I was sitting out in the sun, on the first summery day of the year, drinking an iced coffee and chatting with a dear friend. I hadn't seen her in like three weeks, and for us, that's much, much longer than usual. We were enjoying the weather, lounging around outside the public library. A woman walked by, an older woman whose face was mangled with the effects of plastic surgery: fillers in her cheeks and her lips gave her the look of a kind of caricature of youthfulness. After she'd passed, we exchanged a look. Then we exchanged a few words: my friend mentioned a conversation she'd had with her mother in which her mother was considering a cosmetic procedure and my friend spoke with some passion of her own need for a role model who resists that pressure, to show her what aging for a woman can look like. I have heard this story before, and I like it—I like her mother's ability to listen and respond positively, to agree that yes, her refusal to undergo plastic surgery is a way of supporting her daughter and indeed supporting women—but hearing it, I also came to feel the gap between my friend's experience and mine.
I have spent a lifetime asking—though not as articulately as my friend did, perhaps because I began younger—my mother not to diet. I needed her to be a role model who resisted that pressure. I needed there to be someone who supported me as I tried to figure out how to relate to my own body. I have tried to find friends as untouched as possible by dieting (and this is why, I think, so many of my friends are singularly beautiful), but every woman I've ever met has some tinge, no matter how small, of weight panic in her private dealings with herself, and that tinge casts its shadow. My friend got what she needed in the instance she described. I didn't. Haven't. Ever.
I have profound respect for the seriousness of the pain and fear that makes people undergo physical pain for the hope of beauty—no matter how serious the pain, how prolonged or how intense. I understand what would make an older woman dream about having her face cut apart. That's because I know what it's like to be on the other side of the beauty standard. As a child, I fantasized about cutting my own body away. The paper cutter in my elementary school art room could lop my upper-arm wiggle right off, I thought. I thought it might be worth it. What you want when you undertake that suffering is not just beauty itself, but to count. To be listened to, to be seen. My friend is an unusually beautiful woman; she does not know. We are young and we are white. She has never been outside the beauty standard.
So I said that to her. My voice broke a little. I said, "You have never been outside the beauty standard."
She conceded she had not. We sat there a moment in silence. Then we talked about other things.