Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers. She is bright and witty and seems to always cut to the core of an issue. I’ve packed this article around with me for years, finding humor and support whenever my own sense of self was lagging. True beauty really is within.
This article was previously published on Salon.com.
A Day at the Beach With My Aunties
by Anne Lamott
Spiritual experiences do not happen so frequently at Club Med for normal people who travel well; but there is no one fitting that description around here. Sam and I went with our best friends to Club Med a couple of months ago, and I got another little brown-bag victory: I broke through Butt-Mind; or at any rate, have only had the mildest case of Butt-Mind ever since. In earlier incarnations I’ve spent days and entire weeks comparing my butt to everyone else’s butt. Sometimes my butt was better-than, although it is definitely the butt of a mother who keeps forgetting to work out. Mostly it was worse-than. Mostly at Club Med it was much worse-than. I did not expect things to be any different this time, because gravity is having its say, and the dimples are deepening and conquering new territories. Also it happened to be Easter week, which meant there would be lots of teenage girls, only a few of whom, statistically, could be expected to have droopy butts and major dimpling issues.
I started off in heavy Butt-Mind on the plane headed to Huatulco. There were all these teenage girls on board in tiny shorts that my 7-year-old son could have borrowed. Someone less secure about her own beauty might have said, “Too many teenage girls.” But I was able to look down my nose at them because I was reading a magazine containing a big article on Junkie Chic, on society’s current exhortation of drowsy, skaggy emaciation. Now granted, the girls on the plane were mostly youthful and bouncy and physically stunning, if you happen to find tan, lean youth attractive. But the article on Junkie Chic was making me feel militantly on my own sorry-ass side.
I was becoming a convert to What Cellulite Turns Into Down The Road Chic; Tired Feet of a Czechoslovakian Dockworker Chic. I was not even thinking of the priest I have mentioned before, who said that sometimes he thinks that heaven is just a new pair of glasses. Rather, a number of things have fallen into place somewhere along the line, and I have discovered that a person being herself is beautiful; that contentment and acceptance and freedom are beautiful. And most importantly, I had discovered I was clinically and objectively beautiful.
I really mean it in the literal sense. I believe that if you saw me, you would say, “Wow. What a beautiful woman.”
I’m almost sure.
But of course, I was thinking all this before I got to the beach.
Until recently, I was afraid to say it out loud, that I am beautiful, for fear that people would look at each other with amusement, think to themselves, Well, isn’t that nice: I wonder if she thinks she has a weenie, too. I was afraid people would look with eyes of cruel scrutiny and see a thinnish woman in profoundly late youth with tired wrinkly eyes, flabby thighs and scriggly-scraggly hair, as my son once described it; and scriggly-scraggly teeth. I was afraid they would see the spidery veins on my legs, and that my bottom appears to be making a break for freedom from the confines of the rear end of my swimsuit; afraid that they would notice all the parts of me that really need to have the fat vacuumed out, or at least carpet-swept. But somehow I was not afraid to say it anymore. On that plane with all these beautiful young girls walking up the aisle as if it were a runway, if someone had exhibited so much as an angstrom of doubt about my beauty, I would have said that they could come kiss my big, beautiful, dimply, droopy butt.
However, as I said, this was before I got to the beach.
After unpacking in Huatulco, I put on my best black swimsuit. It was very expensive when I got it, very alluring, Calvin Klein’s finest. The only real fly in the ointment is that it no longer fits. Actually, I’m not sure if it ever did. But there in my room overlooking the turquoise sea, infinite palm trees, a sky like God’s own gaze, I remembered that there is beauty in having thrown off the burden of one’s family. There is beauty in having gotten so comfortable at being skilled at something; there is grace in comfortableness. Also, the wife of the couple we were traveling with — our best friends — has dimply thighs and a big butt too.
Maybe even bigger. Not that I’m comparing or anything.
So I waddled on down to the beach.
