In this personal essay, writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar contemplates the powerful evolution of a woman’s beauty over time.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar | Longreads | December 2018 | 13 minutes (3,169 words)
The first time I was beautiful wasn’t until I was 18. “Beautiful.” A category I inhabited. It was a created condition, both objective and real. I remember the resolve, pain, doubt and certainty that preceded it, and then a day when it was effortless and the boys were coming up to me. Nearly every conversation, freshman year, was about how beautiful I was, how long I’d stay a virgin, whether I would ever date men who weren’t Indian, and on and on, boring as hell. Never revealing how much I enjoyed certain women. Never quite getting to my truth.
Beauty or truth, though. Hardly a contest. In beauty, I strutted through my young adult life. As long as my abs could be sucked in, I was indulged, allowed to dream. I could wave, dismissive, at the truth. “Your hands are so delicate,” said my first boyfriend, white. Then added, whispering, “You’re so delicate,” lifting me up so easily, in love with how light I was.
I was imprisoned by the safety of beauty, as much as by the refuge of his burly arms. I ran a set number of miles, panting with enjoyment but never giving up counting. Always, albeit with relief, I burned time stroking and measuring. Beauty was my protective shell, shielding me against overtly racist words, at least some of the time. There was still racism, I realized later, but of a different kind, constructing me into a Barbie-like peach-brown “passive Asian girl” — and then an uptight, nerdy bitch; anyone who came close got to understand that I wasn’t really passive. But there was safety, the privilege of which I didn’t believe was mine to lose. Till I lost it. Till I could longer fit into the category of “desired,” that I’d long desired. Till I didn’t fit into my favorite leggy jeans.