she was beautiful
In honor of Woman's History Month, I wrote this creative non-fiction essay for my Foundations of Literary Studies course. You may be wondering if "she" is me. Of course she is in some ways, but "she" was composed from the shared experiences of many beautiful women who's stories have shaped my understanding of what it means to be a woman. I have never experienced some of the things "she" does in this story. But enough about me, I am just the author. I need to get out of the way before a story can be born.
It was a sticky day in August. As she left her childhood home and drove past the construction workers and the eternally half-built church, she was excited. Her whole life was packed into the tiny car spiraling down the speedway towards a crisp, clean, collegiate life. After spending her childhood receiving hand-me-down praise from her perfect older brother, she was finally ready to establish her own identity. No one ever pointed it out, but they would be blind to miss the man-shaped shadow that lingered over her life. On her own, she had gotten into a top ranked university, single handedly ran multiple clubs at school, and spent admirable lengths getting dressed in the morning to ensure her beauty was displayed to its highest potential. No matter what she seemed to do, it all paled in comparison to her older brother who could throw on a T-shirt, rock the dad body, and demand all the respect in the room for toting the same accomplishments she did. None of that mattered anymore, because the next four years were the subscribed time to define herself as a boldly unapologetic, independent, millennial woman. Feminine power was becoming almost as popular as the latest fashion trend among her peers, and she found herself craving to be included. She was ready to become who she was meant to be. She was so eager to fulfill her purpose in life, yet so naïvely unaware that she would need to find it first.
Considering her innocent naivety, college was going great for her. Her academics were up to her usual standards, but her satisfaction was truly brought upon by her latest relationship. I am not going to venture to call him her “boyfriend,” because that term holds such power these days, but he thought she was beautiful, and that made her feel significant. His attention meant so much to her, more than she would ever admit to herself. She eagerly anticipated belonging to someone, and she had for a long time. As a little girl, she used to dress up as Cinderella and dance around the kitchen helping her mom as she cooked dinner for her dad and the boys. Although the dress-up days of tiaras and tutus were behind her, she never truly took off her Cinderella mentality. Each day she patiently waited for the moment her life would truly begin: when she met her Prince Charming. For a while, she thought that maybe this was it. Maybe he was it.
She was beautiful, even though it wasn’t the self-definition holding her captive as she lay there on the bathroom floor. She felt a lot of things, but her beauty had lost its priority in her identity in that moment. Instead, the overwhelming sensation she felt was sickness- the only parting gift she would be left with from her night with potential prince charming. Lying on the tile, between the waves of nausea, she began to feel more. She felt strong-willed and powerful for saying no to his body on top of hers. She had responded in a way that would make her mother, her pastor, and thousands of liberal feminists smile and feel like they had done their job. She felt proud that she had resisted his violation, but her pride and self-respect were tainted with overwhelming guilt. She felt, from somewhere deep inside her, that she had failed. As much as she wanted to resist the shame, the softest, most instinctual parts of her being were disgracing her for not doing what a man had insisted she do. As she lay there, paralyzed by a mixture of nausea and uncertainty, she tried to recall the first image she created of what it meant to be a woman. She thought of her mother reading the story of Adam and Eve, as she tucked her into bed. She remembered the way her mom’s soft and gentle voice recounted how the first woman was created of the hand-me-down, spare pieces of the man; her purpose being to ensure he would never be alone. Surely, women can be strong and independent in their spare time, but when men need someone to hold at night, Eve’s purpose becomes their priority. Man should not be alone. She felt selfish and cruel, but she couldn’t discern whether the feelings were hers to begin with, or if she had accidently picked them up off the floor of his dorm room where her clothes were thrown to the side.
She was so filled with emotional chaos that the mess inside her overflowed into the porcelain bowl her sweat-sparkling forehead was resting on. Of the churning mess inside her, she could only rest fully in the truth of two feelings: she was beautiful, and she had a purpose. Although she thought it impossible, her stomach turned and ensured it had more contents to expel in the moment she realized that those two sentiments were almost interchangeable.
The sun rose at six the next morning, and the light streaming through the window slowly roused her. She mustered up a different type of strength than what she had exerted the night before to get up and wash her face in the mirror. The water was cold and as she splashed herself with its rejuvenating freshness she gazed at herself in the mirror for the first time that day. She noticed she was beautiful; not because she had been told so, or to whom she belonged. No matter how hard he- or any man would- try to subdue her, this beauty could not be controlled. She was beautiful because she always had been, but that morning was the first that she woke up and felt like it.