I was not wearing a cover-up, not even a T-shirt. I had decided I was going to take my thighs and butt with me proudly wherever I went. I decided to treat them as if they were beloved elderly aunties, who did embarrassing things like roll their stockings into tubes around their ankles at the beach, but who I was proud of because they were so great in every important way. We walked along, the aunties and me, to meet Sam and our friends on the beach. I could feel the aunties beaming. They had been in the dark too long. It did not trouble me that parts of my body — the auntie parts — kept moving even after I had come to a full halt. Who cares? People just need to be soft and clean.
The first girls I saw were young, 9 or 10, splashing around on the rocks near the shore, pretending to be horses. One of them was catching crabs. Iguanas watched with unblinking eyes from boulders that lined the walkway, and the three girls were fearless, seemingly unself-conscious, so lovely. At 9 or 10, girls still get to be fine. They’ve still got a couple of years before they totally forget what they do have, and start obsessing about what they don’t. These girls had legs like baby egrets, probably not so changed yet from when they were 7 and 8. They were still of an age when they could play without wearing the glasses of puberty that allow them to see all their flaws. Not yet measuring, not yet comparing, still able to get caught up in crabs, in iguanas and currents, lost in what is right in front of them.
I was so inspired. I found Sam and our friends on the beach, and we swam all afternoon, and everything was wonderful. Then I decided to head back up to my room for a little nap before dinner, and ended up waiting for one of the vans that give people rides up the steep hillside. First I was alone; and it was good. I smiled, thinking of the aunties. I imagined one as Margaret Rutherford in old age, one as Samantha’s dreamy aunt in “Bewitched,” who could never get her spells to work. And then out of nowhere — no, no, like dogs from hell — four teenage girls showed up.
They were literally lovely as models, all in bikinis, two of them already tan. And suddenly my trance was broken, and it was the Emperor’s New Clothing, and I felt flabby and cellulitic and unearthly — like someone under fluorescent lights. I felt in comparison to these girls like Roy Cohn in his last days. I wanted a trapdoor to open at my feet. And this is the truth — they looked at me. They looked at me standing there in the bright sunlight wearing only an ill-fitting swimsuit that has been laundered more times than the funds in Oliver North’s campaign chest.
Then they looked at each other, with these looky looks, and it was their fatal mistake. It gave me time to have two mean thoughts. One was not even a thought exactly: I just imagined whispering, softly, “Tick, tock … tick, tock.”
The other was the realization that I knew their secret: that they didn’t think they were OK. They were at the stage where it’s so hard not to get caught up in your own self-loathing. They didn’t even secretly believe they were beautiful. The one probably thought she was too short, the other too tall. The most beautiful one had no breasts, the buxom one had thin hair. It softened my heart a little, that none of them secretly thought they were OK. Here’s one thing I know: Ugliness is creeping around in fear, and here I was, almost naked, and — to use the medical term — flabbier than shit, but deeply loyal to myself.
I made myself not check out their butts.
A van came along and took us up the hill. They got off before me, and I forced myself to look up, forced myself to look at the sky.
When I got to my room and had taken a long, hot shower, I studied myself in the mirror, standing there in my terrible underwear. My son barged in just as I began to put on a little make-up. He was hungry and wanted to go. But I shook my head, and began to dab on tinted moisturizer.
“Why do you have to do that?” he whined. “I’m starving to death.”
“It will just take a minute,” I said. He wouldn’t understand: He looks like a 7-year-old cross between God and Cindy Crawford. And I don’t understand entirely, either.
But I wasn’t thinking that I looked awful and wanted to look like someone else; that is the point at which you can come dangerously close to female impersonation. I just remembered that sometimes you start with the outside and you get it right. It’s burnishing, honoring the healthy, rosy, young person inside who is temporarily asleep in another room. It says, “Sometimes I look a little pale and wan, and I want to shine a little light on myself.” It’s almost like make-up can be a form of light, like on days when a little cloud cover makes you really notice the rays that come slanting through. Maybe the key is simply a wry fondness for the thing you’re slapping this stuff onto, instead of a desire to disguise; when it’s not a coat of paint you’re wearing, but a mantilla.
But at any rate, I put on a little make-up that night, and then my starving son, the aunties and I — the four of us looking unusually fine — went to meet our friends for dinner.