assistantcook And curse a lot:

vulgarity

And am uncharitable about other writers’ successes:

superiorUntil finally I pathetically resort to Buzzfeed-style photo-essays to distract from how few words I’ve managed to coherently string together:

seeneverything
/rk

My Father Died

My brother and sister scattered my father’s ashes over the water in Port Dalhousie, Ontario. I was not invited. I would not even have known if I hadn’t happened across a single random Facebook post that made reference to the occasion.

It was hardly a surprise, and I acknowledge that their choice to exclude me was the direct result of a situation of my own making.

If I had the opportunity to go back and change how I handled my father’s passing, I don’t know that I would. Even though I was confronted repeatedly with threats of “you’ll regret this” by other family members, I cannot see how I could have done anything differently and still maintained my sanity. (Such that it is.) The word compromise was thrown around a lot. But it’s funny how often, when people are asking you to compromise, what they mean is that they want you to change while the other person remains immoveable.

971298_10152271549526830_1794482042_nI don’t remember who told me he had cancer, that last time. I honestly don’t recall if it was my father himself, or maybe the news came via my sister or my mother. For some reason that moment was deemed inconsequential by my mental Rolodex and not filed away. I do remember the first time he lied and told us he had cancer (at my 16th birthday) very clearly. I remember crying. I remember mourning. I remember finding out that the whole thing was a fabrication, and my slow-growing resentment. But I don’t remember anything about finding out that he had cancer for real. Somehow the details were inconsequential.

To say that I felt nothing upon learning of his terminal illness would not be accurate. I just didn’t feel the right things. I didn’t feel what others needed me to feel. 

I did not rush to his side.

In the years leading up to this point, I had already become estranged from my father. I had tried, for a long while, to mend fences. I had tried to understand the rift between us. I had tried to have real conversations with him, where hopefully we could try to find some kindness between us or something real.

A few years before he died, he invited my son and I on a trip to Nassau and I accepted, uneasy to allow him to pay our way (because these sorts of gifts always had strings), but anxious to make one last try at connecting. I also hoped it would give him a chance to get to know and understand his autistic grandson a bit better.

It was a disaster. My father drank and chain-smoked and dominated all conversation. Any attempts at communication or interjection on my part were mocked or denigrated. He wanted an audience for his superficial boasting and someone to laugh at his jokes. He wasn’t capable of listening, nor was he interested in a heart-to-heart. The majority of his interaction with my son was in anger or frustration; which made the both of them sullen. I spent most of the time with a migraine from the cigarette smoke, and took to drinking and sleeping and escaping to the beach with my son when I could.

When we returned, my father told everyone we had a lovely time.

When he made a similar offer a year later (with minimal interaction in the interim), I declined and I think it hurt him deeply. I told him he didn’t have to buy us trips and I’d rather he just talk to me like a normal human being. He hung up. A month later he had throat cancer.

Chemotherapy for the throat cancer gave him leukemia. There wasn’t any coming back from that.

My stepmother, sister and brother spent a lot of time with him in the hospital, which was easier for them in terms of proximity, but physical distance wasn’t the only thing that kept me away.

My father had his difficult moments with most people, but he had genuine love for the three of them. If he had love for me (and I like to think he did), he was never able to express it in any way that did not hurt me. Somehow by my brother moving to Toronto (i.e. close to him) and me staying in Ottawa (i.e. close to my mother), we had unwittingly identified our allegiances. He treated me in a similar fashion as he did her — but of course since their divorce she was rarely in his presence, and I took the brunt of it.

My sister pleaded with me to go see him. This was a variation on the same pleas she had expressed practically since she could speak. It was almost the entirety of our long-distance relationship. “Please talk to dad.” “Please come see dad.” “Why can’t you do this for me?” “I don’t care if it hurts you — WHY CAN’T YOU DO IT FOR ME?”

It could be argued that a 17-year age gap and growing up in separate cities is why my sister and I have never properly bonded. But the truth is, I don’t know her. She doesn’t know me. Any attempt I have made to get to know her has been thwarted by her obsession with putting our father between us. And so I tried. For a long time I tried to get along with him. For her. For me. Even for him. But in the end I couldn’t handle the repeated cruelty. Not for anyone.

He broke my heart.

Not just once, but on a regular basis.

And I knew if I let him keep doing it, there would be nothing left of me. I couldn’t live my life, or be a parent, and operate in a constant defensive position.

My brother called and asked me when I was coming. I cried. Not for my father, but for my brother, who barely talks to me, and who I wanted so desperately to have a relationship with. I wanted to do this for him, too. But I couldn’t.

My mother didn’t ask me to go. But she said she would go with me, if I went.

