ON BEAUTY by Amber Burke

ON BEAUTY by Amber Burke

It’s easy to be the most beautiful in rooms full of scholars. If you’re tired of being the one who’s tongue-tied and trivial, try heels. Something tight. Then see how much postmodernism matters. It’s fun to discombobulate professors, to watch them try to find an innocuous resting spot for their eyes. Debates among classmates are more interesting when they’re antler-tangling rivalries for your attention.

Go for it. Beauty relieves you of responsibility: the responsibility to be brilliant or compassionate or wildly successful. It might be hard to be beautiful, but it’s not as hard as it is to be these other things. 

I never question my right to be where I am; I know that my presence is adding something to the party and that men feel lucky to talk to me. But the price for my unselfconsciousness is that I’m barely conscious. The more beautiful I try to be, the harder it is to think. I have lost my access to my own depths; I’m aware only of my surface, the location of every part of my body in relation to every other part and to other bodies, the angles my joints cut in negative space.

I don’t mind when men talk and talk; then I don’t have to do anything. They fall in love all by themselves.

He’s so attractive in college, hair thick and shining, eyes wet and clear and then, suddenly, he’s not. His hairline is barely higher, his skin barely waxen, his front tooth barely turquoise. And yet. The shocking brevity of his beauty is both a warning and a summons.

To hide away in a small town, in graduate school or an office somewhere, would be a disservice. One has a responsibility to beauty, as to a pet: as long as a dog can walk, it should be walked. 

I want my face to appear somewhere in the tapestry of New York, to be woven among the millionaires and the chandeliers, the streetlights and the garbage. I go there to be discovered, but the only one who discovers me is a photographer at a farmer’s market. He invites me to his studio where he takes a daguerreotype of me in a burlap dress, my face streaked with ash.

“Sit up straight. Find the light,” the photographer I’ve paid to take my headshot says, and I tilt my head. “Look down, then up.” I do. Having my hair brushed, being clothed and made up, being told how to sit and where to look, I feel like a little girl. What is on my mind? Nothing, nothing. Under the warm lights, I am empty and content, a cat in the sun. 

“Each time you have sex with me, your rent will go down by one-hundred dollars,” says the pouch-eyed old man with the room listed in The Village Voice. “Some girls here pay no rent at all.” I flee past the chain of hopeful young women extending through the hallway and onto the sidewalk.

Hand, hand, profile, profile, turn 360 degrees, smile. My hands are fine. My profile, fine. I can fake a swimsuit body: padded bikini tops exaggerate breasts, boyshorts hide stretch marks. But a casting director warns me, “Careful. Your smile can work for you or against you,” and so I smile into a mirror for hours trying to memorize the point at which it smashes my cheekbones and gobbles up my eyes. 

I smile a little on the street so men won’t tell me to smile. Men say, “What are you smiling about?”

It is humbling to wait in waiting room after waiting room of casting office after casting office with young women my age who could be my more beautiful sisters. I realize I would not give myself the role. 

Before I could read, I begged to try my mother’s Epilady, which she was using to tear the hair from her legs. “Go fast,” she advised. The pain was so intense I screamed. Blood pricked up from my pores. When I was in elementary school, my mother pulled me by the arm into her makeup closet and, with her nail scissors, trimmed the hair from my upper lip, hair that I didn’t realize was there. The way she cranked my head back—holding me like a hostage–hurt my neck. When I was in junior high, my mother made an appointment for me with a dermatologist to obliterate my mustache. The laser’s smack took my breath away and knocked my head back; I couldn’t do it. Now look at me: I wax myself mercilessly. Someone should be proud.

“You’d come home with us, wouldn’t you? If you knew we were safe?” asks a customer at the restaurant where I hostess, while the woman he is with looks at me from the darkness of their booth. 

Boundaries visible and invisible: the unjoinable tables of famous customers; the impenetrable skyscrapers; the movies I’m not in; the inscrutable minds of the casting directors; the limits of my talent; the modesty of my own beauty.

I could try to solve the Diophantine Equation, begin to learn what I would have to learn in order to discover a cure for cancer, but I am thinking of what I will wear tomorrow. There is the perfect outfit, the outfit will be the key in the lock that finally gets me a role. My mind is focused, inexhaustible, shuffling through the possibilities. The right shoes. I never have the right shoes.

And there’s always so much shaving to be done, so much waxing: who knows when a swimsuit will be required.

As soon as I walk into the audition room, strip down to my thong, and lie on my belly, I know I have it. The world melts around me. The walls turn to butter. 

“You’re better than just a butt double,” the photographer for the Japanese pop star’s calendar tells me, taking a picture of me in the clear tank, my backside protruding from the tepid bathwater. 

It’s happening. I’m a girl on TV, for seconds at a time. So what if all the lines from all my parts could fit inside the smallest bottle and float? 

