Kelsey Liebenson-Morse, New Hampshire
Portrait by Lori Pedrick


As a young girl I had bright nearly white blonde hair that curled into tight ringlets. Strangers approached me on the street asking if my hair color was real, and if so, was my hair for sale? 

       I never trusted them. 

       I’ve always felt uncomfortable receiving attention for my looks. When I was younger, I’d squirm and blush. But if someone complimented me on my schoolwork, I’d beam. I had earned that compliment. 

       My sister and I were raised to value intellect, kindness and strength. We were raised to be adventurous girls who played outside, learning how to shovel snow right alongside my brother. Beauty wasn’t emphasized as much as being brave, smart or tough. 

       My mother is a very beautiful woman, as are my aunts, as was my grandmother. Liebenson women are natural beauties. Reliable beauties. As they age they become even more beautiful. They aren’t the type of women to fuss with makeup or elaborate hairstyles, more likely to be found with hands pushed into the dirt or seen on long bike rides. My sister is so breathtaking it scares me. I’ve inherited my mother’s narrow face, my aunt’s full mouth. But beauty, for us Liebenson women was not considered something to wield; it was accidental, a thing to be treated carefully. We all know beauty can be dangerous. 

       I wonder though, would I mind if I didn’t get attention for my looks? What if I got no response at all? 

       Women talk about being invisible, about being looked past, seen through, ignored. I think sometimes I was born inside the incorrect body, blonde hair and a chest I’d desperately like to shrink. Another version of me is petite, angular, flat chested. A more androgynous-looking woman. A woman who could get lost in a baggy sweater. Perhaps a woman less obviously a woman at first glance. 

       My sister and I are both nearly 5’7 with athletic builds. We tower above Mom and our aunts. There were many points where I longed to be smaller. But with each passing year, I’m working on taking up more space. I’m working on appreciating the long legs that allow me to run all the miles I want, to hike mountains, or swim.  I’ve grown tired of wishing I looked like someone else-some imaginary girl I don’t even know. 

       Although Liebensons are generally thin people, I worry about my weight. I think, should you really eat that cookie, Kelsey. The worry, the underlying anxiety is that your body will no longer be desirable to the indefinable audience it’s catering to. Despite being suspicious of attention based on my physical appearance, I’m attuned to society’s expectations, trapped, somehow, in a liminal space. I wanted to please the world just like all women do: to be told I’m beautiful-that I’m worthy, that I’m enough. At the same time, I distrust those who focus on my outward appearance. My Dad taught us: you are not your body. But I don’t think this is true for women.

       Sometimes I enviously watch men eating, the blissed out expression of a person enjoying food without worrying about the repercussions. For women, there are always repercussions. 

       People can tell you this isn’t true, but I don’t believe them. 

       The truth: There is no escaping the commentary on physical appearance. Women are constantly onstage, scrutinized, evaluated, critiqued and more often then not, found lacking. A friend of mine says, half in jest: our bodies are prisons. 

       Beauty is perhaps the single most powerful and destructive weapon one can have. Women and beauty are so synonymous they become impossible to separate. 

       Your beauty is your worth. Your worth is your beauty. 

       I used to dislike my European nose. But my grandfather was a Jewish immigrant who swam until he was ninety. 

       I think of him nearly every day. 

       Now I’ll wear his nose proudly.  

— Kelsey Liebenson-Morse