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.
Each finals period, just before every vacation in college, I’d let the pounds pile on, not more than five or six or eight or ten, then come home and deep-sleep, recuperate, eat homecooked Tamil food. After a few days I’d start running, beginning the count again — each mile achieved, around the track at a local abandoned, often-eerie school playground, overgrown and dead in the summer. With each pound I lost, I came closer to regaining my ideal. In my mind it was accompanied by a kind of tolling, lulling bell I loved to hear, reminding me of how I could so easily recreate my beauty as a condition. I’d chisel myself, but also take time for other rituals, now that I felt I was thin enough to lavish myself with time. The right haircut. Make-up. Photos. A few clothing splurges here and there, resulting in a blow-out fight with my parents about my clandestine Discover Card, and the loss of all credit cards for years, as they punished me for buying a Laura Ashley velvet off-the-shoulder dress that people I know from the ball I wore it to still talk about, still mention to me in tribute to my beauty then.
The first time I lost my beauty was over a stress-filled, panicked summer during which — lying to my father, who didn’t want me to go to medical school — I surreptitiously did pre-med coursework while pretending to be out at the beach. I trained myself to start grinding out and finishing intellectual tasks in a way I never had before, a painful, brutal, gulping, frantic way to live, completely devoid of all but a very few bright spots of pleasure, although, now I cannot even think of one. Only how it felt to see the stress decimate my body even back then, in its late 20s. The drama initiated by my mother, who hated it when I turned beautiful, who’d said it was a way of tempting God to be so visible, so different, slender, strange. She’d try to make me eat. The summer I secretly pursued pre-med, though, I ignored my body, except to cry every now and then at how my hair was suddenly thinner from stress, how my face and body — uncared for through ever longer work days — looked nothing like they had when I was in college and my life felt nearly effortless.
Beauty was my protective shell, shielding me against overtly racist words, at least some of the time.
It was so easy not to eat when I didn’t have to try that hard in any class or push myself to stay awake. It was a pleasure, finding time for working out, when I knew that if I blew off some assignment here or there, I’d still catch up and get an A, whether in history, English, or anything that depended on words. I still would be just fine, versus the possibility of failing medical school classes, graded on a curve. Washing out was a specter in medical school: to be ghosted by the god of medicine, fervently-offered biochemistry solutions answered only with zeroes. To be flunked out without mercy. Almost a doctor; never quite.
No matter what it took from me, I couldn’t be that. Some “also-ran.” I couldn’t fail. The will to make it through med school, to become a doctor, became my reason for living.
The hard flint of my will grew polished, gorgeous. Slowly that became my new beauty, and not my dewy patina in pictures.
After just one year of pre-med, of study sessions that merged night with day, people I knew said I looked “different.” Some reacted with shock. Horror, even. Like I was the girl on the old TV show “Tales from the Crypt”, played by Lea Thompson, young and beautiful, who trades away her looks for money, and is taken by surprise when she becomes as unloved and brittle as an empty mask. At least three people I knew from college, seeing me during med school, catching me when I was out eating bread, right on the street, not caring how I looked while shoveling in the comforting pulp of a hot roll — eating my feelings, before I even knew they were feelings — those three separate people, an elegant Danish woman; a secretary from my college; a man who’d always stared at me, when I was beautiful, all three of them literally gasped in horror the minute they recognized me.
My own horror faded, once I realized my appearance could change back again. I changed my diet, forced myself to move through the anxiety of wanting to study all my waking hours and just take an hour, every day, to walk. I reclaimed my skin, my weight, my hair, and once I got the hang of medical school, added to these cherished possessions, the “loot” of medical membership the tombstone jokes, the stoic tolerance, the discipline of pushing my mind as hard as I possibly could, then going out. At med school in Palo Alto, in full-on escape from the prospect of an arranged marriage, I’d run a popular, hilly course called The Dish and joked with girls who passed by that good-looking male runners looked like actor Benjamin Bratt. I’d enjoy making girls giggle, those California girls with skin like mine, who didn’t see that I was actually flirting with them, who couldn’t have guessed how boring I would’ve found some pretty-boy actor. Who never seemed to guess how much I actually liked girls. Once I knew in my bones I wouldn’t fail at becoming a doctor — once I knew I wouldn’t fail, in my determination not to fail — I regained most of my beauty, thinness and grace. Like Britney Spears, after her hair grew long again, and she worked out, so her six-pack came back.
