Beauty is no ornament.
It is the meaning.
It is the truth.
— Ursula K. LeGuin
I remember visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time when I was twelve. My mom has always loved art, and as we made our way up 5th Avenue toward the museum, I sensed my invitation into a corner of her world that I hadn’t been permitted to enter before. A world of films, books, paintings, and plays that had defined her life before my birth. I couldn’t imagine this younger, vibrant self — harassed, overworked, and underpaid as she was now. This only made the possibilities of the Met more palpable: What beauty might it contain to make my mom less world-weary? What was the name for the joy I saw blossoming across her face as we walked?
We climbed up the iconic front steps — breathtakingly large in a city that, on good days, has barely enough space for everyone to fit — and clambered into the Great Hall. As the throng of tourists in front of us parted, I looked up and immediately understood my mom’s reverence: The dome had the magnificence of a cathedral, without the accompanying shame that religious spaces often provoked.
This was a church that refused to be disappointed by human follies.
To my left, row after row of ancient Greek statues glowed in the morning light. Marbled men with perfectly chiseled abs burst through the hall like a spray of wildflowers. To my right, the line to enter the Egyptian wing overflowed with people eager to see ancient mummies, fully-formed sphinxes, and the small but impressive Temple of Dendur. Where should we start, I asked my mom, hopped-up on adrenaline and the desire to please. We have time, she said, I’ll follow you.
We plunged into the museum, starting in the Greek wing. I stood in awe of the pottery. Though created more than two thousand years ago, the sinuous bodies on the terracotta pots — playing the flute, feeding their horses — remain deliciously alive. I dreamed about being one of the Dionysian boys on the pots, lips red with wine, hands tucked into the palm of my lover, waking up after a night of revelry. We continued to the Islamic art wing, where a light-blue fountain infused every room with the gentle sound of running water. In every gallery, detailed tile-work stretched the boundaries of my young brain. I asked my mom how long such intricate designs might take. Not knowing the answer, we both simply stood in silent awe.
We went on in this way — to see a fully-formed Buddhist temple replete with a Zen garden, blush pink couches in the French decorative arts section, and wall size quilts in The American Wing — until my adolescent mind overflowed with ancient dreams. You are a part of all of this, my soul whispered. I didn’t know the words then, but Rumi’s refrain, “You are the universe in ecstatic motion,” feels accurate now. As if life was keeping some long-awaited promise. The reason why humans were alive. The key that unlocked the meaning of it all.
To walk through the Met is to sense the sacred in water and clay. The human need to decorate, adorn, and delight. It is to understand that the human desire and impulse for beauty is as diverse and wide-ranging as the species itself — a sensual, wide-ranging net that is thick enough to hold us all.
Today, though, this understanding of beauty is increasingly distorted by obsessive materialism, and fueled by personal insecurity. The older I got, the smaller the sensation I experienced at the Met became. Beauty, billboards, commercials, and television shows seemed to say, was all about me. The ways I needed to improve; to become something other than the divine creature, born only once to experience my one “wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver says.
The Seventeen magazines that arrived in my mailbox every month as a teenager had articles like “the best Chapstick for your first kiss,” and “the absolute hottest sandals to wear this summer.” The understanding of beauty as a form of collective liberation was erased, replaced with an ideology that seemed to begin and end with the ways I was expected to improve. I felt hollow and betrayed; beauty’s promise to heal, broken.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I spent way too much money on skincare products from The Ordinary and Glossier. I searched for a way to feel beautiful in my apartment and to replace the places — restaurants, bars, parties — that had made me feel alive. I craved a sense of meaning and purpose in my life, and the Instagram ads that penetrated my feed seemed all-too-ready to exploit that need.
I tracked my USPS packages desperately. In each package that arrived, though, something felt off. My forehead became a cluster of blotchy red bumps above the deep bags that had formed under my eyes. I was inconsolable when I didn’t look like the Glossier girls, who seemed to shine despite the horror of the pandemic. I wanted to be like them, airtight, good, pure, in the face of uncontrollable chaos. Despite my sunken funds, beauty felt embarrassingly out of reach. I did not feel desirable, only at the mercy of companies and aesthetics that did not value me outside of my position as a consumer.