I went to see him.

It was a very brief visit. I barely spoke to him. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, because I didn’t want him to have any ammunition against me.

He yelled at my son for making too much noise.

We said goodbye tersely and left. It was the last time I ever saw him.

My brother and sister continued to beg me to come back and see him again, but I knew that was the end for me. I was done.

I wasn’t afraid of seeing him die. I wanted to be able to be what he needed, if he needed me to sit there and tell him I loved him.

But I was afraid he would see it was a lie. And I didn’t want to hurt him.

I hadn’t stopped loving him all at once. It started when he lied about dying the first time and I mourned him and hardened myself to his impending (or so I thought) death. And then, with each repeated hurt, I withdrew a little more, until there was nothing left. I felt nothing for the real him.

I mourned, but it was for the father and relationship I wished I’d had.

And I knew that I couldn’t bear a single cut more. If the last words he ever spoke to me were cruel, I couldn’t bear it. It would tip me over the edge. I couldn’t be haunted by the memory of that moment for the rest of my life.

And so he died. And I felt relief.

Relief that this burden of a man, who had haunted every minute of my consciousness and inspired all my feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, was no longer my responsibility. I no longer had to waste all my energy doing mental gymnastics, trying to figure out what I did wrong and why I could never please him or earn his respect.

I was free.

Because a dead father is easier to explain to people than an estranged father.

Because him being dead means I don’t have to keep trying and failing to fix our relationship.

I finally discovered I could start living for myself, and not just in reaction to him or his actions. I was grateful to find that I could write, without feeling like it would threaten his fragile journalist’s ego or earn his mockery.

I haven’t ever stopped thinking about him. But I’ve started to heal. It’s something I tried to do for such a long time while he was alive, but his continued existence seemed to necessarily dictate his participation in that process. And because he was not forthcoming, I made no progress.

But now that he’s gone, there is only me left to heal our relationship.

I heal.

In bits and pieces, I heal. I still don’t understand why he did all the things that he did, but I’m not angry any more. Without him here to twist the knife, it is easier to feel compassion for him and accept that he can’t change any of it now. He can’t fix it, but he also can’t hurt me anymore. There is comfort in that.

I forgive him.

/rk

A Writer Writes

Except for when they don’t.

TWENTY THINGS I DID LAST MONTH INSTEAD OF WRITING

I’ve often said that even when I’m not writing things on paper or online, I’m still actively a writer because I am concocting stories in my head. It’s always been part of my process to mull things over for a while (sometimes a very long while) in the safety of my mind before I birth them fully-formed onto the page.

But in June I didn’t write. Not even in secrecy behind the shroud of my subconscious. I was a blank slate. And my feelings about this alternated between apathy and frustration. But mostly apathy, if I’m honest. I became rather resigned to it.

What I did instead:

1. I moved downtown. I made a bit of a disastrous decision to move out of town last year, for all the right reasons. It didn’t stick. Luckily it was fixable, but not without considerable upheaval for my loved ones. It helps that we moved to one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods ever.

2. I unpacked. In like, 48 hours. I really like our new place and I couldn’t wait to feel settled after feeling out-of-place for so long.

Leading up to our move, I had rapidly devolved into a useless lump who crawled into bed and refused to come out. I barely packed. I barely did anything. Some of this was due to physical pain, but I think it was mostly emotional. The stress of having to move and pack became this insurmountable challenge and each time I tried to fight inertia, I had a meltdown. If this infuriated my husband, he didn’t show it. I think he was just really, really concerned I was having (another) nervous breakdown. Or possibly was too busy packing to properly have time to deal with his own feelings of frustration. Either way, it wasn’t exactly a good time for either of us.

But then, with moving done, I unpacked everything. My stuff, everyone else’s stuff, all the stuff. And it was a relief. I still don’t feel perfectly settled, because there remains some art at our old house that needs to come over, but I feel more… me.

3. I stopped taking my bipolar meds.

MarketFoodMedley

4. I bought fresh produce. One of the best parts of living less than 10 minutes’ walk to a historic marketplace. Truly. I don’t even know whether the quality of the food is better… but the experience is lovely. I like strolling along outside in the open air and the fact that there are different choices every week. Grocery shopping usually bores me. This doesn’t.5. I thought about drinking.

6. I baked a lot of bread. I’ve owned a breadmaker for many years, but it had been stored away, unused for a long while. I dug it out and tried to get back in the groove of things, with initially disastrous results. First I used the wrong kind of yeast (which was a rookie mistake, and made me feel pretty stupid). Then I followed my old favourite recipe and the bread didn’t mix properly. Then I followed the same recipe, but added some water to the mix and mixed it by hand. That worked, but the bread was edible but not amazing and I was still frustrated at having to hand mix something that was supposed to be an automated process. I then tried adding a bit more water from the beginning and bingo! It finally worked. And was delicious.

