I was raised in a small town in northern Minnesota; a town where the majority of the population’s last name ended in “son”. Like the majority of Minnesota, it was settled by Norwegians, Germans, and Swedes.
Black Irish and French can be found in my family tree, but I am mainly Italian and- like many Italians- was raised to be incredibly proud of this heritage. We have Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Caesar Augustus I, Versace- the best minds, the most revolutionary rulers, sought after designers, delicious food. “There are two kinds of people” my dad would joke “Italians and those who wish they were.”
But one day, in elementary school, a girl asked “Why is your skin so dirty?” She drew the attention of others, speculating on if I needed to bathe. My olive complexion, tan skin that I use to love, was now sullied. I would have done anything to trade for a fairer complexion.
I always bemoaned the fact that I didn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes. So many of the princesses in my books and movies had golden hair and ocean blue eyes. Instead I was left with drab curly black hair and plain ol’ brown eyes. Nothing worth fawning over, in my mind at the time.
In high school I angered a particularly bitter girl who used her energy to print off posters and scatter them around the school. My name graced the headline and a rundown of every “flaw” was listed underneath.
I was a “slut” because I was a D cup by ninth grade, I had “nappy hair” because of those black curly locks, my nose was deemed large and bulbous- I didn’t deserve to share space with all of these light complected, blue eyed beauties. My Mediterranean features were out of place and did not check any boxes of beauty standards.
To be honest, I hated plenty about myself as a teenage girl- and that followed me into adulthood. I hated my skin, my hair, my eye color. I never realized my nose was something to be ashamed of though, that it was something to try to hide and downplay.
I carried the weight of other people’s words and the beauty standards that graced magazines. I was never thin enough, never light enough, never good enough.
My son was born and, like every good mother believes, he was the most beautiful person I ever laid eyes on. He was everything I wasn’t. Skin as white as snow, beautiful big blue/grey eyes, golden blonde hair, and a little button nose.
People would (and still do) stop us to tell us what a perfect picture of beauty Marshall is. I never said it aloud, but I was so thankful that he inherited his father’s light German/Norwegian features.
There were times I was mistaken as Marshall’s nanny. Strangers would tell me to “tell that boy’s parents he should be a model!” Coworker’s and friends would innocently tell me that they never would “match” me to my son. “You assume darker features are dominant.” they would reiterate. Again, I was grateful. He is beautiful because he is not like me.
Almost four years after having my perfect son, I had my equally perfect daughter. Having my son changed my outlook on the world. Having a daughter forced me to reflect on myself.
Her bone structure and facial features all perfectly mirror her brother. But she has a touch more olive undertone than he does, she has brown hair that seems to be getting darker and wavier. She was born with blue eyes but those quickly changed into hazel and could be making another change to brown.
But she is perfect. She is the most beautiful little girl I have ever seen, and I say that with 100% sincerity. There is nothing plain or boring about her dark hair or eyes and it breaks my heart that one day she may very well think that she is not enough. That she may want to change anything about her appearance crushes me.
This world seems so big, but it isn’t in a lot of ways. It’s been integrated and combined in many ways but in so many others it hasn’t.
See- at least in the here and now- the standards of beauty are tall, thin, and light in every way. Northern European features are the ones that are flaunted on the cover of magazines. They are the ones that people try to contour their face to and have surgery to slim features to mimic. And they are beautiful.
But I am not them. The majority of my ancestors come from southern Italy. We are short and sturdy. We have olive skin and dark hair. The only thing curvier than my hips may be my nose. And I am beautiful too.
I don’t know if you will inherit your father’s Northern European features or my southern ones- or perhaps a wonderful mixture of the two. But I do want you to always know what I am just now accepting: there are many kinds of beauty.
There is beauty in my features and I will no longer try to change them, down play them, or apologize for them.
My skin is tan because it well suited our ancestors who no doubt fished the sunny Mediterranean Sea. It prevented harsh burning and it still serves me well when it comes to the sun.
My short and stocky stature was built to be strong. Our Italian ancestors, the Romans, were built to fight. They won wars, were feared gladiators, and skilled fighters. Our bodies are strong and well served to compete and win.
My nose. My nose is prominent from any angle. That same nose can be found gracing Roman coins and ancient statues. Beauty standards change, my daughter, but the strength and beauty of our Mediterranean people are eternal.
My features carry a rich and beautiful history. My features carry the story of our ancestors. And I hope you and your brother carry some of that story so prominently. I hope you know to be proud and never doubt your worth.
Know that you are beautiful and I will know that I am as well. Don’t try to fit in, celebrate what makes you stand out. Do not allow anyone to shame your appearance because your appearance is the story of your people and that is a rich, beautiful, and strong history.
Admire the beauty you find everyday. Find the beauty in every person you meet. But never let another’s beauty make you doubt your own. Never let the words of a bitter person break you. I don’t need anyone to tell me I am beautiful because I know that I am- and I have you to thank for that, Vi.