My mother is an exceptionally beautiful woman who does not know it. Or, rather, she does not care about it and never has. Beauty is irrelevant to her. I remember as a child being hypnotized by something in her presence but not being able to name it. It was something deeper, fiercer, than the drunk, obsessive love a small child has for a mother who’s always working. I realize now: Oh. She was beautiful.
By the time I was born, I think the world had gotten used to my mother’s nonchalance about her beauty—certainly, when I was a child, it was never overtly mentioned. There was a portrait of her on my grandparents’ mantel—her high school senior portrait, touched up to look like an oil painting. My mother hated that picture. The photographer had assumed that that my mother was white, or maybe Italian with a tan, and so had shaded her skin lighter and recolored her eyes green. Oh, how my mother loathed that picture, but my grandmother kept it in a place of honor, and it did not move from the mantel as long as she was alive. After my grandmother died, the picture disappeared from our family’s possessions and I have not seen it since.
HIS MIND WAS GONE BUT HER BEAUTY REMAINED; IT SHONE EVEN THROUGH THE FOG AND THE TERROR. HER BEAUTY WAS STRONGER THAN HIS VERY LOSS OF SELF.
My grandmother, everyone agreed, was the beauty. My mother always said, “Oh, but Grandma was beautiful. She was like a black Liz Taylor.” My grandmother did care about her beauty, but not in a way that seemed obsessive. She liked fine things—thick Persian rugs and chandeliers and white Cadillacs and tasteful tea-colored antiques. She had all those things, plus a beautiful face and a very tiny waist and a blooming breast line, and she covered herself in well-chosen dresses and slacks (that’s what she called them, never pants) and leopard- and beaver-skin coats. It followed logic that a person who loved beauty like that would also be physically beautiful.
She was so pretty, we told each other, that when my grandfather was eventually hospitalized for Alzheimer’s and she would go and visit him, he would hold her arm tightly, not wanting the other men in the hospital to hone in. His mind was gone but her beauty remained; it shone even through the fog and the terror. Her beauty was stronger than his very loss of self.
We didn’t have mirrors in the house growing up. My sister likes to tell a story—once she said to my mother, “My friend’s mother doesn’t have mirrors because she says her kids are too beautiful and would become too vain.” “Oh, that makes sense,” my mother said distractedly. Then, after a beat, “Good thing we don’t have that problem here.”
She didn’t think we were ugly, to be clear. And I think at that point my mother was so used to her daughters’ verbal traps and insistent questions that she answered with jokes to privately amuse herself. We thought it was funny, too—we screeched with laughter, and still do, at this joke.
Me, she always told me my skin was beautiful. We had a ritual that lasted far too long, probably till I was 11 or 12. She wanted me to keep my skin beautiful. “You have beautiful skin,” she told me over and over. So much so that it was a shock, in my late twenties, to realize colorism was still very much a thing, to realize that some people secretly and not-so-secretly think my skin is ugly at worst or unfortunate at best. For my mother, my dark skin was a prize to be treasured.
Our ritual was this—after every bath, she dotted my skin with white lotion, like a pox, and then I would have to rub it in to keep my skin healthy and gleaming. I loved this ritual, probably because it was a time of day when I had her undivided attention. And also, being told that something you have is beautiful, so beautiful that you have to take care of it like a rare diamond or a temperamental show cat, is very gratifying. “Your skin is so beautiful,” she said, she says, even now, when I’m in my thirties.
IT WAS A SHOCK, IN MY LATE TWENTIES, TO REALIZE COLORISM WAS STILL VERY MUCH A THING, TO REALIZE THAT SOME PEOPLE SECRETLY AND NOT-SO-SECRETLY THINK MY SKIN IS UGLY AT WORST OR UNFORTUNATE AT BEST.
My grandmother, the great beauty, was as dark or darker than I, darker than her daughter. Only recently I’ve found pictures of her in her twenties—impossibly petite and dainty in cinched belts and full skirts, very dark skin gleaming in the sun. A relative said once to me, proudly, “She was the first dark-skinned woman elected president of our community’s Jack and Jill,” and it seemed, has always seemed, a tainted accomplishment to claim. My grandfather was much lighter than her.
All of this, no one in the family talked about. Color was never discussed, not in the ways I’ve read about in other black American families. It wasn’t even mentioned, except in that positive way, in the longing of my mother’s voice: “Your skin is so beautiful.” I’m profoundly grateful that this subject was avoided when I was a child, that my instinct is always to go darker, that I’ve never once looked in the mirror and wished for lighter skin. I think of my mother’s portrait in its place of honor, the skin painted over to an almost sickly khaki, how my mother would roll her eyes at it.
