For the first time in a long time I’m enjoying how I look. I still don’t have that hourglass figure I’ve craved for what seems like an eternity. I haven’t managed to grow a decent pair of ankles. And I have resigned myself to never, ever having legs that stretch to my earlobes. But as far as the face goes, I like what’s looking back at me when I get into the elevator to descend to the ground floor and have one last look in the mirror before I step out into the world. And no, I haven’t started wearing make-up but I have given the nod to a dash of lippie and the occasional swish of the mascara wand.
I noticed the change earlier this year. Deep in conversation with a couple of Hungarian friends at Gozsdu Manó, one turned to me and commented that it was great to see how women my size seemed to enjoy life so much more. I ask you! Women my size? I’d long since grown accustomed to the refrain of ‘a woman your age should/shouldn’t do whatever’ but this size thing was a new one. I put it down to yet another morsel of wisdom that got lost somewhere in translation and I took it on the back of the sincerity with which it was delivered … I took it as a compliment.
No tact, no sale
I had a brief flashback to my first visit to Budapest. It was unnaturally cold and I hadn’t packed anything with long sleeves. I went into a boutique on the Korut in search of something warm and woolly. My bright and breezy hello was greeted with a little disdain. The assistant looked me up and down and then pronounced with some authority that they didn’t stock anything in my size. And before you go off on a tangent about Hungarian customer service, this form of clothing commentary is not unique to Budapest.
Rewind even further, to Los Angeles. In the dressing room of TJ Maxx, the ever-so-helpful assistant asked me if I was European. I smiled and asked whether it was my accent that had given me away. She laughed at my stupidity and said no… of course not. It’s just that while American’s tend to be fat in one place, Europeans tend to be fat all over! But these trifling comments on my size had been made by strangers and so were discounted. Granted, they’ve been milked for their amusement quotient over the years but they were never taken personally.
No smiles, no energy
In Bonn last weekend at the Toastmasters International District 59 Conference, I used the bones of this piece as the basis for a humorous speech. It ended up being too heavy on message and too light on humour and so didn’t make the final cut. But the judges liked how I smiled all the way through. Afterwards, a very pretty young girl in her mid-20s, stylishly dressed with a great figure, came up to me and offered to trade her size for my self-esteem. For once I was lost for words. And not for the first time, I cursed the society we have created, with its innate insecurities and impossible expectations. The opening lines from Maya Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman came to mind: Pretty women wonder where my secret lies / I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size / But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies.
In Malta this week at DiploFoundation’s conference on Innovation in Diplomacy, two people complimented me on my moderation style – a little taken aback, I asked each of them to be more specific. Both independently said the same thing – smiles and energy. I started to wonder if the two are interlinked – whether smiles beget energy and vice versa. And I wondered some more about whether a mass-smiling campaign could help re-energise Hungary and unite the opposition.
No harm, no foul
When people look at me and say with some element of surprise that I’m looking great, I can’t help wondering how I looked before. Or if they’ve not seen me for a while and the initial once-over takes a few seconds longer than usual, I can’t help wondering what they think is different. It must make me smile because they comment on that, too.
There’s a curious sense of peace that comes with accepting who I am and what I look like. There’s a wonderful sense of release that comes with giving up the fight against nature and simply making the best of what she’s dealt me. And there’s a lovely sense of calm that comes with finally realising that anonymous got it right: pretty is something you’re born with, but beautiful … that’s an equal opportunity adjective.
First published in the Budapest Times 23 November 2012
PS Photo courtesy of Art Provost (thanks Art!)