All the Girls in Glass

August 10, 2020 / Kelly Wei

I was looking at my mother’s face from the passenger seat: her divine, pale skin, stretched taut over sharp cheekbones and a delicate little nose, all glowy rose-gold. When shafts of sunlight struck against the car window, she sparkled like glass.

The summer before freshman year, I eased myself into a cold leather chair and let a man cut into my face.

“There was so much blood,” my mother told me later on the drive home. “I thought they were going to run out of gauze.”

I hummed, ambivalent to the carnage. The lingering anesthesia was making my head soft. I was looking at my mother’s face from the passenger seat: Her divine, pale skin, stretched taut over sharp cheekbones and a delicate little nose, all glowy rose-gold. When shafts of sunlight struck against the car window, she sparkled like glass.

By all standards, my mother was a beautiful woman. Unfair, I thought, that I should look nothing like her.

“You feel okay?” She looked over at me, pretty lips pursed. “I can make some ginger tea when we get back.”

I ran a hand over the bandage. Underneath, six raw stitches and a gash where my birthmark used to be. Four years later, I would still have a scar to show for it: a dimpled, inch-long ghost of an incision that ran vertically from eyebrow to mid-forehead. It would heal poorly; forever a reminder that once, at 15, I hated my skin enough to cut a piece of it loose.

“I’m good,” I said. “I’m great.”

What makes a girl pretty?

The answer is lots of things: her eyes, lips, hair; her voice, body, smile. “Pretty” is becoming an increasingly ambivalent descriptor, and there are a thousand interpretations for a thousand different tastes.

But what makes a girl, a girl? 

For me, the answer has always been skin, skin, skin. A smooth canvas upon which she can paint, a pale, exquisite expanse of youth that never seems to run out, never wrinkles, never fades … I would come to be acquainted with this prerequisite to girlhood the way I learned to brush my teeth or tie my shoelaces. At a young age, naturally and quickly, with unquestionable inevitability.

I learned it from the unabashed staring and pointing of kids, who wanted to know what the “black thing” on my forehead was. I learned it from billboards and magazines, from the whitening creams on my aunt’s sink counter, and from the way my mother would pinch and fuss at the skin on either side of her temples, practicing her daily morning ritual to ward off wrinkles. I learned it in the fifth grade when I, teetering on the cusp of pubescence, stood next to her and leaned in closer to the mirror myself, tracing little circles around three pimples along my jaw.

Skin went on to define my teenage years, and my identity at large. Puberty was not kind to me: Parts of me grew at faster paces than others, so I looked gawky at best and, in unfortunate lighting, disfigured. And, my god, the skin.

On top of a birthmark that I was becoming increasingly self-conscious about, I was well on my way to metamorphosing into a pepperoni pizza by 13; each cheek an unpleasant minefield of pimples, pockmarks, and pitted scars alike. My acne, abnormally severe and of the cystic variety, looked less like a symptom of growing up and more like a terminal illness. I also scarred easily, so when a cyst would finally go away, it made sure to leave a spiteful little (sometimes not-so-little) souvenir behind.

I already felt like a girl suffocating behind the face of an old woman: all sallow skin and wide cheekbones, with perpetual smudges of dark under a pair of murky, tired eyes. But it’s hard to describe what carrying a cemetery of imperfections on your face feels like — what it can do to you, year after unrelenting year.

I try to explain the experience by talking about the six layers of foundation I wore every day to hide my birthmark, and all the memories and moments I missed out on because the slightest smudge sent me running to the bathroom. I talk about the way I avoided photos up until I was a high school senior, and the heartbreak now of having nothing to remember my teenage years by, except a couple of diary entries and pencil sketch portraits.

I talk about the way my grandmother would suggest herbal remedies with fanatic desperation every time I saw her; how her eyes wandered as she spoke, drawn to the blisters the way we’re drawn to car crashes and crime scenes. As women, it is a kind of crime to look the way I did, I suppose.

My skin became the primary, then singular, topic of discussion among the women in my family. Had I tried this cream? That detox cleanse? Were my pillowcases dirty? Did I wash my face?

Maybe the only way I can describe it all, is as a robbery.

I grew up alone, in an exile of my own making. It was my rueful opinion that something intrinsic to being a girl, to being young and free and therefore beautiful, had been stolen from me. No dancing in the rain, no summer pool parties, no forehead kisses from my best friends, no flinging sweatshirts on and off in the dark. I was forever fearful of being touched and seen, too nervous to sit in a moment and simply soak it in. God forbid the makeup comes off.

Of course, things eventually got better:  a heavy dose of Accutane cleared out the majority of my acne, I underwent invasive surgery to remove my birthmark, and now, at 19, I’ve grown into my strange beauty, one so complex and radiant it took the better part of a decade to manifest. My dyed hair, my glossy lips, the way my skin now, too, can sparkle like glass in a photo or at golden hour; even I can occasionally indulge in the privilege of being an it girl.

But the residual anxiety has not disappeared. I am still afraid of bathroom fluorescents, I can only sit in backlit seats at restaurants, and new dissatisfactions have surfaced. My sink counter is littered with empty Curology bottles, eye creams for my dark circles, and anti-aging serums for lines at the sides of my mouth that I’ve begun to find a tad too pronounced. Our skin cells live and die, regenerating in cycles, just as our insecurities do.

The fear that I was and never will be a beautiful young girl is a universal female one. My mother knows it, as does her mother, and her mother before that. We teach this story in ten-step Korean skincare routines, in skin-smoothing apps, in spending hours in the bathroom contorting ourselves into the shape of something pure, something frozen in time — while our daughters watch, and learn, and imitate.

I think about the girl who stood next to her mother, pressing her skin until she could feel the bone. I want to kiss her on the forehead and tell her, “A beautiful face will not make life beautiful.”

I want to explain to her that life is most dazzling when it bites you, digs its nails into you, kisses you hard enough to bruise. My scars and imperfections, all the wrinkles I will inevitably acquire …  they are cemeteries of hardship, and they are promises that I can take what comes next, that I am not made to shatter.

We are, in many ways, our own thieves stealing years from ourselves. All the girls with their glass skin and perfect faces — ones whom I once bitterly envied, whom I believed had access to a youth and glory that would forever remain unavailable to me — I, in becoming one such girl, have begun to realize there is no true beauty in being untouchable. Haven’t I been that way all my life?

Now comes the part where I begin trying to say, touch me. See me. ■

by: Kelly Wei

Brooke Borglum & Rebecca Wong

David Zulli

Jillian Schwartz

Katherine Tang & Mia Carriles

models: Ingrid Garcia, Liv Elkind & Mira Bhat

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