The morning we have dim sum in Chinatown, Chris barely eats a thing. The ladies push carts of their offerings between the tables, saying “You want? You want?” and between Chris, who wants vegetarian and nothing greasy (a hard sell in chinese food world), our friend Kelly, who wants the traditional types (chicken feet) and I ( just want a pot sticker, or a spring roll, or a chicken dish, or anything, really) we barely order a thing. Our bill is supposed to be split between the three of us, so we’re trying to find dishes that all of us will eat, but every time a cart comes up, someone vetoes. So we end up with tea made from flowers and one dish of pot stickers, and suck on chicken toes for good luck.
Needless to say, by the time we leave China Pearl, my housemate still has an empty stomach. On the way home, we decide to stop at a local Armenian market, an assaulting mix of pungent cheeses, spices and rising breads. At the counter, women in head scarves are paying for their groceries. There is a little girl near their skirts, sans scarf, no older than seven.
I squeeze past them to get to the aisles and feel a little hand grabbing my arm.
The girl touches the tips of my hair and holds on and says, “I want this hair!” She says it loudly enough to make her mother look, who tries to pull her away from me.
I laugh. “You want my hair?”
She says, loudly again, “I want to kiss you!” and she looks at me with big eyes, almost desperation – or maybe I imagine it.
When I bend down, she reaches up to kiss me on the cheek and then her mother is pulling her away. My heart broke a tiny bit, for this young girl with beautiful black frizzy curls, because I wanted her to just love herself and realize that blonde hair is not the definition of beauty, not by a long shot. It might be in some cultural textbooks but I think of the larger mess, of how to some extent, we all want to be what we’re not.
This is not a new revelation. White people spend all their time in tanning beds and on beaches and dabbling with creams to make themselves darker, while there’s skin lightener for people with darker skin. Blondes want to be brown and green ones want blue and vice versa, fine hair wants curly and curly straightens the waves away. We all covet what we don’t have precisely because we do not have it. We think what we are born with simply won’t do.
And here I am in a grocery store, being kissed just for having blonde hair, when all morning I was hoping my strands would be further lightened by the sun. I have struggled as far back as I can remember to accept my face and my body for what it is. Since I was thirteen, I’ve been looking everywhere but myself for beauty, seeing my body as a canvas to be worked on, something to be straightened and creamed and eyelinered and shrunk. It makes me sad just thinking about it and yet, the cycle seems almost impossible to break.
As I’ve grown up, I think I’ve gotten better at being kinder to myself, but I also think sometimes my criticism has just taken on new form. Instead of wanting to be acceptable to the demographics of high school pretty, now I want to be unique and individualized as a little bit of everything. I want to be artsy, because I want to be a writer but I can not pull off horn-rimmed glasses or flashy colors in my hair, I want to be cultured and earthy, I want to be city slicka classy, and all these pieces make me feel like I’ve failed somehow.
There is so much inspiration in the world, so much to compare and conform to. There are so many facets of myself and I do not know how to pull them together. I fear what I will become if I stop worrying about self-improvement, because then where will that leave me? Won’t I turn into a big mess? How to break a thought pattern you’ve had since middle school?
Yet I think so many girls walk around this way, coveting someone else’s cheekbones or eyelashes and finding only fault when they look in the mirror. The feeling has been strong enough sometimes to make me want to stay in bed. I think we all have one Thing that we wish we could switch.
I wish that we could all just love ourselves, fully, completely, to crave our own appearances a bit selfishly, and to realize that whatever we’re made of, whatever we see in the mirror, is not just okay but it’s real and beautiful, even the imperfections, and exactly what we’re meant to be.
Easier said then done.
But as soon as that little girl was pulled away by her mother, I immediately wished I had not just laughed. What I should have told her was that she had beautiful hair. She didn’t want mine.
And I should also remind myself. Daily I am assaulted by women on the street I wish to copy into my mirrors.That girl on the train with the long long shiny hair and gorgeous freckles, the rows of be-speckled, sheared poets with their hair in delicate knots and inked arms. But I don’t need to be like them.
Take me back to a night when I sat on the bed with a friend and we were both crying about the ways we thought we didn’t measure up, and she looked at me fiercely and said, “Kate. You don’t need anything. You, just how you are, is your prettiest.”
Amen, sister. The message to all the girls in my life tonight, and beyond: We have what we’ve got. Repeat, repeat, repeat.