Am I beautiful or not?

I married a no-nonsense, straight-talking man. We met as sophomores in college and, other than a year off for good behavior after we graduated, we’ve been together ever since.

Over the years, Anthony has done things and laid lines on me that would have sent many women running, especially when we were in college. He had trouble remembering my name for at least a year. When in doubt he would call me by his dog’s name, Dusty. He’d defend himself: “I love Dusty a LOT, so it’s actually a compliment.” He used to follow me into the restrooms in the dorm, wait until I was peeing, and then splash ice cold water from the sink on me over the stall door. He thought that was hilarious. This may be an apocryphal memory, but I’m pretty sure the first time he told me he loved me was after just such an incident, when I came out of the stall cursing him. He laughed as he announced, “I love you!” Years later he told me he actually meant it, but at the time I assumed he was mocking me. “Fuck you,” I shot back as I marched out.

Before I learned better, I occasionally asked Anthony if he thought I was beautiful. He would answer every time, “I think you’re really really good looking.” At first I would push back. But don’t you think I’m beautiful? How can you love me if you don’t think I’m beautiful? Unphased, he would reply, “I think you’re really really good looking, AND I love you.” I once asked him which part of my body he loved best. He looked at me appraisingly and answered with a straight face, “your calves.” He would tell me I had long legs. For a short person. He once explained to me that, although other women might be better looking than me from far away, I was better looking up close. He disliked most of my haircuts. He hated my eyeglasses so much that one weekend he and a good friend hijacked me to the mall and basically forced me to get new glasses. For years, Anthony’s endearing nickname for me was Dumbelina. He would say, “how can someone as smart as you be so stupid?”

And yet we never dumped each other.

I used to have trouble understanding how I could so love a man who wasn’t willing to see me more perfectly. As far as I was concerned, I embodied mediocrity in Anthony’s eyes. So it was even harder for me to understand why he claimed to love me, when I was far from any ideal. I felt like the ugly woman in Shakespeare’s sonnet #130, except my man spoke in short sentences that didn’t rhyme. It puzzled and frustrated me.

I understand better now the muddled expressions on Anthony’s face when he was forced to engage with me on what he must have perceived as such shallow and vain interrogations. The questions I asked Anthony about my body were STUPID. I was basically encouraging him to objectify me, to dumb down his love for me into a 2-dimensional code of alleged-beauty — especially lame because I was such a consummate slob. Like a fish in water, and like so many American women, I couldn’t see the way this demented culture made me value my visual body more than the rest of me, even as I educated and empowered my mind and embraced core feminist ideals. I was fortunate that Anthony never let me drag him down that path.

Having children at 38 and 42 has done a real number on my physical self-image. I’m overweight; I’m headed toward 50 and I don’t get enough exercise or plastic surgery; my belly has that post-childbirth LOOK, sort of squinchy and blobby. As for the belly bit, I was whining ad nauseum about it one evening. Anthony interrupted. He told me gently, sweetly, that it doesn’t look ugly, it just looks like motherhood. He patted my gut, the way you might pat a good dog’s head. It was a deep expression of love, Anthony style. After 28 years together, I knew that right away.

But come on. That didn’t stop me from rolling my eyes in disgust, grunting something rude in return, and waddling out of the bathroom to go put some pants on.