Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pretty Woman

Disclaimer: this is a long one :)

I was born with a red birthmark that manifested itself slightly off kilter from the direct center of my forehead. To me, in my bang-less and sightless infancy, it served as a reminder of how strenuous it was to enter into life in this world, but nothing more. It imprinted itself as a bright beacon of infant survival; I came screaming out of my mother’s womb and all I got was this lousy birthmark? Or rather, for my mother, I survived thirty-seven hours of epidural free labor and all I got was this lousy birthmark? Nonetheless throughout my childhood, it did not fade, and unlike other of my less than desirable physical attributes, I was aware of its existence very early on.

People would ask me what happened to my forehead. Had I been hurt? Or scraped? Did mom or dad drop you on your head? I was an otherwise normal looking child; therefore, the lesion on my head must be attributed to a force outside of my own control, by fault of someone or something else. Their inquisitions awakened me early on to the fact that the oval shaped scar should not be there by virtue of my own birth, but rather that some unfortunate circumstance should have put it there. It was a first taste of ugliness, and it took a peculiar but not, as I would come to learn, innovative flavor. It forced me to consider that if an unmarked face represented a child who had not experienced misfortune, which I had not, then why did I have it? Why was there the desire to create a reason beyond that of it just existed for that red spot? Why did my birthmark speak volumes for me? I wonder now if I always had bangs for this reason. I actually cannot recall a time when I was without bangs.

Omitting my birthmark, which never appeared to me as something that was innately ugly, but more of a mistake of sorts, I was fairly ignorant of any standards of beauty but my own. That assumption qualifies the kind of childhood I had; one where my face and body were just right, where there was no attempt at being beautiful. I just was. When I was six years old, fueled by my mother and allowed by my father’s military career, we moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. My mother was joyous; she had grown up on Oahu and had never left the island until her union of marriage with my German father. Despite her strong ties to the culture not to mention her Hawaiian blood; my mother was very Caucasian looking. My grandfather was, albeit a handsome man, decidedly white looking as well. His grandfather had been an Englishman, his father half white half Hawaiian and an alcoholic, and his mother Hawaiian and Portuguese. He grew in the form of a dark-haired, strong-jawed, firm-build, blue-eyed mix, a breathing metaphor for the slow takeover of the island’s native people. While Hawaiian blood pulsed in his veins, he viewed the world through blue eyes. Although his living experience was far less glamorous than that of his father, rather echoing the hardships of his mother’s, he was often looked upon as haole.

Therefore his family, my family, though having a more technical right to claim ethnic legitimacy than some of the locals and living in a culture financed by white people but perpetrated by defensive and skeptical keepers of this constructed sacred blood, suffered prejudices for their fairer skin, taller builds, and lighter hair. It was within the battle weary embrace of my family, my grounded, composed beloved family, that I was a local girl. My sister and I both were, freckled bushy-haired me and blue-eyed, blonde-haired Sasha, with bulky neon white tennis shoes and boxy European backpacks in a sea of long black hair and rubber slippers; we were unapologetically white looking. It rarely occurred to me, however, this separation of what I looked like and what I identified with. I am sure there were signs; looking back though dirtier lenses I remember once being held back in a hula class. My Filipino, Portuguese, and other ethnic classmates had advanced to the next level, while me and the other military girl, Bridget Mahoney, had stayed behind. It was fine with me; as long as I had Bridget there, I had a friend. But when her parents stepped in and talked to our teacher, Mrs. Paishon, Bridget was moved up with the rest of my age group. I was alone with younger and clumsier girls, none of whom I knew, and dancing with baby dolls. When you did the dances with baby dolls—Sasha and I cradled fair skinned long haired dolls with lavish ruffled costumes from Germany while our classmates had muumuu-encased, black-haired models—you knew you were a beginner.

My grandmother would pick me up from class every afternoon, and finally the stress of being alone, bored, and still doing the doll dance prompted me to give a tearful report of hula class. My grandmother ascertained Bridget had been pulled up with the rest of the girls, so next class she and Mrs. Paishon chatted. My grandmother had big hair, Rose Gold lips, perfect skin, high shoes, and called me honey girl. She was my ideal and hairstylist. The following week I was back with my friends, doll free, and doing dances with poi balls and the uli uli. My Puerto Rican grandmother had brought me back to local girl life. She never told my mother.

So for three years I lived beautiful, with my identity protected and enforced by those who were still explaining theirs, contently pretty among Asian, Hawaiian, Filipino, Portuguese, and the scattered white kids in my class. However, bliss had a time frame, and my father was relocated to Virginia, and after that to Folsom, California. Not widely known for its ethnic makeup, Folsom was still a beautiful place to live. It was growing, clean, safe, and white. The prisoners did our recycling. We all played soccer. I grew older there, and we stayed.

In Folsom, I discovered my whiteness. Despite being privy to the all new insecurities and ambiguities that middle school and high school has to offer, there was still no battle of blood that there had been in Hawaii. But after fitting in so seamlessly in Folsom, I knew now, returning annually to Hawaii to visit, that I was not local. I rejected the memories and reminisces of my family and friends, hiding behind a teenager’s snarl, and looking pointedly at them through Maybelline eyes saying, aren’t I white? I’ve been white this whole damn time and no one said anything.

