Felicia P. Fields on learning to feel beautiful.

1. Don't Look Down by Felicia P. Fields
There's nothing cute about my legs. They're big. They're thick. They're shapeless and knock-kneed. I lose weight, I gain weight, I do 600 lunges, I sit on the couch all day—it doesn't matter: There's no changing these legs. When I'm in a play, I tell the costume designer to bring that hemline down. And you'll never see me in a miniskirt.

A friend once said, "Felicia, you should be happy you've got two legs to walk on." I know that's true, but it's not so easy to digest. We've all been fed the same ideals. I've had a male companion tell me to my face, "You've got some ugly legs." I've been at a photo shoot where the stylist gave me two wardrobe options and my costars ten.

Over time some women learn to love their flaws. Not me. I still stare at my legs in the mirror and shake my head. But I've learned something just as valuable: Physical beauty isn't the most important thing—about me or to me. I have enough gorgeous friends to know that being pretty guarantees nothing—not confidence, not happiness, not love. I also know that a good man isn't necessarily good-looking. So these days, I concentrate on developing my best asset: my personality (my breasts are a close second). Men may woo-woo my curvaceous cousin on the street, but when we get to the restaurant, the energy gravitates to me. In the end, I may wish I had different calves and thighs, and no knock-knees. But I like who I am as a person. And because I believe that there's much more to me than my looks, other people believe it, too.
Cathleen Medwick on learning to feel beautiful.

2. Padding My Résumé by Cathleen Medwick
As a teenager in the early 1960s, I had a small waist, slim legs, breasts as pointy as ballistic missiles. Or at least my bra made them look that way. Like my mother, I was flat-chested. Unlike her, I didn't care. When I went to college and became a hippie, I casually trashed my padded bras. Years later, while my friends were cramming themselves into devices engineered to hoist their bosoms back up to sea level, I wore a soft scrap of lingerie designed for 13-year-olds.

It was only curiosity that made me volunteer, in 1994, at the women's magazine where I then worked, to test-drive a hot new product called the Wonderbra. The solid construction made me feel ridiculously top-heavy; my sexiest inclination was to claw at my now-itchy breasts. When I ventured outside, though, I heard a couple of guys say, "Wow, big ones!" and I thought, "Okay, this is why women love being busty." Of course, when I turned, I saw the men loading two enormous paintings into a truck. I went back to the office, dropped off the Wonderbra, and said goodbye to the sexpot I'd never be.

But one day not long ago, in a rare burst of midlife daring, I bought a lightly padded bra. I put it on and something remarkable happened. I felt uplifted! I felt womanly. When I entered a room, I led with my chest, as if I were the bearer of something precious. People ogled my sweater, even though they'd seen it often before. I became a magnet for hugs.

Would I have been more glamorous all these years if I'd had a working relationship with cleavage? I'll never know. Lately I seem to have two identities, womanly and gender neutral, and I find that I'm comfortable with both. Bra or no bra, wonders never cease.
Dorothea Hunter on learning to feel beautiful.

3. Who Is That Masked Woman? By Dorothea Hunter
In college I had the best guy-friend ever. Sean and I lived in the same dorm, we treated each other's rooms as if they were our own, and we indulged in frequent rounds of "Who's Hot, Who's Not"—shamelessly rating our fellow University of Chicago students based on their looks.

I knew that in Sean's estimation, I was one of the hot girls. But Sean didn't know how I got that way: that every day I primped for hours to create what my mother called the Face—the mask of makeup required for any self-respecting woman to be seen in public. In college I clung to my version of the Face as if survival depended on it. Not even varsity tennis practice could prevent me from applying MAC NW20 foundation, Clinique Sweetheart blush, bubblegum pink Estée Lauder lipstick, Benefit Bad Gal eyeliner, and L'Oréal black mascara. I dreaded the day when Sean would see me without the Face; I'd wait for him to go to bed—sometimes until 3:30 in the morning—before slinking to the bathroom to wash it off.

And then it happened. Running late one morning, I barely had time to brush my teeth, let alone bother with foundation or the trimmings. On the way to class, I blurted out, "Ugh! I look disgusting." I must have sounded desperate, because Sean stopped and said, "Doro, what are you talking about? You look no different from any other day." That's when I realized that makeup had little bearing on how others saw me; it enhanced my looks only by making me feel a certain way. I still wear Bad Gal et al., but it's no longer a daily necessity. I don't need a mask to look like myself.
Madeleine Chestnut on learning to feel beautiful.

4. Cute…or Smart? By Madeleine Chestnut
In my mother's view, to be gorgeous was to be brainless. And to be brainless was to commit the sins she'd never forgiven herself for: promiscuity and educational poverty. The "fast girl" who'd gotten pregnant out of wedlock twice before age 20, Mom sought a strange kind of redemption: She may not have kept her skirt down and her grades up, but she would certainly raise girls who did.

Which is why, when she caught 12-year-old me experimenting with lipstick, she pounced: "Do you think you're cute?" she spat, hurling the lipstick into the garbage. "Now go start on your algebra."

I was nearly 30 the first time someone—a boyfriend I loved—told me I was beautiful. "Me?" I said. Chatty, yes. Witty, maybe. But my mother had spent 20 years and hundreds of dollars on SAT prep to make sure I put smart into the slot where other girls put pretty. "Can't you see yourself?" my boyfriend quizzed. I couldn't.

Then, two summers later, I found a photo I'd never seen before: my mother at 19, Rockette legs emerging from teensy hot pants, nipples at full salute, Afro stretching toward the sky, a bootylicious hottie babe modeling a stunning figure I can only dream of, yet bearing a face almost exactly like my own. Can't you see yourself? No—but now I could see the woman in the photo. And I could see that whatever erroneous notions Mom might have given me, she gave them along with her intelligence, her courage, her imagination, and, yes, her beauty.
Angela Nissel on learning to feel beautiful.

5. Hair Peace by Angela Nissel
At least once a week, a stranger approaches me, runs her fingers through my hair, and asks questions about my racial heritage. Growing up, I hated the attention my full, fuzzy hair attracted. Throughout my Catholic school years, when I was supposed to be praying for impoverished children, I would instead beg to be blessed with either "black girl" or "white girl" hair. "Your choice, God! Just get rid of this umbrella-shaped poodle perm my Afro-Indo-Euro blood has cursed me with. Amen."

God had bigger problems, so hair drama followed me into adulthood. My first postcollege job—as a temporary receptionist at a conservative law office—had a strict list of acceptable hairstyles. To fit in, I'd spend two hours every morning pulling at my hair with a professional-grade hot comb, then sealing the style with my special "mixed girl" concoction—a blend of hair gel, leave-in conditioner, and Jheri curl activator.

One morning my hot comb died, and I went into work with quite a bit of frizz. My boss gave me a dress-code warning. I decided to give him my two-weeks' notice and immediately went cold turkey on trying to control my hair.

I soon realized that I had never actually paid attention to my hair; I'd only tried to flatten it out and hide it so people wouldn't peg me as different. It took a while, but as my hair grew I began to appreciate how many textures exist on my scalp. The thin pieces in the front give me spiky haute couture bangs. My 2-year-old nephew thinks I'm magic because I can wrap pencils in the thicker coils, and even when I shake my head violently, the pencils stay put.

Now I actually look forward to strangers asking, "What do you use to get your hair like this?" It's called Multicontinent DNA. Cool, right?


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