I’m on the pier in Brighton. 1993. On summer holidays in England. I’m sixteen and I’ve been trapped in hotel rooms with my parents for the last three weeks. And we’re here in Brighton, and finally I’ve managed to escape my mother’s over-protection by begging for just “ten minutes to myself. Gahhh.” My mother, ever worried about the white slave trade, lets me walk by myself to the end of the pier, all the while, I’m sure, she’s vigilant for flashes of red hair and smothered screams and black gloved hands. Imaginations are genetic, and I got mine from her.
But I’m fine as I walk past buskers and artists and hawksters, and I reach a look out where I can watch the water and families on the rocky beach.
I’m buoyant because I’ve been cooped up with my parents for an interminable time and now I’m free, if only for ten minutes. And I’m pensive because I’m sixteen and feel like I’m not quite the person I ought to be. I have high expectations of myself, fueled by 90210 and John Waters movies. I need a boyfriend. I need to be wanted. I need to be beautiful and told that I am. Often.
And it’s with great irony I realize the song that’s underscoring my mood: that boppy, poppy song from the sixties, “You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful,” croons Johnny Burnette, “And you’re mine.” It’s the song that’s blasting over the loudspeakers, adding to the balloon animals and competing mimes on the pier to make the cloudy Brighton day feel like a carnival.
I smile to myself, feeling strangely connected through that song to the cosmos. Defined by it. Or rather it defines my place in the world at that exact moment. I am sixteen. I want to be beautiful. And I want someone to call me ‘theirs’. I want someone to be ‘mine’.
I’m sixteen. I know I’m not beautiful, but I secretly hope, long for the day, when I might be. There’s nothing wrong with my features exactly, and their arrangement is more or less ok. I spend hours gazing into the mirror, sucking in my cheeks to create a bone structure that isn’t there. I am perfecting my mirror face, the sucked-in cheeks, the pursed lips, the haughty brow-raise. It is the face I will be mocked for by my parents, my future friends and husband every time I put on lipstick in a mirror. But at sixteen, I study each feature with intensity, checking for flaws, crying over them when I find them, and secretly approving of certain details: my lips, my chin, my left eyebrow (but not my right).
I’m sixteen in the era of Cindy Crawford and Brooke Shields, Christie Brinkley and Julia Roberts. I grow up learning about the homogeneity of beauty. To be beautiful you must be enormously tall, blond or brunette with a great tan and perfect teeth. You must be leggy, and coltish and willowy, and all of the other words used to describe celebrities in the magazines I scour. Your eyes must be sparkling and dewy, your skin taught, your breasts perky, and your disposition sunny.
At sixteen, I’m none of these things. I’m barely five feet. I’m skinny. Not desirably thin. Just plain skinny. I have a weird high hip from scoliosis. My skin is whiter than white, my hair red, my eyes brown. I pretend that they’re hazel, because this sounds more interesting, but in reality, they are a dull, ordinary brown. I have terrible teeth with huge spaces between them, and just as my friends are starting to graduate from their braces, I will get mine in the fall when we return home from England.
But I secretly believe I might be beautiful somehow, someway, although no one has ever said anything to me about my looks to my face. My father says that I ‘look nice’ when I get dressed up, but he’s my dad and he’s supposed to say things like this. My mother is silent on the matter, except to tell me that my facial shape is oval, when I fear it might be round.
My friend Anna and I puzzle over which box to check when taking a Cosmo quiz. “Knockout”, “Attractive”, “Average”, “Homely”, “Dog-faced”. She looks at me appraisingly, as I do her, and we both generously settle on “Attractive”, and this is the most validation I get about my looks until I’m well past sixteen.
And at sixteen, I’m terrifyingly aware of the connection between being beautiful and being loved. It’s the beautiful girls at school who have boyfriends, the beautiful girls on 90210 who have excitement and romance, therefore, the absence of beauty and the absence of love are profoundly linked. Without one you can’t have the other. Ever.
And the absence of a boyfriend, right there on the pier, is proof that I’m not beautiful. Because I’m nobody’s “mine.” It is an ugly two-way logic that seems indubitably true to my sixteen-year-old brain. I stare out at the water, suddenly feeling quite depressed in my ten minutes of freedom.
I make a few decisions about life.
It’s important, I decide that day on the Brighton pier, that I be beautiful. My whole future life depends on it. The Johnny Burnette song is not just a pop ditty, reflecting the innocence of an earlier era. It is, for me on that pier, an equation of how the world is, how things work. You’re young, you’re beautiful, you’re loved. A+B=C. Heaven forbid if I should ever be old - like, thirty – and not beautiful. How could I ever be loved?
I realize now, twenty years later, I’ve continually tested this theory. With each new man, I’ve tentatively exposed my penchant for lumpy pajamas, frizzy hair and no make-up. It’s like a challenge. I say, “Can you take it?” when I show up in sweats. I’m not just being comfy and me, I’m testing them, seeing if they can handle it when I’m red-faced from crying or puffy-eyed and baggy from staying up too late. It is largely unconscious on my part, when now, at thirty-six, I’ve spent nearly 15 years being reasonably confident in my looks, validated by both men and women, and by general satisfaction when I look in the mirror. But still I test.
For I recognize the power in being a beautiful girl.
It’s hard to move past the lesson from that simple pop song.