Okay, poets ending in “-eats”–it’s time for a throwdown. William Butler Yeats, you know I love you. I’ve always loved you. But sometimes the best relationships produce the ugliest fights. And you, John Keats–I’ve never gotten over your death, even though you died long before I was born. But what’s a writer.mom to do with you male poets and your obsessions with beauty?
As a writer.mom, I’m disturbed by our culture’s obsession with a very narrow range of beauty. I’m not even convinced it’s actually beauty at all. I want my boys to recognize real beauty when they see it–not be brainwashed into thinking that beauty is something you can buy if you can afford the right plastic surgeon, personal trainer, dietician, stylist, or airbrush artist. Starving yourself is not beautiful. Needing a chisel to remove your makeup is not beautiful. Injecting toxins into your body is not beautiful.
Now, I know all this garbage was not around when you -eatses were writing. Though, W.B., you did dabble in some funky surgery…..But you carried a notion of female beauty around with you, and I wonder if it kept you from happiness. Maybe poets have to be kept from happiness. I hope not. And John K., what is this “truth is beauty” stuff? “Forever wilt thou love and she be fair”–is her fairness a product of his love, or a precondition of it? And why the hell can’t she be fair after that frozen moment on that urn, when she grows “old and grey and full of sleep”? Okay, now I’m mixing my -eatses. Because I’m mad, and I don’t always pay a great deal of attention to details when I’m mad.
I’m mad because today I heard a woman say that every time she looks in the mirror, she thinks she’s ugly. This woman does not look like a model. She looks like a woman. This woman has a smile that is sunshine through rainclouds. This woman should have someone walk around in front of her carrying a sign that says, “Dangerous Curves Ahead!” This woman has a face that is beautiful because it bears witness to the tragedies and triumphs of her life. And she thinks she’s ugly because she doesn’t have skin like a baby’s butt.
There is one thing on God’s green earth that should look like a baby’s butt, and that is a baby’s butt. (Okay, so I also get cliched when I get mad.) What is this obsession with feminine youth? Does beauty really pass like a dream? I’m more than a little disturbed that adult women are supposed to have the physical characteristics of children when it comes to thick hair, glowy skin, and bodily hairlessness.
I am mad because this woman who is beautiful thinks she is ugly, thanks to you -eatses. Well, I don’t know if she’s been talking with you guys specifically, but you know what I mean. You poets and other arbiters of Taste and Culture who set up these ridiculous ideals that ensure that every woman is doomed to failure, and every man is doomed to unhappiness, unless we can somehow break out of this shell of fakeness and find Truth.
Here’s the Truth, -eatses. We are all beautiful. Ideals are nice for things like how we treat others, but when it comes down to the shells we’re born in, we have no control. And maybe that terrifies us. Maybe our lack of control over our shells–in so many ways other than mere appearance–makes us strive to exert control in whatever small-minded ways we can. By insisting that women be beautiful on certain terms. By abusing our bodies in so many ways. By refusing to expand our minds to encompass a definition of beauty that is truly Truthful. I think all our ugliness–and I’m talking about the only real kind of ugliness, the behavioral/attitudinal kind–springs from fear, the way mushrooms spring up from decay.
We’re so afraid of losing control. Maybe our association of youth and beauty, our sense of the fleeting nature of beauty, comes from our fear of the loss of control that we associate with aging. I suppose it makes sense that you poets would obsess over this. In a way, isn’t writing all about control? And immortality? As writers, we create worlds. We people them. We play God. We hope our words will endure forever.
I love you, -eatses. But as a writer.mom, I struggle with what to do with you. The beauty of your minds and your language inspires me. I have wept over your poetry, and I would not want to live without it. But what I want from you now is a little advice. How do I raise my sons in this “beauty”-obsessed world? It’s getting worse, in case you hadn’t noticed. Instead of exploding our stupid stereotypes of female beauty, we’ve gone and created new ones for men, too. Why were you so obsessed with beauty anyway, -eatses? Why does the feminine become, as often as not, the vessel of beauty rather than another subject sitting alongside you, being blown away by it just as you are? And what did you learn, -eatses, when you passed beyond the veil? What beauty matters to you now that you’ve lain down where all the ladders start?
It’s hard to find a language apart from you, untouched by you. And I don’t want to. But something has to give. How do I relate to you? If we could sit down together, as I’ve often imagined, would we talk about the fulness of autumn and the widening gyre of human history? Or would you feed me some line about loving my pilgrim soul?
I don’t care what you looked like. I would launch a thousand ships for you in any case. But as a woman, I’m always wondering where I fit in your world. Do I get to read the poems, or am I trapped inside them?