There was talk of beauty, too, because beauty was that one thing, the one marker of femalehood we’d been excluded from all our lives. In a community where most members were female-identified, this exclusion from womanhood was as much of a cause of distress as depersonalization. Many of us, like me, had been led to believe that we could never deserve love unless we were thin and beautiful. We were told that we could only ever be a fetish unless we lost weight and became “normal” women. These were intersecting issues that the early fat community analyzed on blogs like the now-archived Shapely Prose. A feminist strain of reasoning argued against the importance of beauty and prioritizing a heteronormative discourse where only the approving male gaze could validate our beauty, and by extension, our personhood. Others, like me at the time, just wanted to be pretty and find acceptance in the larger world, with its emphasis on a particularly feminine expression of beauty. Beauty was the stopper to uncork the rest of myself for without beauty all my other qualities were invalid. My brain that had sailed me through academia without a blip, my kindness that attracted people and animals alike, my skill at writing, photography and art, my ability to dish up magnificent meals for a crowd—none of it made a difference in my psyche or the way I perceived myself unless I could be beautiful.

My relationship with my ex-girlfriend sparked off around that time, and being naked with another person who touched me with the greatest of affection forced me to confront my reality of my body, the fact that it existed and that it was capable of giving me the sort of pleasure I had never known before. Sex was crucial, because it was the first time my body was something other than a source of grief and shame. It was a source of pleasure, a site of desire. And even as my ex bestowed upon me the tenderness I’d routinely denied myself, the glorious women of the fatosphere echoed her declaration in a rousing chorus that gathered resonance and momentum until it erupted celebratory, defiant and deafening—”You are beautiful.” Oh, the validation! Oh, to have that glorious word ascribed to me! Even in the privacy of my attic room, and in a circle of outsiders, of those excluded from the paradigm, the podium, the validation felt overwhelming, exhilarating. Beauty was no longer exclusive and selective, it was inclusive, accepting, welcoming of all who chose to bestow it upon themselves. Oh, the joy, the wonder of the beauty in us all! As I felt more secure in my identity as a woman, I started dipping into fashion and makeup. My ex and I spent long afternoons painting each other’s faces with inexpert hands and taking selfies. I bought a dress and wore it in front of her. Later on, I wore it out, and the world didn’t collapse.

It galls me to think of how much was taken away from me in the name of beauty—how long it had my selfhood in a stranglehold. I try to imagine what my life would have been like if, growing up, I’d been told that I was perfect just as I was, that beauty and intelligence weren’t opposing choices that girls had to make, that they didn’t form an originary divide that turned you into either an airhead or a bluestocking. What if we told girls that they are perfect and flawless as they are, and none of their varied and amazing qualities detract from their personhood and their right to live their lives in full-throated confidence? I think that would be a raucously bitter day for patriarchy.

Beauty is insidious. It co-opts the language of whatever flavor of empowerment is in vogue, all the while seeking to divide girls into beauty-havers and have nots. It’s a slippery slope and a sliding scale because you can never be enough: thin enough, pale enough, conforming to the standards stringently enough. Beauty is the velvet-gloved sucker punch designed expressly for knocking down women, and these days it comes beguilingly equipped with the feminist-lite language of empowerment it has co-opted. I see this particularly in the fat-acceptance movement as it’s gained more credence in the mainstream, a transition that involves a loss of radical values as ideas are filtered, processed, and made easily consumable. At its core, fat acceptance preaches feeling good about your body, and who could possibly disagree that it’s a bad thing? A message so diluted and anodyne that it hasn’t taken long for the diet-fashion-beauty conglomerate to co-opt it: “Love your body…even more!! with our all-new, body-positive weight-loss plan!” “Make yourself even more beautiful!! by buying the same old shit we used to sell you five years ago by telling you to make yourself less unattractive.” Beauty, for me, was the greatest deception, because beauty wasn’t what I needed to grow into myself. Confidence was. I needed not to understand that I was beautiful, but the knowledge that I was worthy and valid just as I was, and just as however else I chose to be in the future. I had to take the long road round through the crevasse of beauty to finally arrive at my personhood, but I arrived at the same self I had always been—the only difference being that, now that I had experienced beauty, I understood how inessential it was to my actual happiness.

I wish I could say that turning my back on beauty was entirely the result of my own agency and effort, but what it really took was my body reaching a place beyond all interpretations of the term. The final phase of rejection began when I gained weight on birth control to reach a size where I couldn’t flatter and conceal to my body to an acceptably “curvy” shape of fatness anymore. I was flat-out fat, and after I got used to my new body, it was liberating in a way I hadn’t believed possible. I didn’t have to fake a waist anymore, because there wasn’t a waist to fake, sucking in my belly was pointless, because it made absolutely no difference, my double chin declared its robust presence from every angle, and there was no Instagram filter that could erase my cellulite. It felt luxurious. My body felt luxurious. There were no rules anymore: I’d crossed over to a feeling of abundance and abandon which nothing could constrict, confine, or hide. I’d fallen so far out of the beauty narrative that trying to fit into it would have been the same as trying to pull on a pair of jeans from my eating-disorder days. I learned new words for myself then: lush, soft, welcoming, comforting. I saw myself with the eyes of one who loved me, and it was almost too much to take. Beauty paled before me: I was radiant and terrible as the sun. I’ve seldom loved myself as much as in those first few months of basking in my fat.

I could never take some sort of a moral high ground when it comes to rejecting beauty, because I’ve suffered through every stage of it before I could come to this place of quiet, sure contentment. I’ll always believe, though, that the suffering was pointless and could have been entirely avoidable had I grown up in a world that, instead of constantly pointing out all my “flaws” to me, told me I didn’t need to be fixed, and that love was not for me, not now, not yet. Because, as a human being born into the world, I was flawless, just as you are, just as we all are. Beauty isn’t a magic word, and it carries the key to nothing. Every single bit of wonder, talent and life that you carry within you is waiting for your command and yours alone to burst forth, if it hasn’t already. There’s no one who’ll be you better than yourself, and your life to fulfill is yours, as a girl, a woman, a perfect, magical, flawless being. ♦