The whole process annoyed the hell out of me, because my memories of making bread previously were that I was flawless at it, and I had very little tolerance for my newly discovered failures. It probably helped that my husband insisted that it was all delicious, and kept eating it… even the bits that I wanted to throw out.

7. I argued with people on Facebook. And Huffington Post. And the Ottawa Citizen. Less so face-to face.

8. I struggled with arthritis pain.

9. I bought a bench for the shower so a) I can sit down when I’m too weak to stand, and b) I don’t fall over and break my bones.

9. I craved tequila and Coke.

compotecollage

10. I made compote. I cannot explain the unreasonably huge feeling of accomplishment I experienced over this mundane achievement. Maybe it’s because it is the closest I have ever come to making jam on my own. Maybe it’s because I discovered a jam substitute which I can make without added sugar (something I’m supposed to care about as a diabetic, but usually fail at). Husband and child also loved it, which probably had something to do with said feeling. I mean, I would have gladly eaten it all myself, but I am a recognition junkie. Apparently.11. I started losing vision in my left eye. First I started seeing a lot of spots in both eyes. Then one night after being out with friends, I came home and suddenly found myself with a blurry splotch in my field of vision on the left side of my left eye. It would make sense, given my various immune disorders, that this was optic neuritis, or retinal detachment, or any number of things. I have since been to the ER and to an ophthalmologist, but they can’t find anything physically wrong. I have been referred for more tests.

12. I shaved my head. Not the whole thing, just the sides. Arthritis in my shoulders is making it harder to deal with styling my hair and I am rapidly getting more and more impatient with hair brushing against my face and neck. I also made the decision a while back to stop dyeing my hair and the whole process of ‘waiting’ for my grey to come in is going entirely too slowly.

13. Two weeks later, I cut most of the rest of my hair off, too.

bakingcollage14. I baked all the things.

15. I saw a bunch of plays at the Ottawa Fringe Festival. No acting for me this year, but I volunteered for a few shifts with my husband. With my physical health being so unpredictable, this was a scary commitment, but having him do it with me helped make it go fairly smoothly. I had to use my cane a lot, which always makes me feel self-conscious, but ultimately I enjoyed myself and it was good to be doing something theatre-related, (especially when my own acting future seems somewhat uncertain right now). Volunteering has its perqs (besides free theatre) and we also got free pizza from ZaZaZa and free poutine from Smoke’s Poutinerie. By the end of 10 days, I was exhausted, but well-fed.

16. I wondered if my eye problems were in my mind. The spots haven’t gone away. But they get better and worse. Maybe they’re in my imagination. Maybe they’re bipolar hallucinations. I don’t know what to do with that information.

17. I bought some brightly-coloured pillows for our black couch. I like them. They please me.

photo

18. I cooked a lot. I think I’ve always been a pretty good cook. But in the last few years my energy and ability to cook has been pretty erratic. Somehow the combination of fresh local ingredients and a gorgeous new kitchen has spurred me on to create. And perhaps create is the key word here — ever since my illness has made acting next-to-impossible (and with my ability to write on hiatus), I have really felt a rather excruciating loss of identity. Food has become my canvas. Which is great, really. I’m eating better. I’m feeding my family. I just worry that like most of my obsessions, this one will only last a few months before I completely lose interest again.

Or maybe it won’t. There is a constant stream of new and interesting ingredients flooding the market. At least until winter. Maybe then we’ll be back to tv dinners and takeout. I hope not.

19. I felt guilty for making everyone move. They’re happy to be here. They’ve said so. It’s a fantastic neighbourhood. We have had beautiful walks, eaten at great restaurants, met some lovely neighbours, watched fireworks on Canada Day (a 10 minute walk from the house!), and played games at the local board game lounge. But I still feel guilty.

20. I broke my toe. It hurt like hell. It still hurts on-and-off and is swollen and a sort of grey colour. Walking on it causes a purple bruise to spread on the underside of the toe and the top of my foot. It is remarkable how much one little toe can cause discomfort while walking. So I’ve been mostly stuck at home for the last few days. Whenever I venture out, it makes it worse. I try to sit with my feet up on the coffee table, but then it aches. I try to sit with it on the floor, but it aches.

So I gave up and crawled into bed.

And started writing.

/rk

(originally posted at http://medium.com/human-parts/a-writer-writes-except-for-when-they-dont-76a82f6c3331)