On Beauty

By Emily Alexander

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All smiles above the city of Florence.

At the top of a hill on the south side of Florence, Piazza Michelangelo is covered in cigarette butts and empty wine bottles rolled into corners. No matter its cracked pavement or endless uphill climb, tourists gather here, lean over the cement railing like they could almost touch the big, wide beauty of this orange-roofed city.

After trekking up an endless cement staircase, we finally saw David and his strong back curved into the half-dark, the city soaked in leftover light below him. Janey was a few steps ahead of me, leading the way around the crowd gathered at the edge of the square when I felt this sudden bubbling over of emotion in my little chest. I stopped.

“Wait!” I said to Janey, who’s fast-moving Chacos seemed to have completely missed the view that had its hands around my ankles and was holding on like a kid wrapped around a parent’s legs. I was the parent, held. I was the child, holding.

I put my hands on my knees like the wind had been knocked out of me, partly because it had, and partly for dramatic effect. I felt like I couldn’t quite breathe fully enough; not that the air was thin, but that it was too much for my lungs to know what to do with. I felt something expanding in me. But where to put it? How could I keep this view, this moment tucked behind my ribs somewhere? How could I hold this in my hands? I thought I was going to cry. How could I ever know what to do with such beauty?

Here are some things that made this beautiful besides the thing itself: It was our first night together in Florence and we had just eaten spaghetti and gnocchi on colorful ceramic plates. Janey is the person who knows every inch of my history, and me hers. I had spent the previous month studying in France, watching my classmates sit next to each other on buses, and marveling at the ease a couple weeks can bring between some human beings, myself not included. I was in love with a sweet man who was, right at that moment, waking up to serve coffee to strangers in a restaurant I had memorized, and I didn’t want to miss the coffee pot’s metal pump in my hand or the boy’s hand in my hand, but I did. The last time I had seen Janey before she arrived in Europe the previous night was a month before in Seattle, where I spent four early-morning hours on her futon, en route to Europe after a weekend in Colorado for a funeral. A month ago, I was at a funeral. Now, the light was leaving the city, and we knew it would come back.

I’ve been thinking about beauty. Currently, a few things stand in between me and that elusive state. To name a few: the latest constellation of pimples on my chin, my jiggly belly, my dull, frizzy hair, my bitten nails, dry skin, thin lips, the weird and unexpected way my face warps when I catch myself speaking in a window reflection.

The other day, I was sitting in class and was suddenly paralyzed by the how impossible the thought is of living in this flawed body for the rest of my life. It seems utterly unendurable.

Which, really, is the silliest thing.

As women though, I think little annoyances like pimples or double-chins are treated with such significance that the ridiculousness and triviality of that in the grand scheme of this big life all gets lost. On Cosmopolitan’s website, I can click on a link labeled “Beauty,” and I am presented with endless articles about salon blowouts, red lipsticks, and the latest nail trend. (Personally, gluing hot pink puff balls to your nails seems somewhat encumbering in terms of daily life, starting with, ahem, washing your hands.) I’m not saying I don’t appreciate tips on how to get my hair to look less like a nest for some wild animal, because I do. But in terms of beauty, I don’t want this to be all I appreciate. I want more from myself; I want more from women.

It’s easy to look at a woman who has endured some kind of unimaginable trauma and see the beauty in her, the beauty of her whole, standing self. It is harder to look at ourselves and our daily missteps and victories, and recognize how beautiful it is that we are whole, standing selves. Contrary to popular belief, beauty is not the sum of its parts. One of my favorite spoken word poems by Desiree Dallagiacomo speaks to the idea that these pieces of a body that so often get parceled out, scrutinized, judged by our own eyes or someone else’s, don’t exist in themselves. Thighs, bellies, the saggy parts of arms, it is all inherently not just a part, but the whole of us. We have such a habit of separating our bodies from ourselves, and all the intricacies that make up these selves. I don’t want to say that beauty comes from within, because I’m kind of tired of that statement, but there is also a truth to it that we have to find a way to believe somehow. Mostly, I think beauty comes from all the things leading up to this, leading up to this self, this me typing in a coffee shop, trying to wrap my head around the inherent fact of my own beauty despite how big and clumsy my knees are.

There is a picture Janey took of me in Florence. I think it was our last day there, though I don’t remember for sure. It’s one of my favorite pictures of myself because of the usual silly reasons: I’m tan, my hair is wavy but not yet frizzed, my collarbones are defined and glowing in the sun. I have a big, stupid smile on my face and my eyes are half-closed, which looks kind of weird, but I like how happy I look, how excited. Mostly it’s one of my favorite pictures because it marks this halfway point between where I had been and where I was going in a summer that felt mostly unreal and floaty and important in a lot of different ways.

The point here is this: beauty doesn’t exist without all the things that exist around it. On that first night in Florence, I was bent over because of beautiful things. But it was the long trip, the best friend, the funeral that led up to that and the home, the boy, the photographs I would develop that came after that made it overwhelming enough to cause me to expand in the way that I did just to try to fit it all in. The point here is that we can all be this. The point here is that we can all be that beautiful, so much so that we are cause for breathlessness.

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