The rejection of the local girl and re-entry to white world opened up Pandora’s make-up box. There were so many things I could now fix. Sandra Lee Bartky’s Focault, Femininity, and Modernization of the Patriarchal Power provides the captions to a scrapbook of these aesthetic alterations: “The women in the photographs make themselves small and narrow, harmless; they seem tense”. In seventh grade a boy looked up my skirt since we sat facing each other from across the room. He corralled the rest of the boys to share his view, and soon my teacher had to stop the class. He explained that he saw no other course of action when my legs were spread the way they were. My knees always touch. “Hot wax is sometimes poured onto the mustache and cheeks and ripped away when it is cooled”. In eighth grade I started waxing my upper lip when Andy Rudy told me I had a mustache. “Under the current ‘tyranny of slenderness’ women are forbidden to become large or massive; they must take up as little space as possible.” In the eleventh grade, I didn’t play off-season volleyball and focused on academics. Senior year, when I had a running schedule and gym membership lined up after season, I would refer to the previous year as “when I was fat.” Here the fatal distinction was ever so faintly made: what was wrong was ugly and the fixed self was by default the logical antithesis. It began as a game of catch up; I didn’t “find out” what things were wrong with me until they were wrong, and then I hurried to fix them, perplexed and later angry at why I couldn’t just see it in the first place. However, my sight improved, and soon I was premeditating attractiveness and altering myself accordingly. Here was finally success when I could manipulate my physical self to, at first, avoid being told I was wrong/ugly/hairy/fat, but then later, under the most destructive veil of self improvement and ironic empowerment, to make myself prettier. In John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing, the concept of the split self is explained, “A woman must continually watch herself; she is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself”. I was now a woman, apparently; I had succeeded, after much effort, to internalize the gaze of Andy and all his brothers.

Coming to this realization, it looks as if I bastardized my time in Folsom as this breeding ground of socialization. It is not as if one blade of grass in Folsom holds ten times more possibility for female subjectivity than that of a blade of grass in Berkeley, but the specificity of the circumstance (white, suburban, upper/middle class) together with the vulnerable teenage years, together with the juxtaposition and eventual sullen rejection of my last beauty experience as identifying myself so completely as a local girl, infused to culminate in my rather ferocious and defensive internalization. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, her main character Claudia recalls this “fantasy” of powerfulness, for I did feel powerful. I did feel the manic flulidity of assuredness when I learned a new way prevent the wrong, the ugly. “We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new patterns of an old idea the evelation of the World”. Claudia encapsulates my experience, the painstaking, tiring, persistent way in which I learned how to survey so well.

In reviewing my life script with the antihero of beauty, I finally pay particular attention to the time in my life I tried to forget, or justify with an obscenely ironic “didn’t know better.” When I was the local girl, I never knew better in my life. I see this now as the metaphor for beauty, for my beauty: to be local is to be beautiful; to be haole is to be unbeautiful. Therefore, in a world that said I was haole, not only had the constructions of race and look not penetrated my psyche, but I believed, with every beat of my little German (freckles), Puerto Rican (hairy arms), Hawaiian (full lips), Portuguese (mustache), English (yellow teeth), Scottish (frizzy hair), and Irish (brown eyes) heart, that I was local. I then spent the better part of my teenage years learning how to forget that I ever identified with being local and “relearning” that I was haole. I thought I saw this truth in my rejection of ethnicity. But isn’t that the trap? I came into the world, birth-marked, beautiful, and like Claudia, delighted in my “dirtiness.” Then in my quest for reality, all this learning happened. I learned I was white. I learned about the mistake in retail that is Abercrombie and Fitch. I learned the difference between a size eight and a size four. I learned to love the swinging layers of Dana Maesta’s straight blonde hair. I learned what a metabolism was, and that, at seventeen, I had a “slow” one. I learned which tanning salons didn’t ask for ID. I learned what diets did. I learned to love these things, to lust, aspire, and comfort myself with these images, to exist secretively but comfortably inside the womb-like security of the thought that one day, when I try, buy, cry, dye, and fry enough, I will be beautiful: “…knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement” --Miss Toni Morrison.

I used to look back on the local girl and wince with shame at how deluded I must have been. Now, when I can catch her, I stare my surveyor self in the face and shame her for how she killed the local girl. That internal eye did away with an important memory of the unlearned self, and it has been an honest re-education if forgetting. Through various authors' written evidence of beauty’s constructed power, detailed accounts of its manifestations, independent axis, inter-workings, and victims, I was able to locate a new consciousness that viewed my real life doings as examples of the academic texts, causing my heart to break at the cruelties I inflicted on myself and, by default of perpetuating standards, others. I have read literature, watched film, and listened to lectures to be able to break down my past and remember the local girl, but uneasiness remains because even though I wish now to once again be her, I am not. I remain learned. The question all the girls are asking is what now? Once during a discussion of The Bluest Eye and a Hooks’ article, I said, in regards to finding the opposite of a standard beautiful or being able to find a standardless beauty, “But it’s so hard.” My professor acknowledged the difficulties I was speaking of and said, “But it is possible. Remember Claudia gives us hope. That it is possible to unlearn.” I knew that she was referring to Claudia’s murdering streak of white baby dolls, or her inability to love Shirley Temple and resentment of cleanliness. I wrote in my notebook try to remember. After ten weeks and reluctant, sometimes pained self confessions, I have remembered. I know the time; I can recall the feelings: the love, the lightness, and the satisfaction. Therefore, I must try my hardest to work on my formal anti-education in beauty because I know how lucky I am to have a memory and even more so, access to the venues from which it was born. Perhaps we must all be a little masochistic, self-righteous, over analytical, determined, and gutted open in our quest for self acceptance. This debilitating but precious opportunity is not available for all, so if we have the chance to unlearn, we must take it, even if it sends us spiraling.

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