How I Learned That Beauty Was Worth Paying Attention To

Illustrated by Lindsay Hattrick

“My fear of being foolish made me curious about how far beauty reached, and that curiosity led me everywhere”

In Places and Faces, writers explore the ways in which the aesthetic peculiarities of the places where they grew up defined their sense of beauty as they move throughout the world. Below, Arabelle Sicardi explains how they explored their love for beauty while attending an academically rigorous high school.

I went to the same school as a superhero. No, seriously: My high school exists in the Marvel Universe, as the school Muslim superhero Ms. Marvel attends. It is unusual in other ways, too: Unlike most high schools, the school’s diversity was written into its admissions process. Each class aims to have a roughly equal division of ethnicities: 25 percent white, 25 percent black, 25 percent Asian, 25 percent Latinx. The reality isn’t much different—minorities actually make up the majority of the student body. Its makeup is eerily similar to the actual makeup of the United States: There are fewer white men in America than all other demographics. There are much fewer wealthy people in America than not, and wealth did not buy anyone’s way into our school. The gender divide is pretty even, too. My school is a more accurate representation of the diversity of America than the U.S Senate, when you compare their demographic makeups side by side. And: My high school was, and still is, one of the highest performing schools in America. (Congress’ approval rating, in comparison, is abysmal.)

In movies and television, high schools are segregated places, divided up into populations of jocks and art nerds, winners and losers, but at my high school, we were all just competitive nerds. The most valuable thing we had in school wasn’t our beauty, but our brains, and people asked your PSAT score before they asked for your name. And they almost never asked what lipstick you were wearing. It wasn’t that our appearances were insignificant, it was that we were taught our beauty wouldn’t be what mattered: It wouldn’t save us; it would not deliver certain success. Instead, our futures depend on how hard we studied, and the intellectual struggles we overcome. 

Going to school in such an academically competitive environment, surrounded by people vastly different from me, made me understand that my appearance—my whiteness—gave me a cultural inheritance no more profound than anyone else’s. And yet, outside those halls, my whiteness offered me privileges not afforded to people often smarter than me, more charming than me, better cooks than me, better musicians than me, better scientists than me, better dramatists than me. But those privileges were mine simply because of my genetics—simply because of my appearance. Though in my school, my whiteness qualified me as a statistic that afforded me entry, it did not guarantee my success. But outside of school, I learned whiteness was a cheat code in a system of rewards, access, and power. And yet it was clearly not the best or even a good position in which to enter or exist in this world. Learning this in high school helped me realize I would have to be able to offer more than my appearance as testimony to my character if I was going to survive this world. 

Growing up in an environment of competitive excellence—not just my high school, but also in the richly diverse New York City, northern New Jersey area—made me figure out what parts of myself were worth protecting and promoting and shaping into something worth fighting for. It crystallized my belief that difference is valuable. Still, it was easy to become paralyzed with fear and self-doubt. I wanted to go to art school for college when everyone else wanted to get into an Ivy League and major in a science field. It was hard to convey the belief that even if appearance wasn’t everything, aesthetics and body politics did matter so much to the way we live our lives. Beauty was worth paying attention to, even if it was hard to equivocate and compare its impact in a data-driven way. I worried about taking the wrong path constantly, if betting on myself was wrong. What if I put everything I am into this thing, and no one cares at all? What if I’m forgotten about?

My fear of being foolish made me curious about how far beauty reached, and that curiosity led me everywhere. Studying for AP Statistics while daydreaming about beauty led me to the Golden Ratio and all of the mathematical formulations of beauty and how it is sometimes calculated. Finding the connection between science and mathematics and celebrity-beauty culture made me think about the ways beauty was always part of the racism around the world. Learning about writers like Toni Morrison in English class made me think more about race, beauty, womanhood: that being different in a canon didn’t make you a weird error in the system, it made you unforgettable. My interests weren’t contradictory to these other paths. I was simply finding ways to connect them to more realms. Finding a way to convey that was the hard part. 

This was right around the time the Iranian Revolution bloomed on Twitter (also called the Twitter Revolution), and Occupy Wall Street began a few miles away from my school. These were some of the first movements energized by current social media and the diversity of voices you can find online. They were also started by ordinary people who happened to be curious, and scared, and fed-up with the status quo, people who had no idea about the potential of their stories but offered them anyway, and changed the world because of it. One person showed up in one place, hoping to reach just one person, and the whole world shifted focus. Seeing that happen made me realize we have too much to lose not to tell our stories when we can. What we have to gain is everything we could ever want. The future is always up for grabs, and belief is bold. You have to believe in something so beautiful you’re willing to embarrass yourself to get it. 