 I’m on a Jersey beach in midwinter, swimsuited and spray-tanned for a cell phone commercial. I play a model buying drugs in a movie. A prostitute in another. A “partygirl.” In a shampoo commercial, I swing my flat, straight hair until my neck hurts. In a print ad, I have a cold sore glued to my frowning mouth; then it’s gone, and I’m smiling and dancing, the outline of my lime-green dress changed to give me cleavage. I play Asian Barbie. I’m not Asian.

“Happiness is the belated fulfillment of a prehistoric wish.” –Freud.

My mother and my aunt Mary visit me in New York and take my acting manager to lunch. My manager tells them she could keep them busy. She asks if all the women in my family are beautiful. “We can be,” my mom says, looking at her sister. Knowing looks, self-disparaging laughs, intimations of great and persistent effort. 

Women who used to remind me of my mother: Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Marlo Thomas, Snow White, the woman on the Sun-Maid Raisins boxes. I will always remember her coming back from a Christmas party, snow glimmering in her hair, the black wings of her long coat swirling around her, red lipstick still perfect. Her face was huge as she came toward me to kiss me goodnight, and the faint wrinkles around her eyes made stars out of them. She smelled like the cold and the snow and perfume. 

My mother on a weekend morning: pale lips, hair ponytailed back, bathrobe sleeve dipping in the muffin mix. I liked her like this: she was mine like this. But at the same time, I was disappointed by the white hairs in her eyelashes and the colorlessness of her face. She seemed tender and hurtable and like she would not last.

Following my dermatologist’s instructions, I take my makeup off every night with exquisite care; I jealously watch movies in which women go to bed with their makeup on, still glamorous in sleep across from their men.

“You look so tired. I’ve never seen you look so tired,” my boyfriend says. I say, “I’m not. I’m not wearing any makeup.” 

The true beauties, barely a trace of makeup on: I rarely see them at auditions; jobs are thrown like roses at their feet. But here comes one, the holy candle of her bare-faced beauty blazing. Cheekbones that reflect light into her eyes; a mouth that curves distinctively, generously; long limbs that look to have been dusted with gold. She is taller than me by mere inches, but these are inches that matter. The difference between her face and mine is one of millimeters, but these are millimeters that mean everything. Some of us notice the hush that has fallen over us and talk more loudly in her presence, the way children do to prove they’re not scared, but some of us can’t talk at all. Pointless, pointless.

Un ange passe is what the French say when a sudden silence falls. 

I read about a thigh bone-lengthening surgery in Russia. It works best for teenage girls, giving them an inch or two of height. Too late. Too little: I dream of surgery to elongate all my bones, to move my eyes farther apart, to whiten the whites of my eyes, to enrobe me in expensive skin that shines like burnished copper. Then, then. 

I oversleep and get to set late, my legs stubbled. It turns out I will be wearing a short cocktail dress and a man playing a werewolf will be licking my legs. Between takes, the actor jokingly pretends to remove my leg hair from his mouth. Later, he asks me out.

Even when aquarium-blue Jellies were still chewing up my feet in diamonds, my grandmother’s cheeks were so cross-hatched with wrinkles that it hurt to look at her. So when I saw photographs of her I’d never seen before, I was startled: “She was beautiful,” I exclaimed. My mother, who was usually so eager to agree with me, said tightly, “She was. She let herself go,” as if her mother had done something shameful, as if she’d allowed age to have its way with her in the back of a car. 

My grandmother used to tell my mother, “You’re hairy as your father.” She told my aunt Mary, “You have your father’s legs.” I don’t know what other unkind, untrue things she said to her other five children. Or to her husband, when she served him another burned dinner.

I have come to think that the way my grandmother let the sun brutalize her Irish skin was a punishment to her husband for the humbleness of the life he provided, and for inflicting her with so many children, and an accusation to those children: See. See what you’ve done to me. 

And yet, my grandmother was not without vanity. She believed her feet were too big. She smashed her size-8 feet into size-7 pumps when she went dancing at the Fargo Country Club, concealing her unhappiness and pennilessness with a lipsticked smile, a diamond cocktail ring, and a mink stole thrown violently around her neck.

My mother doesn’t walk with the rest of us to the funeral, because she’s still getting ready. Do the legs of a grieving daughter need to be perfectly smooth? Does her face need to be perfect? Yes, apparently: yes. I’m learning.

I fly to Lisbon to film a potato-chip commercial, where I’m strapped with a pregnant belly for two days, then to New Orleans to be driven back and forth on a long bridge, my face sticking out the window like a dog’s. My aunt Mary, who lives there, doesn’t want me to come over.

Such is Mary’s cancer that she looks pregnant and has bags and feeding tubes attached to her. She doesn’t want anyone to see her like this.

“Don’t get old,” my father says to me, unhelpfully, from the cave of his own aches and pains.