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But I was different, though, older. The harshness of what I had endured — hiding my plans to go to medical school until I was a few weeks from getting on the plane to Stanford, concealing my plans from my father to avoid his rage; and then, unable to bear the shouted threats from home, telling them I had to concentrate on my studies, the parallel betrayals of my parents leaving me, me leaving them, the emptiness after I suddenly broke free of them — had given way to the warmth I experienced with my partner during medical school, who soon enough became my partner for life. My supple, effortless, young humanities student beauty never returned, though in its place now was chicness and delicacy, an artificial youth that had me, at 30, passing for 20, at least with an older man who sexually harassed me from his position of authority. A man who even said out loud that it was okay not to treat me, a med student, with “too much respect,” because I was “so young” and “knew so little of life.” One pair of contradictory thoughts constantly dueted in my head during that med school rotation when I was harassed. I couldn’t possibly look the same as I did as an undergrad. I looked the same, even better. Then the reality superseded thought: It didn’t matter how I looked, because no matter how hard I studied or worked, that older man, desiring what he wanted me to be, couldn’t see me for who I was, and never cared how much I wanted a career, a life, in medicine.
Then there were objective milestones. Things gone, though they’d been what I’d taken for granted. Attenuations. Maybe-permanent losses. Toward the end of college, several of my teeth were suddenly extracted, and I was (very tightly fitted) with adult braces that my mother had insisted were needed (though three orthodontists later told me that was a falsehood purveyed by a small-town, avaricious orthodontist who liked to talk, on and on, about the badness of “Indian teeth”). My small back teeth, all gone, created spaces, leading to the shifting of my other teeth, turning me into a caricature, my smile eventually evolving into that of a Jack O’Lantern when I revealed all of it. Later, the bleeding, tender gums of pregnancy were no help at all. I gained weight then, too, first from stress and limited time for exercise during medical school, then from injected hormones in preparation for in-vitro fertilization and an endless array of failing intrauterine inseminations, each attempt marked by desperation, frantic searching, accidents. Like the one where I got hit in the face, hard, with a sliding door, and the bridge of my glasses, skewed, sliced through my nose. I still have the scar. I remember, even before the accident, being so afraid. Afraid of not ever being pregnant. Afraid of how my eyes were rejecting my contacts, the result of a kind of auto-immune, allergic reaction called “giant papillae” the eye doctor said could always return if I “stressed out my eyes” by re-inserting them. If I put my body under pressure, tested its ability to withstand stress.
That man, that harasser, saw me once testing out different types of contact lenses, hoping I wouldn’t set off the giant papillae. That was a day of pleasure and delight, imagining myself, again, showing the world my unveiled eyes. But when the harasser came too close to me, telling me he “needed” to see my face, my naked face, I took the contact lenses out, deciding they weren’t worth the risk.
I put on my glasses again, something I hadn’t regularly done since my high school ugly duckling days. I felt my beauty breaking, first like some old curse. Then later, when I saw myself in the mirror, no longer the same girl but fiercer, clearer, more powerful, the loss of beauty felt like a kind of physical proof that no one could break me. That no matter what I looked like, no one could make me forget who I was.
The first step to discovering my own beauty was to be immersed in love. To be “comforted with apples,” like Ruth Reichl writes, about her own happy marriage. Driven in my half-asleep state to the most beautiful places my lover could find. Tolerated when I feel asleep instead of admiring the moon. Held and kissed out of my fears of failing. Teased gently for using four different highlighters to mark up nearly every page of my textbook. Quizzed with flashcards. Supported through my studying for board exams and even driven there, to the test site, so I could study on the way. So much love, that I could be convinced I must still be beautiful. Or else so blessed by God, to have this partner, that the blessing had to be beauty enough.
Beauty is forgiveness. For finishing, at 13, with my visiting cousin from Singapore, a huge bag of pistachios my father was saving. My punishment was the repeated reference, over many years, to this example of my gluttony, my sin, my lack of restraint, the new curve of my butt from puberty, my ugliness. The ungainliness from my young teens would inevitably return, after the fleeting beauty at 18, was gone. The acid of my father’s resentment was sure to melt it down.
My father, considered light-skinned among South Indians, had for years been handsome too. Handsome enough that white women, including teachers, had made a point of calling him “handsome.” Handsome enough so that his looks have been a testament to his growing belief, nearly overwhelming in his middle-aged years, that a life of glamour had once awaited him. Like some ferry he’d had the tickets to, yet somehow missed.
When I saw myself in the mirror, no longer the same girl but fiercer, clearer, more powerful, the loss of beauty felt like a kind of physical proof that no one could break me.