I find the importance of preserving beauty in my community to be an act of protest. One of my favorite writers, Lidia Yuknavitch, puts it like so: “Be careful what stories you tell yourselves about beauty, about otherness. Be careful about what stories ‘count.’ They will have consequences that shake the planet.”

When the world gets uglier, I see beauty as an act of rebellion. To be yourself in a world that would have you try to be otherwise: to be undocumented, to be brown, to be black, to be disabled, to be queer, in a country that doesn’t know how to love you, that is an act of defiance in the face of great ugliness, and it is a political move.

There’s a reason that activists, time and time again, have placed flowers in the barrels of police officer’s guns and it is the same reason we line monuments and shrines and gravestones with bouquets. The right to live a life of freedom, one filled with art, and music, and beauty, as much as anything else, every single person deserves this, regardless of our individual identities. We should all be able to live the lives we want, to exist on our own terms. As activist Rose Schneiderman once said at a protest: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.”

During my last year in high school, I was brought on stage in our auditorium as an example of poor conduct, because I exploited the dress code to dress fashionably more than professionally. I was exuberant and wore patterns and tulle and the speaker aimed to prove that my difference would make me less likely to be successful in the world. She didn’t seem to consider that I didn’t want the path she had assumed I had to travel. I told her as much and walked off the stage. And you know what?

All those competitive nerds applauded and backed me up. By then, so close to graduation, we had all realized: The only world worth living in is the one where everyone is free to be themselves. And wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?

Illustration by Vivie Behrens

Liberation can come from completion, but then, we are always becoming something new

They say the full moon is about completion. About looking back at the intentions you crowned the new moon with and seeing where those intentions led you. The new moon in Gemini was the pebble that began this cycle, and the full moon in Sagittarius is her echo, the ring getting larger in the water. The new moon in Gemini asked us what we wanted to change about our habits, what we wanted to do with our hands, and our hunger for newness. The new moon in Gemini was interested in the way shifting ideas can give us the freedom to think differently and, in thinking differently, become new people. The full moon in Sagittarius reminds us that we are never not becoming new.

Both Gemini and Sagittarius are mutable signs, they exist in relation to the other and they know how to speak each other's language. But, while Gemini relishes the endless capacity of air (of thought), Sagittarius uses the energy of fire to transform thought into action. Everything Sagittarius touches can't help but change. How can this be completion? The wheel is always spinning, reader. Sagittarius marks the completion of the fire trine. Here, fire is generous and social. It means to gather and teach, to illuminate. Sagittarius lives in the sector of the zodiac chart related to education, philosophy, and the awareness of others—their beliefs and their right to freedom. Because of this, our June Sagittarius full moon is both a completion moon and a moon that reminds us that all endings create space for beginning. The more you leave behind, the more you find. There is no dead end in the universe.

If you are a seeker like me (perhaps you have lots of planets in Sagittarius in your natal chart), you have already come across Jessica Dore's Twitter account. Every day, Dore posts a tarot card and her interpretation of it. It is a gift to many of her readers. Yesterday, she shared The World with us, reminding her readers: "the moments of beauty, belonging & elation that you've experienced up to this point in your life… would still only amount to the tiniest sliver of what this world has to offer in terms of sweetness & pleasure."

I thought about this card and her words all day. The World is, numerically, the last card in the Major Arcana journey—the last card if you don't think about the Fool, who is numbered at 0 and so is the beginning and the end. The World is, therefore, a completion card too, a big echo of a full moon.

This morning, holding the sweet and expansive nature of The World, thinking on Sagittarius people and their love of travel, of reckoning with the edge of an atlas and questioning the map-makers, I pulled the nine of swords from my own Tarot deck. The other side of knowledge is to overwhelm and shut down. Gemini, ruled by Mercury, holds information in her hands. She understands duality in all things. Sagittarius, ruled by Jupiter, yearns for the expansion of mind and the illumination of power. The philosopher and the moralist, a Sagittarius at her best can teach anyone to break open a prison. A Sagittarius at her worst can justify any cage. Don't forget that Jupiter was the king of the gods. His lightning bolt was a weapon. Sometimes, we are too exposed to each other. We imagine we know others through the stories we create about one another. We imagine we know the future because we refuse to be humble about how vulnerable we are to the universe's ever-shifting outcomes. We refuse abundance by convincing ourselves that the cage of identity we build for ourselves is our only possibility.

