Inside / Outside – on Beauty


Recently there’s been that Dove commercial thing going around where a man draws women he can’t see based on how they describe themselves.  And there’s been some good commentaries on what feels weird about it – which is the way I felt watching it.  Although I’m a sap and cry at insurance commercials even as I seethe at their manipulative hypocrisy, and have to admit my eyes misted as I watched the Dove thingy, still there was something that felt simplified or false. I couldn’t quite figure out what or why.

Was trying to identify what it was while chatting with my new Montreal / virtual friend, Le Clown, who was curious what it feels like to be an aging female. Well maybe he didn’t put it quite like that, but anyway, I was describing the process of becoming invisible, how at first it felt sad to lose the feeling in the street of some semblance of attractiveness, and then how gradually it started to feel like a such a relief – space and time to think of other things besides the attentions of men. Space and time to move away from ego and into deeper places within oneself. Le Clown mentioned his (knockout) wife had had a similar experience with putting on weight.

There is this way in which, as a woman, you experience any inkling of beauty as it is reflected in the faces and comments of men (and women too sometimes) – it is not actually, as the Dove thingy implies, about one’s own internal voice, about what you see in the mirror, but more about how the outside world reacts to you.  It is that classic feminist understanding (via W.E.B. DuBois) of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others.

There was a moment in my life – a very challenging experience on my wedding day – when this whole issue became extremely acute.


We got married at the end of August, during hurricane season, and Gustav was approaching, shutting down most of the city.  I got my hair and makeup done at my husband-to-be’s aunt’s place in a barrio in Centro Havana. It was the kind of barrio where the streets are always crowded and noisy – full of complicated intense interactions at all hours, people shouting out to each other in windows and doorways, dogs prowling and growling, men holding bottles of rum loosely in their fists squatting on their stoops with little levity in their hearts.

Aunt Flora’s place was a couple of rooms in one of the disintegrating structures, and once the hair and makeup were done, we started to work our way down the crooked crumbling stairs to the street.  There was a little gaggle of women and kids and a few men gathered around, a cousin videotaping the whole thing, and everyone having different suggestions about the way I should hold my dress so it wouldn’t drag. Outside I figured there would be a few taxis arranged to drive us out to Playa where the wedding venue was, but when we got on the street there was one mini-bus for the 25 or 30 people emerging with me from the building, and a big red 1950’s Cadillac convertible with red leather interior, white trim, and big white ribbons and bows all over it it…for me to ride in… Holy SHIT !!!

into car

The idea was for me to ride alone in the back, sitting up above the back seat waving like the queen – hell on earth for someone so shy by nature.  Thanks to Gustav it was declared far too windy and too long a drive so I should just sit like a normal person in the back seat. The street was crowded with people, everyone had come out to see who was getting married, and as the car pulled away from the curb, the driver began the long honking of the horn, driving slowly up through the crowds on the street.

Within the first block a man’s voice yelled out, Pero es FEA!  (But she’s UGLY) and I flinched.  I was surprised, deeply hurt, wounded but also confused.  Why would someone say this?  Why would someone be so cruel?  All I could think was I must really be very very fea, heck I was something like 43 years old, not some gorgeous 18-year-old Cubana, maybe I really did look terrible somehow, I hadn’t even had time to look in the mirror after my makeup was done, maybe the hair was all wrong, maybe something was horrifyingly off.

In the next block, again, a man’s voice, Pero es fea!, and my heart sank with dread, it was too awful.  It was a moment of such enormous solitude – of having to face all of my doubt and fear about the relationship, of marrying a Cuban, younger than myself, surely I was delusional to think I was loveable – and the drive began to feel like a trial by fire of insult and humiliation, a peeling away to the raw center of fear and neuroses and insecurity.

In case you’re wondering, this is what I looked like that day –

in car

As we drove through the city I tried to focus on the beauty of the early evening, of the sensation of driving through Havana in the open air, and the driver would look at me with teasing sardonic eyes in the rear view mirror every time he started pulling on the horn again. At one intersection a car pulled up to us and rolled down their window, and I tensed up, readying myself for the next insult, but the men yelled out, What kind of crazy person gets married during a hurricane?  We all laughed and drove on.

We arrived at the venue out in Playa, and there was a scramble as my groom, Osmel, immersed deep in food issues in the kitchen, realized we were there and came to meet us. He came over to where I was emerging shakily from the car, leaned into me and said quietly but intently, You look so so beautiful, incredibly beautiful – which is not like him, he is not a flatterer, but my god was I grateful to hear it from him at that moment, whether or not it was true didn’t matter a stitch, I just needed to hear him say those words. Hearing this from him, my husband-to-be, was the only thing that mattered or was necessary in this moment.

in car w O

It wasn’t until later I told Osmel about the ride in the Cadillac, and asked him, WHY would someone say that?  He said it was a very classically Cuban thing to do:  If the man had said, Oh look how pretty she is, you would not have noticed him, but by insulting you, he got your attention.  It sounded a bit like that thing where a guy puts a woman down to make her feel insecure, make her feel insecure and want his approval – a “neg”.  (Sweet and wise as this interpretation was, I’m still not so sure it’s 100% the explanation – it may have been simply a deep and abiding hatred of foreigners.)  But he supported his argument with other examples, of how growing up as a boy interested in sports he was mocked and taunted for every failure and would go home determined to come back the next day stronger, better, faster, with more strategy.

There was a study some years ago on girls’ self-esteem – I think it was in Ms Magazine, Spring 2008 – where they found that black and latina girls had better core self-esteem than white girls.  Theory was that black and latina girls were taught in the home not to take in the negative feedback they might get in the world. They were shown at home how to shield themselves from racism, from the denigration they would surely encounter, to have a stronger inner core less prone to the fluctuating opinions of others.

And in a tough neighbourhood in Centro Havana, the girls who grew up there must have faced all kinds of unkind words, barbs designed precisely to shred their self-confidence, cruelty teaching them the need to rely on an inner strength. Teaching them to be tough. Teaching them to believe in themselves on the inside if they wanted to survive psychologically.  Perhaps it’s a part of why Cubanas decorate themselves with such glory.

Though I have to admit, as much as I love and admire the Cuban women I’ve gotten to know, as much as I adore their super-sexy ways in their tight skirts and high heels, I don’t envy them.

All these layers are, I think, why that Dove thing felt so superficial.  With no context, the women seem just neurotic and self-critical.

That said, as I wrote this piece, my (now estranged) husband happened to send me the link to Dove thingy with the comment:  I think it’s true, especially for you – you cannot see your beauty and you think that everybody sees the same as you.

He’s as sweet as ever.  And maybe, in fact, he does have a point.