My grandmother’s parents took pride in her beauty, just as she took pride in my mother’s and I take pride in theirs. When my mother was younger, my grandmother groomed her—debutante classes and white lace gloves. My mother knows how to set a formal table and which fork to use and how to sip from a bowl of soup. It was wished that she would marry well. My mother tells me that when she was in high school, if she was out at a party, my grandmother would call the house where the party was being held to check on her, and then ask her to stay on the phone and describe the scene to her. If no one answered when my grandmother called, she would ring the house over and over until somebody picked up, until somebody put my mother on the line.
There is a picture that I think sums them up perfectly—my grandmother, demure in a ’50s circle skirt, hair curled neat and glossy, smiling into the camera and my mother, her daughter, beside her, in dungarees, a blur, grinning, pigtails flying, the very picture of a tomboy.
When I reached adolescence, I became convinced that my mother wanted a different daughter than me, that she found me an embarrassment. By that point I had gained something like 80 or 100 pounds over the course of a year—a feat that felt as though it happened in a dream. I had always looked to my eyes exactly the same, but the doctor insisted that I had changed, that my skin was splitting open and folding over from the pressure. At this time, my best friend, my only friend by then, was a girl who was the physical opposite of me—tall and white and very thin. She could eat anything—garlic pizza for three days straight or drink nothing but Coca-Cola, and not gain a pound. It seemed my mother had this magical ability as well. But I did not. I remember thinking if I just didn’t care about it, my body would somehow sense my nonchalance and sigh and give up this campaign to humiliate me and in its final act of surrender, a kind of peace treaty between me and my gut, my body would give me the metabolism of the unconcerned. Worse than being fat, I felt, was caring about it, was trying to change it and failing miserably.
I REMEMBER THINKING IF I JUST DIDN’T CARE ABOUT IT, MY BODY WOULD SOMEHOW SENSE MY NONCHALANCE AND SIGH AND GIVE UP THIS CAMPAIGN TO HUMILIATE ME.
I gained the weight, in part, because I was on antidepressants. This was in the early 1990s, so understanding of antidepressants and teenagers was pretty minimal. I was given sertraline. I remember being unable to concentrate and I remember feeling sadder than ever. Everyone told me there must be something wrong with me for being so sad, despite the fact that a lot of depressing things had just happened to me in the space of a few months—we were evicted for the second time; my much-loved older sister left for college; we made what then seemed like a terrible step, a move into the projects; I was starting a new school without any friends and my former friends were, understandably, growing apart from me. Instead of talking about any of this, I was given sertraline, one oblong pill I was supposed to break in half and swallow every morning. I promptly started eating even more mindlessly until there were the hundred extra pounds. But I didn’t notice because I was so numb by then, I couldn’t feel any of it.
Despite all that extra weight, I was secretly convinced that underneath it I was a great beauty, like my mother, like my grandmother. I would lie on the couch and look at my reflection in the television. If I lay on my side and held my leg over my head and turned it just so, it became as satisfyingly shapely as my mother’s legs in shorts or my grandmother’s in her stockings. If I cocked my head to the side and let the fat of my cheeks shift back, there were my cheekbones, the same as my mother’s and my grandmother’s, high and dramatic and dangerous. I did these exercises furtively, when no one was in the house. I would have been mortified if I was caught. It was enough to know, it was deeply gratifying to know, that beauty was a possibility, dimly glimpsed in the concave, dull, black eye of a darkened screen.
Beauty is always coming. When I am 40 pounds thinner, when my dreads have grown long enough to lie flat all the way down my back, when the dress that I ordered arrives in the mail. Beauty is not in the here and now. Beauty is a future state.
I found out just recently that my grandmother’s effortlessness was all for show. “She was on a diet all her life. She was always gaining and losing weight,” my sister pointed out. And if I look at the old pictures, yes, I can see it. I remember her impossibly chic lunches of a single oversize scallop, fried on her stovetop and then laid on a gilt-rimmed antique saucer set on a crisp white tablecloth in her golden and cream-colored dining room. I think of how hungry she must have been. I think of her in a dusky living room, on a damask divan, dialing the number of a house one town over, waiting for her daughter to get on the line and describe to her what it feels like to be a pretty girl at a party.