I go to an audition I don’t understand and land a leading role on a soap opera playing a young ballerina who has been turned, by a curse, into an old woman forced into servitude at a Swiss health spa. The week before I start, the makeup artist practices smudging circles under my eyes and drawing brown lines on my cheeks. I look like a dried apple. 

My first day on set, after my hair is sprayed white, the makeup artist tries a different technique, using glue, to give me wrinkles. It doesn’t work. “Your skin’s too tight,” he complains. He peels it off and tries again with different glue. I can’t go to set when I’m called: I’m still smooth-cheeked. I’m fired, the storyline scrapped. My hair white, my skin chapped red, I sob on the above ground subway. 

“You didn’t want to play an old woman anyway,” my manager says. 

Before Mary’s funeral, my mother and I primp together in the hotel room. We put on our makeup before the Mass, like it is part of the Mass.

It’s getting harder to hold up my hands, to turn side to side, to spin in a circle, to smile. None of it seems to matter. At an audition for a fast-food commercial, I take a bite of a bun, smile, then spit it into the waiting bucket half-filled with gobs of bread. All those mouths. 

“You look tired,” my manager says, concerned. “I am,” I say. “I’m so tired.”

The girls at the castings are starting to seem young, their plump faces like grapes about to split. They still find it novel to hold up their hands, to turn side to side, to spin in a circle, to smile. My replacements.

“If she hasn’t broken by thirty, she won’t break,” I overhear my manager saying. It doesn’t matter about whom.

I feel it happening when I land the tax-preparation-software commercial, the paint commercial, the one for toothpaste in which I play the makeup-artist, not the model. 

You can only pretend beauty isn’t a power until it comes time to claim spots on the lifeboat. When the spot you thought was yours becomes uncertain, of course you worry.

After grad school, I move to a small, dusty mountain town where women let their hair go gray and some proudly call themselves “crones.” Many of them are widows. Some days, only the sky sees their faces. 

Everyone knows compliments on appearance have fallen out of favor. So their dearth could mean nothing; it’s possible I haven’t changed much. And who is there to see me? I’m tucked quietly in an office.

I can smile uncautiously now—it doesn’t matter if my features collide like continents at the end of the world–but whenever I catch a glimpse of myself, I’m frowning.

“You look tired,” my father says. “I’m not,” I say. “This is just how I look now.”

I didn’t know how it would happen. Now I do. Because of the furrow inside my eyebrows, my nose looks longer. The edges of my mouth have turned downward; my chin has crinkled upward. I see some softness along my jawline where jowls will be. Differences of millimeters, but these are millimeters that matter. There’s some relief in knowing what face I’m going to have.

And yet, I feel guilt, as if I am doing a disservice not only to my minor beauty, but to those whose eyes would have enjoyed alighting on it, whose eyes will now have to find some other purchase.

I feel most pitiful before my parents, as if I’m failing us all; if I could stop myself from getting older, I could stop them from getting older, but look: I have gotten older, and so, so must they. 

Along with the sense that I am abandoning beauty is the sense that beauty is abandoning me. 

“How can you think in that?” my husband asks. I look down through my crooked reading glasses at my outfit: the faded sneakers, the checkerboard socks, the pant-cuff tucked into one sock, the thrift-store sweatshirt that says, “No plans is my plan.” But I can, I can think. 

I avoid the TV: beautiful women keep rising, like mermaids, from its dark water. I never know when they’ll appear, pull me in, submerge me in envy.

I read about women, faces chewed up by lye powders, who decline, in their later years, to be viewed in broad daylight and hide themselves behind veils. These women are described as “ruins.” And yet, their opposites don’t fare much better: they suffer the sting of formaldehyde in the label “well-preserved.”

When any woman in my mother’s family has her fiftieth birthday, she gets my grandmother’s mink stole, then passes it on to the next one who turns fifty. The stole emanates the sharp scent of mothballs and some of my grandmother’s doomed aspiration and cruelty.

With their kindness to their own children, with their commitment to big hats, big sunglasses and sunscreen to protect their skin, my mother and her beautiful sisters have tried to be unlike their mother, and unlike the ugly girls their mother saw in them. And yet, isn’t there something mean in the tradition of the mink stole, something of their mother? Something that cackles and says triumphantly, “You’re as old as I was when you thought I was old”?

I have a while yet, but I’ll be the next one who gets these antique minks, arranged rump-to-mouth like a chain of flattened rats: all claws and pointed, beady-eyed faces with hard, black noses, perfectly preserved.  I pity every weasel ever sacrificed on the altar of beauty.

“If I get it, I’ll keep it,” I threaten, so I won’t get it. “I’ll never let it go.” 


Amber Burke has two big mutts, Shep and Smoochie. She is a grad of Yale and the JHU Writing Seminars who now teaches writing at the UNM in Taos. Her work has been published here and there.

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