I was married on a windy day outside a white barn in Sonoma County. The gypsy band we hired was late, and after the ceremony, I heaved with anxiety, asking my brand-new husband, “What will we do if they don’t show?” But they did show up, midway through dinner, driving the dusty road into the barn and kicking up a cloud of fine California agricultural sediment in the evening air. We danced that night, I in my bare feet, to celebrate our marriage.
I divorced my husband when my son was the age of two and my marriage was the age of four.
I signed the divorce papers on a Thursday. The next day, I had rhinoplasty, arriving for my cosmetic surgery appointment at 8 a.m. with a coffee cup in hand and a moderate hangover from the night before. I was asleep for the procedure, but basically, what it entailed was as follows: my nose was cut off my face and then glued back on in a straight, symmetrical shape, after cartilage was removed and reorganized. I woke up in post-op with my godmother sitting next to me, holding my hand. My sweet dragon-lady of a godmother is wife to the surgeon who had just removed and reattached my nose—my godfather. So, this was a surgery inside of the family, you might say. The first thing I heard when I woke was her cooing gently to me, “Oh honey, we should have done your tits at the same time.” I laughed, and then realizing that moving my face caused me to wrinkle my brand-new nose, causing sharp waves of pain and nausea. I cried.
Prior to getting a nose job, I had decidedly looked down on women who had gotten nose jobs. It allowed me to enjoy an earthy moral superiority. My nose had been slammed by a few paddles and oar handles when I was a whitewater rafting guide in my 20s, and so it looked loose and crooked on my face. But it was still my face. Just like my ass—always a bit too large to look right in skinny, trendy jeans—was still my ass. I had real righteousness over my granola domain of long hair and fleece and peasant dresses.
More truthfully, I had deep, unresolved anger and self-hatred over my solid B-grade attractiveness and value to the male gaze. I was never a hot commodity—I was more the doughy, earnest, and not-so-hot commodity. I expressed that anger, verbally, by diminishing the choices of women I would never know—as if I was stewarding what honest womanhood looked like, rather than the cheap hyper-feminization that I demeaned. I was, indeed, a vessel of internalized misogyny. Moreover, I was an academic; a PhD student, and then candidate, and then doctor, through the rise and fall of my marriage and my pregnancy. I was awash in perfectionism and dreams of future of mortgage payments and tenure at a prestigious institution.
Like many white women, I got married because I wanted that perfect white family. I wanted that perfect, privileged, and blindly devoted family experience, where I was not only buffered from the world by my husband’s money, but also by the social class, safety, and oblivion my white skin, neighborhood, and education afforded me. Simultaneously, I sanctimoniously back-patted myself for my open-minded choice to marry into a Jewish family. To be sure, it was one delusion after another, of privilege and ignorance, that led me down this path. Dreams and stories about how things would happen if I made the right decisions. And a clear doctrine about how to be a good white woman—and, as well, reap the rewards that come to such good white women.
Good white women are transactional. They know that you won’t buy the cow if you give the milk away for free. Good white women sell only to the highest bidders, because they know what they are worth. In converse, such women know what they are not worth; they know the women ahead of them in line and they know the women, often fatter, blacker, and browner, behind them.
The day after finalizing my divorce, I cut my nose off with such delight that I shocked myself.
I relished in the deep purple-black bruising under my eyes. It was visceral proof that my face was, indeed, my face—and I could change it how I wanted, albeit a choice to more closely, predictably align with the racialized standards of American beauty. While my nose had been crooked, my skin had always been white. White privilege was an essential axis of the self-affirming act, but this truth did not occur to me at the time. A few days later, with a nose brace and a busted face, I was back on a table, this time awake, gritting my teeth through the pain of three hours of line work for a tattoo that would cover most of the left side of my back, and featured trilliums, a red-winged blackbird, rowan branches, and my son’s name.
Once I opened the door labeled “DIVORCE,” I began to metamorphose. My body sloughed off me. Food tasted like ashes, like dishwater. I would lay down, convinced I wouldn't be able to rise. But rise I would, leaving layers of grief and rage like onion skins in my wake. I walked, freezing and coatless, back and forth across the university campus that winter, my belly empty, my body numb, and my eyes flashing. Vain, I would look at my shrinking body in the mirror with satisfaction, thinking that if I was going to be a divorceé, at least I would be a hot one.
The juxtaposition of my toxic satisfaction in losing weight amidst the backdrop of my life burning down around me was sick. But it was illuminating. On one hand, I was on my way to the pitied and maligned social class of single motherhood. On the other, my currency as a sexual object was rising like a separate sun. I was alternately shallow and then ashamed of my shallowness, caught in a washing machine cycle of commodification and revulsion. It was gasoline to the fire of self-destruction, and it caused me to burn harder and brighter—not only towards the broken relationship that was redefining me as a failure, but also at the culture that had never viewed me as fully human.
I wish I could say that I got plastic surgery fully divested from the white standard of hyper-feminine beauty—with only an interest in restorative justice for my nose and facial symmetry. But it isn’t true. At that moment, I wanted all the power and access to sex and male attention that I had so nobly eschewed in my younger years for the compromise of matronly dignity and moral superiority. I wanted to invest in this mortal body that I walked through the world inside of, and to feel beautiful and wanted on terms that had primarily to do my own pleasure, power, and agency.
I am more beautiful now, after surgery. I rose one rung on that hierarchical ladder. But it is still a ladder, and I am still a commodity conscripting the bodies of women around me onto some public auction block. As I rose up, that one discrete rung, I watched the self-worth of other women around me recalibrate to the change. After the surgery, a friend of 16 years, who had always struggled with obesity and self-hatred, sat next to me, barstool to barstool, flicked my feminine silk collar into my face and told me that she “didn’t like the way [I was] in the world anymore.” We had met living out of our trucks in Leavenworth, river rafting during the day, drinking beer around a campfire at night. Our friendship ended in a cocktail bar in Fremont, me in a blouse and heels and holding a martini with an imprint of pink lipstick along the rim. I had changed, she had not. It was a detonation.
Inside of my marriage, my body was a vessel of obedience and self-suppression. It was highly functional at its best, ugly at its worst, and only B-grade beautiful for those transactional and performative moments of public consumption: weddings, funerals, family parties. Now, outside of marriage, my body is dangerous and mysterious even to me. It is problematic. It is mine. I have moved categorically into the “damaged woman” camp, and my lipstick and heels and silk blouses send coded message of casual and rough sex, power and dominance, and transgression. I am no longer predictable.
I want my body to be my own. Yet I know how deeply naïve that wish is. It is a paradox, because I cannot escape from the reality that my body is the primary currency of my personal and professional life. I do not want to devalue the bodies of other women by choosing to be beautiful in the world, and yet I hunger for the attention of a male gaze. Not to be objectified—but to be seen, and admired, and not owned. I want to be feminine in public, but not to supplicate to the system of white male power around me. And yet, I know how easy it is to be passively complicit in the subjugation of women, the erasure of black women, and the supplication to white men. I know this because I have done it myself.
What I really want is to grow towards the sun, and prune my own branches, and compost my own garbage. I want to be beautiful in the light of the day and crushed under the dark weight of my lover at night. It took a failed marriage, a new face, and a dark ocean of pain to get to this place, but I am thankful nonetheless. Maybe my time around the sun, I won’t have to sell myself to the highest bidder—instead, I will light a fire under that transactional auction block and burn the motherfucker down to the ground.