The rebranding of beauty as “clean,” “natural,” and “green”has created an untenable cognitive dissonance. It has become our moral obligation to satisfy these standards, as if we will not only be ugly women, but bad people if we do not. On one hand, corporations have become hip to the logic of “inclusivity,” cultivating a bland aesthetic (think pale sage leggings at Goop and Everlane; the no-makeup makeup look of Glossier) that has made it difficult to recognize the way beauty standards dictate our lives. Normative aesthetics permeate every inch of visual culture, turning “authenticity” into a market good and rejecting people whose work is too “complicated,” liminal, or queer. This makes us easier to control as deviance becomes commodified; a site of likes and follows rather than liberation.
At the same time, we crave validation and the possibility of beauty. It feels good to have a skincare routine, a practice of minor transformation, when that’s the only thing that many of us can control in an increasingly chaotic world. We want to be understood, and we sense that beauty can provide us with healing and connection. As bell hooks writes, “the more downtrodden and unfortunate the circumstances, the more “beauty” is needed to uplift, offer a vision of hope, to transform.” We don’t want to abandon beauty altogether, but we struggle to see how beauty can transform us in a world that seems intent on commodifying every inch of our lives; on corporations’ ability to manipulate and shame us into billion-dollar profits.
Unsurprisingly, by month three of my skincare obsession, my spirit and budget were done. At the same time, New York City had begun to reopen. The plant store near my house was back in business, their garden overflowing with hydrangeas, lilacs, and roses. I watched as couples discussed the best tomato varietals for their fire escape; as a grandmother bent over to smell a rose so bright it must have bloomed that morning. It struck me, among my neighbors, that even though we couldn’t go to the theatre, clubs, or museums, we remained committed to beauty. It was in the plants that surrounded us. The vibrant, multicolored posters that children hung from their balconies to celebrate essential workers. The tender way we greeted each other with elbow taps and air hugs.
In her life-giving essay, “In Search Of My Mother’s Garden,” Alice Walker writes:
Whatever she planted grew as if by magic, and her fame as a grower of flowers spread over three counties. Because of her creativity with her flowers, even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms — sunflowers, petunias, roses, dahlias, forsythia, spirea, delphiniums, verbena… and on and on. I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of becoming invisible — except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in her personal conception of Beauty.
As I write this, the true weight of the belief that beauty exists as a personal project, rather than a site of possibility and liberation, strikes me. As a child, I would wear outrageous outfits from my “costume box” that turned me into a wild leopard princess or powerful fairy snake. I would dance around my house, spinning between my mom’s legs, both of us laughing until we couldn’t feel the muscles in our cheeks. When we do not believe we’re beautiful, or capable of producing beauty, we lose the throughline of energy that help us cultivate resilience, survive, and resist.
Walker reminds us that when everything is taken away, we have the capacity to infuse the world with a beauty that normative standards would compel us to believe does not exist. We shouldn’t reject beauty as a whole in the process of rejecting exclusionary corporations and aesthetics; we should cultivate an expansive lens that makes the world more sensual, luscious, and true for us all.
When I returned home from the garden store on that first trip outside, my skin was pink and dewy, infused with the glow I had dreamt of all spring.
All I needed was to go outside.
I understand now that this was the portal my mom was inviting me into during that first trip to the Met. My grandmother had her when she was fifteen, and books, movies, and museums served as her escape during an increasingly terrifying childhood. They were her altar and her bridge; a place she could return to, deep within herself, at the most brutal moments of her life.
As an adult, though, she has taught me to recognize the expansiveness of beauty, the way she builds bird feeders in our backyard to ensure the hummingbirds have water; the layers of crayon drawings she makes with her eight-year-old neighbor. She reminds me that even when we are exhausted, possibilities for resilience remain. That it doesn’t necessarily have to be an escape, but a method of connection and hope.
It’s the man dancing in Prospect Park to reggaetón every evening in his monochromatic red jumpsuit, the bikers nodding and smiling as they swoosh past his spot. It’s the carrot-ginger soup my partner makes when I’m ill, the aroma of garlic bursting open my senses, ready to soothe and to heal. It’s a meaningful conversation or my best friends’ painting or catching the subway at exactly the right moment. It’s the opportunity to make meaning in this big, unfathomable world, “Glossier glow” or not.