I spent this weekend in rural Oregon, attending my dear friend M’s wedding. Though the weather was unusually hot for the Pacific Northwest, the setting and (outdoor) ceremony worked together so beautifully that the whole weekend felt tinged with magic. It was wonderful to celebrate my friend’s happiness in such a lovely landscape, with a running creek, pine-covered hills, and strong sunshine providing the perfect backdrop to a happy rite.
Several of us had attended a wedding in the same location three years ago; the house belongs to a friend’s parents, and they are happy to lend it to kids they’ve known for decades for a weekend of celebration. That wedding, too, was gorgeous and fun; instead of staying in hotels, many of us camped out in the field and stayed for a whole weekend, just as we did this time. M was there, and she and I especially spent a lot of time together, since Mr Machine and I were about to move to Chicago and we knew we wouldn’t see each other for months or years.
At this point you might be wondering when SP turned into my personal let’s-ramble-about-the-weekend blog. Never fear! There was a crucial difference between my experience in 2006 and my experience this weekend — and that difference was my view of beauty. Here’s the thing about my friend M: she’s gorgeous. Not just in the regular “Wow, my friends are pretty” way, but in a “Straight guys cannot be friends with me because they are too stunned by my looks” way. (Queer women somehow don’t seem to have the same problem, though I imagine we like to look at her just as much.) She’s tall and blonde and leggy and very slim, with piercing eyes and delicate features. She’s also incredibly photogenic. And the woman she married this weekend is equally stunning, though the only feature they share is their tall lean figures. Basically, in their gowns, glowing with happiness, in this lovely place, they were so pretty you could be forgiven for thinking that no one should need to get married again, because they win for Most Gorgeous Wedding In History (MGWIH). When the wedding pictures are available, I might just paper my walls with them.
In the pictures from the 2006 Oregon wedding (aka The Previous Contender for MGWIH), I am wearing a kicky black and pink striped cowl-necked dress that drapes prettily over my cleavage, and my hair is the perfect amount of wavy, and my glasses add a bit of retro nerd flair. In short, I look awesome. But you know when I realized this? Just this Friday, when looking at the 2006 photos with some of our friends who were there. When I had first seen those wedding photos, in 2006, I thought I looked terrible — lumpy and plain and, of course, fat (I was in the “fine for thee but not for me” stage of FA at the time). I was only a little bigger than I am right now, but all I could see in the pictures was my big hips and big arms hiding in that adorable dress — even though most of the time I felt pretty okay about my body. See, I was hanging out with M, and she is so beautiful that seeing myself next to her in photos was a bit like being slapped; I compared myself to her and found my looks hopelessly wanting. That wedding was beautiful and fun and I have frequently waxed nostalgic about it in the three years since, but I almost never looked at the pictures to reminisce. Why would I? They were clear evidence of how un-beautiful I was. But looking at these very same photos on Friday night, I was startled by how happy and pretty I looked; our mutual friends had even displayed a photo of me and M sitting together laughing. Seeing it framed on a mantel, I wondered how I ever thought I looked anything but wonderful that weekend.
A lot of things have changed in the last three years, but the most important change here is how I view other women’s beauty. It’s not that I used to be jealous of beautiful women, though of course I envied them some — it’s that I often felt diminished by them, as though they were so pretty just to spite me, to remind me my place in the order of things. Of course, this had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. I felt like I was passing as a pretty woman most of the time, and the presence of someone who was Certifiably Pretty revealed my true nature. Standing next to M, who is kind and generous and funny and sweet but also very very pretty, made me feel like my mask had been torn off.
Now it’s like looking with new eyes — but of course it’s really my new brain. I don’t compare myself with her; I love myself with her, because she is my friend. When I see those 2006 pictures now, I feel like I look prettier in her company; her beauty includes me now, because I look at both of us with a more generous gaze. We’re not pitted against each other in a zero-sum contest of finite beauty; we are friends in a world that is, at times, heart-rendingly beautiful.
This weekend, watching these two gorgeous women slide rings on each other’s fingers, I felt blessed too. I’ve been trained to view beauty as a rule that excludes me, a weapon that anyone could use against me: we all have. But when we try to think generously about beauty, to look for it with pleasure instead of with envy, it only expands. Beauty is not a finite quantity. It has room for you. It has room even for me.