Ornamental Beauty

July 7, 2021 / Kyra Burke

My mother was God’s muse, and through her, I yearned to bury my insecurities beneath opulence.

At 13 years old, earrings were my sanctuary.

Palms pressed against glass display cases, I was always mesmerized by the glitter and gold — pearls like drops of moonlight, glistening gemstones on beds of velvet. Their beauty was simple, painless, and I hungered for that kind of superficial security as a young girl. If I couldn’t scrub away my sandpaper skin and angled features, I could adorn my ears with items more valuable than the way I viewed myself.

To me, womanhood felt less like a rite of passage and more like a pipe dream. My parents outlawed earrings until I was older, and the ever-present mantra of look, don’t touch trailed my every glance. I was promised that at 15, I would be allowed my first pair. In my adolescent eyes, these jewels were my only gateway to womanhood. 

My appearance was dreams away from the models I worshipped in magazines, with their satin complexions and picture-perfect smiles, their impossibly soft, rosebud lips, and voluminous eyes. I was the graceless girl in the mirror. The girl who, under the guise of demureness, was drowning — drowning in her self-loathing and lack of confidence in her unadorned, natural self. The girl who craved any semblance of self-worth, frantically grasping for material accessories to compensate for her instability. The girl whose pursuit of beauty was a dizzying illusion.

Jewelry was my means to cope and seek comfort in the assurance that, when I was old enough, I could bury my insecurities beneath opulence.

Meanwhile, on my mother’s ears, it was something else entirely. Unlike the models in the magazines, the earrings didn’t transform her; she transformed them.

She awakened ornamental pieces with her touch, morphing diamonds and gilded hoops into halos of promise against her skin. Their daintiness echoed the dignity with which she carried herself, expertly disguising her fiery character beneath a composed countenance. She was God’s muse — each piece was handcrafted just for her, perfectly accentuating her olive complexion.

My mother was elegant in a subtle, refined way. As a woman in the business world, she dressed for perfection: finely tailored blazers, button-up shirts, polished heels. The gold and silver were impressive on their own, but when she wore them, they granted her a status of her creation. With jewelry, she stood taller, spoke more eloquently, sauntered through life as if heaven’s grace was beneath her feet.

On my mother’s ears, jewels weren’t mere tokens of her journey as a woman; they were extensions of her identity.

To me, they were the answer to my doubts, if it was possible for me to look past my insecurities and be comfortable in my own skin. There was nothing I wanted more than to be like my mother, and soon, my shallow desires began to devour me whole.  The temptation of being fearless like my mother drew me in, left me breathless and greedy — chasing after pieces of jewelry as if they were shards of my soul.

And, with the blessing of time, my prayers were answered.

When I was gifted my first pair of gold earrings on my 15th birthday, I felt all my struggles, all my harrowing ruminations and convictions coalesce into this single moment in time. In a breath, my surroundings dissolved, and it was just me and the jewelry box in my hands. The promise my parents had made to me years ago had finally been fulfilled.

“Cherish them,” my mother warned me, penetrating my trance. I lifted my gaze, and my eyes instantly fixed on her signature diamonds, twinkling sharply in the light. Suddenly, her face softened, and the diamonds dimmed as she smiled.

“Whenever you’re ready.”

I nodded wordlessly, drunk on expectation. The staccato beat of my heart was in my ears, in my chest, in my skull, a deafening roar of bottled-up anxiety I had spent my entire childhood running away from. This was it: This was the moment my adolescent dreams would be fulfilled ⁠— when I would finally unearth my true self.

This was it.

Upon opening the box, my eyes landed on the gold studs nestled inside, and in an instant, my expectations shattered. I regarded them in silence, scrutinizing them in search of a single spark, an answer, something. Despite the familiar golden sheen, the studs were starkly absent of the magic I chased. In denial, my fingers journeyed to their surface, and as they collided with my touch, I felt the beginning ripples of disbelief under my skin.

Earrings in grasp, I turned towards my bedroom mirror, hands steadily rising towards my ears. Time rushed to a halt. The earrings were on, and yet, nothing had changed. I was left staring into the crude face of my mirror image: the same tarnished, pitiful, fractured girl from my past.

All my foolish hopes came crashing down on me as I registered the studs as nothing more than lifeless pieces of metal. They left me untouched, unperfected, utterly unlike the earrings on my mother’s ears. My heart, an anchor in my chest, plunged with the realization that my pursuit of earrings was embedded in lies. This was no celebration of growth, no miraculous revelation of self-identity, no grand epiphany. These earrings meant nothing to me.

Feeling hopeless, I looked towards my mother, only to watch her collapse into a hearty laugh. She asked me amusedly if this was what I was expecting, to which I replied a quiet no. She laughed again and shook her head slowly, standing up to leave the room. As she passed through the doorway, I heard her remark over her shoulder, “They’re just earrings.”

I reflected on the times I was younger, on the rare moments that her ears were barren and stripped of gold. The times when I was little and curled up in her lap, curiously inspecting her features for brilliance. I felt the silken murmur of her voice above me, her feather touch on my shoulder, the warmth of her intelligence that made me feel at peace, at home. Even without the glamour, my mother was still remarkably herself. Her grace and confidence went beyond the surface, and it didn’t matter what she wore on her ears. Her persona was rooted within her, anchored in her soul. Unadorned, she was the same mother I’ve always known and admired.

It was true: They were just earrings. These mere scraps of metal without substance, prepared to wither away with the Earth, which I had so desperately sought after throughout my childhood with hopes to be attractive, to be remembered, to be womanly. Under my youthful gaze, the jewels on my mother’s ears seemed to grant her these ideals effortlessly. But perhaps, this in itself was fictitious.

The earrings didn’t define my mother. No, she defined herself.

Gradually, the tension in me released, and the box in my hands suddenly felt lighter, more liberating. I could no longer rely on jewelry for comfort; I had to let go of my past perceptions and conquer my self-doubts alone. I took a breath and turned towards the mirror again. Gazing resolutely at the imperfect, unembellished girl in the reflection, I slowly exhaled the notions holding me back.

With maturity, my thoughts shifted from jewels to my imminent reality. College offered me new goals, and staying busy helped curtail my insecurities. As the glitter faded and my vision cleared, my all-encompassing purpose on Earth grew increasingly lucid. My self-image was only one step; there was more to life that I had yet to explore. At last, ambitions secured in my hands, I accepted the great task ahead of me.

Tentatively, I peered into the boundless future, at the spiraling stairways and pitfalls of womanhood awaiting my arrival. The uncertainty of the unknown terrified me, but I was also exhilarated, ravenous for the next stage of my life. I took a step forward, away from my youth, and for a split second, I looked back. I saw glittering encapsulations of my past self: the earrings on magazines, beneath glass displays, on my mother’s ears, and now, on my own.■

By: Kyra Burke

Layout: Jennifer Rodriguez & Xandria Hernandez

Photographer: David Zulli

Stylists: Biyun Yuan & Vivian Yu
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