For the next two days, as the Sun lingers in Gemini and we feel the effects of the moon's fullness in Sagittarius, reflect on the ways you have used knowledge. When has your knowledge been a tool of empowerment for yourself and others? When have you shared the beauty of the world and the joy of radical ideas/ways of living? When have you used knowledge to understand and relieve your own suffering and the suffering of others? And, too, when have you used knowledge as permission for self-delusion? When you have expanded so far into your idea of the world and your own work in it that you forgot how to be accountable to your daily life, your body, your friends, and the people you love? You know when Janis Joplin sings "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose"? That's only one kind of freedom, and it's the kind that Sagittarius thinks it knows very well. Freedom can be about nothing, if nothing is what you want. Then welcome to the monastery, friend. Freedom can also be another word for everything you revel in not knowing. Freedom can be about having everything because you are part of everything, even if you can't see the relation, even if you can't imagine yet how what you want also wants you.

Photo courtesy of HBO.

Kat is making me relive my fat-teen trauma

When people say that HBO's new Zendaya-led teen drama, Euphoria, is triggering, believe them. In the pilot alone we're introduced to Rue (Zendaya) and her drug addiction issues via a graphic depiction of the overdose that sent her to rehab. Then, there's the disturbing rough sex scene featuring Jules (Hunter Schafer), a teenage trans girl who has just moved into town, and a middle-aged man she met on Grindr. Oh, and don't forget the unchecked, toxic masculinity of uber-jock Nate (Jacob Elordi); or the body obsession of his sometimes-girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie). For me though, the ultimate trigger came via Barbie Ferreira's character Kat's experience, as she dealt with and internalized a vicious form of fatphobia.

Kat—almost alone amongst her friends—seems self-assured and dismissive of the idea that any high school drama should be taken too seriously. "You just need to catch a dick and forget about your troubles," Kat tells Maddy, following the latter's recent breakup with Nate. But internally, Kate craves male attention, and resents the fact that she's the only virgin she knows; she hints at this when she tells Maddy that she'd "settle for, like, four Corona Lights and some non-rapey affection," from a guy—any guy.

Kat's bravado leads her into a compromising situation at a high school party; she winds up in a room alone with three boys, where she talks a big game about how she's a "savage" who watches porn and has slept with more people than any of them can count. None of this is true, but Kat is determined to become "a woman of questionable morals."

The scene shows the fine line between being an empowered young woman deciding what to do with her body, on her terms, and being a teenager who thinks she's in control but doesn't fully understand the power dynamics at play. Because, yes, Kat is trying to make an intentional decision about her sexuality and how to use it, but she's doing so with a group of boys who don't value or respect her. This reality is made clear when one of them says to her, "You know what they say, right? Fat girls give the best head."

At those familiar words, I melted into my couch and said a silent prayer of gratitude that I wasn't watching Euphoria in the company of anyone else. Onscreen, Kat, too, shrinks ever so slightly into herself, all while trying to keep a poker face about the whole thing. We don't see exactly what happens in the room, but, later, she seems happy when she shares the news with her friends that she's lost her virginity; even though she then lays down, awake, scrolling through the guy's Instagram, seeming altogether less than happy.

Kat's isn't the most violent or necessarily the saddest story line in the episode. But it showed the ways that issues like consent, toxic masculinity, substance abuse, and body image—all of which are difficult to deal with no matter what your size—are further magnified when experienced through the additional trauma of fatphobia. This is something with which I've personally dealt, and so I felt my past experiences rise up inside me when I watched how Kat couldn't build her own sexual identity without being constantly aware of the ways her body exists outside the parameters of acceptable desirability.

My childhood and adolescence are defined by my experiences as a fat girl; it was a time that often felt like a hazy battlefield, when I could hardly navigate which feelings and thoughts were my own, and which ones were the result of outside forces. My body hardly ever felt like mine, and it took years to develop the autonomy that Kat is grasping at as a teenager. Kat, like so many other fat women, has a total lack of support from her peers when it comes to body image and acceptance, and there's a devastating absence of affirmation about her own worth and the importance of her pleasure. Because of fatphobia, Kat is going to be swimming against a strong, but invisible current as she navigates the already fraught social politics of high school. It's one thing to grasp this truth on an intellectual level, but letting those principles guide your decision-making is truly difficult—even for an adult, let alone for a teenager.

Euphoria airs Sunday nights at 10pm, on HBO.

Courtesy of RLJE Films

White-knuckle your way through wedding season with Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid

Maya Erskine might have first come to our attention in PEN15, the hilarious show she co-created and stars in with Anna Konkle, in which they play 13-year-olds in the year 2000, but in the just-released Plus One, Erskine is all grown up and engaging in a very familiar adult activity: white-knuckling her way through wedding season.

Written and directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer—who just so happen to be Erskine's former NYU classmates—Plus One stars Erskine and Jack Quaid as Alice and Ben, two longtime friends who decide to attend a summer of weddings together, and avoid any of the awkwardness that can come with finding the right plus-one. This is especially important for Alice, who is coming off a bad breakup. Of course, as the laws of rom-coms dictate, nothing stays totally platonic. Beyond that, though, Plus One doesn't fall into predictable rom-com tropes, and instead hilariously explores what it's like to spiral into a quarter-life crisis, all while dressed in optional black-tie. Which, we've all been there, right?

