Beautiful in my own skin

If beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, what’s up with the image that stares back at me in the mirror? As much as we might wish it to be so, our psyches kick in somewhere between the striking images of the latest fashion model and the stylish, smiling figure of Princess Kate. (Don’t we all dream of marrying a prince?) It’s not long before we give in to those feelings of insecurity, those mental accusations that we are frumpy, unworthy.

Women are expected to have taut abs, perky breasts, chiseled cheekbones, silky hair, and gams that make you go ooh. The glossies define beauty these days, leaving us with an unattainable and unrealistic view of what it means to be beautiful. We don’t walk around with the magic of airbrushing ourselves through other people’s lenses. We don’t all have a personal trainer, stylist, make up artist, cook, manicurist, facialist, brow waxer on the clock. We don’t all get paid to be pretty.

What is it to be pretty anyway? Is it the same as being cute? Hot? Lovely? Is it enough to be attractive? Is it even important to be pretty? And by whose standards?

I’ve lived my entire life as a misfit. I never fancied myself beautiful. I never even considered myself attractive. I didn’t consider myself an ugly duckling, but worse, I rendered myself invisible, inconsequential. I never fit in. I never had boys clamoring at my locker. I never was the girl who was surrounded by boys at the club. I never drew attention. I never looked the part.

When I was quite young I knew I didn’t fit in. I knew that my looks would not be considered “pretty.” I knew that brown skin was a black mark in the beauty department. While my friends rubbed baby oil on their bikini clad bodies and laid out in the sun, attracting ogles and catcalls, I sat shrouded in long sleeves and hats, with a towel covering my legs. To this day I don’t want the sun to leave its mark on me. I used to tell people that my black hair was actually really dark brown. I didn’t want to be the only girl in school with black hair. I bleached a blond stripe into my hair in high school. I shut out my heritage in an effort to be more like them – the popular girls, the pretty girls. I shudder to think how much energy I spent trying to be something I was not.

Where I grew up Indian girls were not in the popular crew. Blond hair and blue eyes made a girl pretty. I recently looked at my high school graduation photo. When I showed it to Bird and Deal, they both remarked, “Mommy, you are the only brown skinned kid in your class.” Indeed I was. Some things never change. When I moved to the Midwest in my 20s it was more of the same. All my blond friends got attention from the guys while I stood and sipped my drink alone or hovered near one flirty couple or another. When a guy nudged me to get my attention it was always to ask if one of my friends was single. I was never the subject of anyone’s dreams. It wasn’t even a matter of not being pretty enough; I simply wasn’t pretty.

Now don’t think I was a shrinking violet who thought herself destined to be a wallflower. I suppose I resigned myself to be a sidekick and was fine with that. I was Velma to every Daphne. No one told me otherwise. I didn’t grow up being told I was lovely or pretty or worthy. Nurturing a young girl’s self-esteem was not part of my family’s emotional vernacular. Perhaps we didn’t know then what we know now about children and their sense of self-worth. Perhaps confidence was thought to be earned or innate, not nurtured or learned. I spent many years feeling insecure and timid. To know me now makes this difficult to believe, but that shy girl still lives in a pocket inside me.

I’ve since matured and changed my views on beauty. I realize that beauty takes many forms. And I know that it’s easier, and even more daring, to be the genuine me. Nothing about me adds up to traditional images of beauty: I’m five feet tall with stubby legs, I have a short pixie hair cut, not long silken locks that beg to be touched, I have unruly brows and a butt too big for my frame. But my smile lines all tell a story, and each and every grey hair has an overturned hurdle behind it.

I don’t look into the mirror and see someone pretty stare back at me. I don’t know much about makeup and primping and grace. I don’t fret over my imperfections and don’t have a desire to play Age Cop in an effort to rein in the Time Bandit. The only surgery I’ve had is to repair my wrecked chin from a bike accident when I was twelve. Botox scares the hell out of me, and no one is getting near my brow bone with a knife. I don’t look in the mirror at my 40 something self and wink. I don’t see a confident, successful woman. I simply see Me, the good bits, the mushy bits. I’m happy in my skin now. I feel a sense of quiet satisfaction. And it turns out that all those years of eschewing the sun paid off.

With age comes wisdom, as they say.

Ilina Ewen
Ilina Ewen

Ilina is mom to 2 sons & works as Chief of Staff to NC's First Lady. She daydreams about food, travel, and shoes.