Beauty is forgiveness for how much I might eat on a given day. Neither disgust, nor disavowal of the shape my belly makes, post-partum, when I look in the mirror — like I forgive my belly its excess, its looseness I never could have tolerated even in a lesser form, that I hated, when I was trying on jeans at the Gap before my first trip to Europe, or when I was comparing wedding gowns and trying to summon my father’s voice to punish and regulate myself, to win a game, to “make” myself look better, to demonstrate the triumph of my will over my body, and not only in the academic life my father always made fun of.
Beauty is forgiveness, spontaneous, not willed. It’s in the warm moment, years after the start of breastfeeding, when I’m not alarmed by my belly fat because of how two children enjoy resting against me. The day when I put lotion on stretch marks, not even noticing if they’re fading, just liking the treat of taking time to lather on lotion. The joy of taking time for my body. This one. This body as it can absorb a beautiful smell, or be polished and smooth, or thrill to the soothing texture of fabric, or cherish my partner’s body. This body, mine, as it takes up space this minute, in the world.
Beauty is control. As my children get older and I move away, in years, from the “excuse” of calling my excess pounds “baby weight,” I wince and cringe away from judging faces, many of them so unexpected. The reed-thin, glamorous Chinese-American research psychologist, a brilliant and famous woman, taking me aside at a conference after we present and saying, “I really wish you’d take care of yourself.” The older white woman, snaggle-toothed and waddling like a duck herself, who couldn’t hide her shock and dismay at “how different I looked” from when she’d seen me during my first pregnancy, when I sported a stylish, compact bump and not an excess ounce of fat because of walking miles each day, restless, ecstatic, talking to my body constantly. Another white woman, frumpy, faded, smirking when she sees me eating a cookie and saying, “Let yourself go, why don’t you dear.” And ugly, shocking experiences — the time when I visited a prison, and an inmate said loud enough for me to overhear, “Well at least it isn’t a man”; or another time at the beach, when I was standing in line for soft serve — for my kids! — and two white, pimply but tall teenage boys, some mothers’ sons, said over and over, “Look at that ugly Hindoo.”
Beauty is how, eating fruits and vegetables, seeds, nuts and legumes, a mostly-vegetarian diet, nowadays, and exercising up to two hours a day, mostly outdoors, logging at least six or seven miles a day, foregoing sweets, composing myself before going out on a book tour, arraying myself and ornamenting my body, is my decision. Mine alone. This control isn’t driven by contempt — not from others, not from myself. This control is quiet, internal, real. It’s like a force that caresses my body with some divine, unseen palm — a larger body, the body I am in.
This control is not a reproach of my past. It’s moving forward, deliberate, shameless.
Beauty is running. There’s an old photograph of me at 21 that I’m reminded of by the sight of my daughter, so strikingly lovely in the summer, tall and confident. In the photo, I have been running. My smile is kind of overjoyed, my face lush with fresh sweat. My teeth perfect. Now, after a run, I feel this way. Even more so, because so many years later, my body still craves the effort. My body still lets me believe there’ll never be a time when I can’t run. But beauty’s not invincibility. It’s joy in this moment. Beauty is motion.
Beauty is freedom. In my head: a beautiful image of me in the future, at 60, gunmetal grey bob, leather pants, incredible shoes, the kind I wear because I’m not afraid to fall. Still the doctor-writer I am now and have been for years. Beauty’s my partner on a bike, wearing a helmet but evading fear too. My son, his exquisite face enrapt, reading a book about some other planet, dreaming up a new version, imagining himself driving a new car on the surface of the moon.
Perhaps it’s freedom from curses, this beauty now. My parents, old but reassuringly preserved, now doting grandparents, taught by my will not to demand or threaten if they want to demonstrate their love. The rest of my family, absorbed in their lives, no longer counting the pounds I put on or take off, my beauty no longer the subject of their relentless gossip. I finally no longer feel that if I move in beauty, if I walk in beauty like the night, I will be caught and branded, cursed or punished for wanting so much.
In freedom, I lay my body down after a vigorous workout, feeling my best. I lotion this naked body. Listen to music, sleep and dream. Eat food, drink water, to make my skin glow. Celebrate teeth that still are strong enough to let me eat. Love this belly that, getting firmer from sit-ups, has survived three pregnancies, its muscle wall intact. Imagine that I can hear cells, hear signals, thrumming and working, the unsung grace of my body, human, mortal, ephemeral.
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Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a physician and writer whose debut story collection, White Dancing Elephants, was a best book of 2018 for Kirkus Reviews and was longlisted for the PEN American Robert Bingham story collection prize.
Editor: Sari Botton