"We kind of use the script as its own therapy," Chan told me recently, when I spoke with him, Rhymer, Erskine, and Quaid, about the film. "We were watching friends who have been broken up for a long time get back together at weddings; we were watching people get really sad and get drunk and start crying... they were breeding grounds for lots of emotions coming to the surface."

Courtesy of RLJE Films

And those emotions have the perfect outlet at weddings in the form of toasts and other assorted speeches. Plus One makes good use of that platform by making the wedding speech the hilarious eye of the storm at each of its weddings. These toasts were delivered in the form of scene-stealing cameos—also friends from NYU, of course.

"Almost all of those speeches are based on a real speech Andrew and I have seen," Chan said. "We'd go to a wedding and [we'd think], Yep, that's going in there."

Rhymer adds that they used these speeches as metonyms for the weddings, which made sense time- and budget-wise: "Being an indie film, we obviously produced 12 weddings, but did so kind of cleverly, showing you the rooms or the side rooms where they're rehearsing. We weren't seeing 12 full-blown receptions in all their glory... that would have been, like, millions of dollars."

But perhaps what's most refreshing about Plus One is that it destroys the image of weddings—and, by extension, relationships, and women, in general—as having to be fantasies, as having to be perfect. Because nothing is perfect, and that's what makes life interesting. Erskine, for one, likes being able to show the weirder sides of life, whether as a 13-year-old girl washing a thong with hand soap or a millennial woman who doesn't know what comes next. "There's something really liberating and freeing to show and bear the ugliest parts of yourself—or what society may deem as the ugliest, weirdest parts of yourself—that no one wants to see," she said. "I'm also an over-sharer. So I am drawn to roles that expose more than is typical, and everyone is weird in one way or another."

"I think," Erskine laughed, "it's because I myself am a wacky trash goblin." As it turns out, that's exactly what rom-coms have been missing, until now.

Plus One is in select theaters and available to stream via Amazon now.

PLUS ONE Official Trailer

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Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

That's one way to solve a wardrobe malfunction

Cardi B twerked so hard during a performance that she ripped her outfit and had to rock a bathrobe for the majority of her set.

At Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennesee, as Cardi got a little too down and into it, a seam split on her bedazzled body-con jumpsuit only moments into her set. Not one to be set back by a wardrobe malfunction, Cardi B rocked a nude strapless bra with a bathrobe on top, making for a Serious Fashion Moment.

"This wasn't just part of the show," Twitter user Lena Blietz pointed out. "No one performs in a nude, strapless bra by choice." I have to agree there. A strapless bra is the bane of my existence on a slow day, I can't imagine what it's like to have to dance in one on stage.

Honestly, watching Cardi perform in this getup made me a stan for life. Despite it not being as flashy as her jumpsuit, Cardi made the bathrobe work, throwing the shoulders down for drama as she paced the stage during each song.

Bonnaroo attendees couldn't help but agree that a bathrobe and nothing else is a mood we all felt in the very, very hot and sweaty crowd. If she had one in my size to share, I would have gladly changed in a heartbeat.

But, despite loving this comfy solution to a big problem, I'd like to take a moment to appreciate the beauty that was the original jumpsuit. RIP.

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

And launched an inclusive summer campaign showcasing 30 different models

Just in time for swim season, sustainable swimwear brand Summersalt launched an inclusive summer campaign, called Every Body is a Beach Body, and significantly expanded its size range.

The brand's sizes now go up to 24 and 2X—quite a jump from its previous availability, which went up to a size 14. Co-founders Reshma Chamberlin and Lori Coulter told NYLON that the size expansion was a must because "we know that there are countless women out there who are missing out on the joy of summer because they don't have the right suit." They noted that they have plans to expand the brand's sizing even more: "We're excited to continue to add more sizes and be even more inclusive."

For the summer campaign, each suit was fitted on 30 professional and non-professional models ranging in body type to ensure it would look great on as many bodies as possible. "We wanted the models for this campaign to be just as diverse and unique as our customers, and we're proud to show models of different sizes, races, gender identities, and physical abilities," said Chamberlin and Coulter. "We want our customers to see themselves in our models, and know that their body is a beach body, exactly as it is right now."

The new collection includes bright new colorways and styles to rock at the beach or the pool. There are bikinis, one-pieces, and even a swim tunic and leggings for modest fashion wearers.

Check out the campaign and some of the new styles, below, and shop the new collection now at Summersalt.

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt