Fragrant steam rises from an enormous vat of tea, and steeping in the brew at this Koreatown spa are three plump Korean grandmas. Their nudity, and the undulating rolls of fat ringing their waists, seem to trouble them not at all. The ritual of a communal bath is clearly comfortable. The moonfaced grandmothers exhibit not a trace of self-consciousness.
A few feet away, a 20-something bottle blonde with carefully striped strands of gold, ash and strawberry woven through fastidiously tied hair soaks only her feet as she poses at the edge of a roiling spa. For whom she is posing is a mystery. There's no one here but the grandmas and a few other women. But the blonde leans back on her elbows as if she expects at any moment to be photographed. Even in the sodden air, her makeup remains eerily flawless.
Rather than marveling at this specimen's perfection, a few other women in the spa huddle together and discreetly tsk-tsk words of pity.
"It's sad. If you can't relax in a spa, where can you?"
The sympathy is clear: There but for the grace of God go I. Rather than the blonde's meticulously curated beauty, it is her paralyzing fear that stands out — the fear of being thought of as unattractive, even in a Jacuzzi full of old ladies. That fear, for many, requires a mighty effort to cast off.
Toni Raiten-D'Antonio has fought that good fight. A lifelong beauty outsider, D'Antonio was unequivocally informed by her family that she was ugly, and she has adopted that familial candor in a book about her struggle with beauty and the lack of it: Ugly as Sin. In its best moments, D'Antonio's book cuts to the bone, stripping bare the searing pain that comes with the terror of aesthetic insufficiency, which most often originates in childhood's unhealed wounds.
D'Antonio began her research with a post on a Facebook group for women, asking the simple question: "When do you feel ugly?"
Answers came cascading in, each a testament to still-raw anguish. Hundreds of women responded, cataloguing excruciating moments of insult, humiliation and trauma, leaving the reader to cringe in sympathy and recognition. Responses to D'Antonio's question ranged from specific and piercing anecdotes — one girl recalled being demeaned as she rode up the elevator to her senior prom — to generally tortured answers like, "Every day. When do I not feel ugly?"
Given the sheer number of respondents, it's difficult to imagine that they're all the hideous monsters they imagine themselves to be.
In Los Angeles, shallow vanity capital of the world, the trite saw "It's what's on the inside that counts" can ring doubly hollow. But in every corner of the world, even those who agree with that axiom would, if given a choice, take pretty over ugly. Unfortunately, that choice is rarely on the menu most of us are handed.
D'Antonio's solution, short of reorganizing not only the entire culture but human nature, is to say to yourself, "I'm ugly." Make this admission not in a downcast moment of defeat but on any regular day, simply because ugliness is a natural part of the human condition. Then accompany this admission with its converse: If you, like every human, are subject to crookedness, mess, foul odors and decay, then admit that the beauty that is an inherent part of humanity is also a part of you.
Rather than powdering over our physical flaws with pretty-on-the-inside niceties, exercising the public politeness of pretending not to notice flaws — and we are by far our own harshest critics — D'Antonio recommends coming out of the closet. Admit to yourself that you are ugly. Then get on with your life.
The only hope for long-term change is in refusing to pass on this wretched dysmorphic legacy to our daughters, and author Lauren Kessler seems to have found the way. Kessler's book My Teenage Werewolf is an irresistible confessional about her struggle to raise a confident, self-assured daughter and to remain a relevant and positive influence in the 13-year-old's life, rather than becoming some horribly uncool appendage.
Kessler's own tussles with body image and her daughter's total lack of same make up only a small portion of the narrative, but Kessler's observations of her growing daughter's physical sense of self are a crucial part of the lead-up to a happy ending, in which Kessler learns that the secret of earning her teenager's respect lies in finding opportunities to let her daughter take the lead.
The power struggles between mother and daughter, Kessler learns, are just one of the battles a growing girl has to fight. Another push and pull comes from the oft-blamed sexualized images of young women in the media, which, rather than being the root of all evil, actually can convey a message of freedom. Of course, should a sexy girl exercise too much of that freedom, Kessler points out, slasher movies and fearsome tales of sexual predators are there to terrify her back into submission. Kessler often finds herself torn as she struggles to direct her daughter's impulses without quashing the feisty spirit from which they spring.
It is mothers like Kessler who offer the only window of opportunity for replacing women's anxious and bigoted relationships with their bodies with healthy ones, because ultimately it's not society, not the villainous patriarchy and not men, but other women who most powerfully perpetuate female traditions of self-loathing and insecurity. Think about it, honey: A guy might pass you over for someone with a bigger cup size, but he's never, ever going to invite you to his home Botox party.
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Kessler fills her journey with self-effacing humor over her struggles with the proper degree of parental control. "Obviously, my mother was off-base and I was in the right. And now, obviously, I am in the right once again — Isn't it wonderful to be right so often? — and my daughter is off-base. Believe me, I see the problem here, but I can't help myself."
The unathletic Kessler, who admits to hiding her body in a towel at her daughter's birthday pool party, winds up with a jock daughter: a discus thrower, track athlete and the sole female member of her school's wrestling team who, despite several extra pounds on an ample frame, unconcernedly submits to very public premeet weigh-ins as her mother stands by in awe.
Rather than being driven by vanity, Kessler says, "My daughter exercises because she wants to be strong. She pays attention to her musculature, she pays attention to being flexible and not injuring herself. What gets her to the gym is, 'I want to be strong and healthy, and I want to win.' "
Kessler's advice: "Replace the tape in your head that says, 'I want to pay attention to food and exercise because if I don't, I'll be fat and ugly and no one will love me' with the tape that says, 'I want to pay attention to food and exercise because I want to be healthy and vibrant for myself, and my daughter.' If you can do that, that's huge."