I’m a middle-aged fashion model. According to conventional industry standards, I’m neither tall enough, thin enough, nor young enough to qualify as model material, but that’s one of the main reasons I took on the challenge: I wanted, in my own small way, to expand our narrowly defined ideas of what constitutes “beauty.”
I’m no pro, nor do I aspire to be, but I model fairly regularly with a volunteer organization that promotes diversity in fashion and the fashion industry. Back in June, we did a runway show at a local gay bar and dance club to support the launch of a new LGBTQ magazine. As we dressed backstage before the show, one of the other models, “Kesha,” a stunning African-American woman maybe ten or twelve years younger than me, commented on her wedding planning progress. When I told her I’d recently gotten engaged, too, she said, “Congratulations, girl!” gave me a big hug, and noted, “We need to talk.”
After the fashion show, Kesha and I sat in the club’s bar, drinking wine and sharing nuptial details. Her wedding is slated for this coming spring, so she’d already booked her venue, the Patrick Henry ballroom, and chosen bridesmaids’ dresses, floor-length Tiffany-blue gowns. We talked colors, sharing pics back and forth on our phones: her centerpieces, my vases. She’s planning on two dresses: for the ceremony, a fitted mermaid gown with beading and bling; and for the reception, a mini-dress with a frothy full-length tulle overskirt. As we clicked through pictures, one of us spotted a cat on the other’s phone, so we took a detour into trading pet photos. I’d modeled with Kesha for over a year, but this was the first real conversation we’d had. Weddings, it seems, have a way of bringing people together.
As we chatted, the band took the stage, and more patrons entered the club. Across the aisle a fifty-something man in tight jeans and a t-shirt smiled at a younger, fitter man in even tighter jeans. The band—pretty awful to listen to but awfully pretty to look at—kicked off their set with a tune full of sexual innuendo they looked too sweet to sing. None appeared older than nineteen, and their gig had attracted a coterie of young women groupies who gyrated flirtatiously just below the stage.
Kesha asked me how Steve had proposed, and I told her—or, rather, shouted in her ear over the band’s cranked up volume—an abbreviated version of our walk on the beach. Her man, she shouted back, had planned to propose on New Year’s Eve. They’d gone somewhere out of town to celebrate, but they’d partied so hard that when they got back to their hotel, they just crashed. The next morning, she was in the shower, got out and opened the door of the bathroom, and he stood there holding a ring. She said, “Oh no. I’m gonna shut this door, and when I open it again, you’re going to be doing this right.” She shut the bathroom door, re-opened it, and he was down on one knee. I laughed and told her I’d insisted Steve get down on one knee, too. She nodded and raised her wine glass, shouting, “It’s part of the dream. We dream about that moment!”
She bought us a second round as one of our newest models, a sweet young man who cage dances at the club and had spoken adoringly of his boyfriend backstage, walked by and waved. Toward the back of the room well-dressed middle-aged men clustered around tall bistro tables, sipping highballs, looking serious. A few couples, thirty-something women, still sat scattered around the chairs lining the runway, listening to the music and holding hands.
Mine and Kesha’s love stories were wildly different. Steve and I had been dating a little over a year when we got engaged; it took us a long time to find one another, but once we did, we moved quickly towards marriage. Kesha has been with her guy for something like 18 years, and they have a toddler-aged son. They’ve long been committed to each other, but her beau’s family, she said, just didn’t get married; it hadn’t been what they’d done. It wasn’t until serious illness landed her now-fiancé in the hospital that he and Kesha started talking marriage. Kesha had had to stand by while her man’s mother signed forms and gave permissions. Despite their long-term commitment, unmarried, they didn’t have the legal right to make decisions for each other.
I felt as if someone had picked up the room and rolled it like dice, and another side came into sharp focus. I looked around at the same-sex couples—some established, some hopeful, some likely hook-ups, some long-term loves—who laughed and danced and talked around us, and thought about various kinds of dreams deferred. Both Kesha’s and my happily-ever-afters had been years in the making for different reasons, but we’d never been denied the right to claim and declare our love publicly and legally once we found it. Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage made our debates about which dress to wear or what flowers to carry an almost laughable luxury. The committed same-sex couples in the room were still, at that moment, deprived of the choice of whether to walk down the aisle at all. Though I’d prided myself on the thought that having waited so long to find love, I would never take it for granted, in some ways I already had: I’d taken for granted my right to marry my love, the joy of making an official declaration and commemorating it in a public celebration.
So this Thanksgiving, I’m deeply grateful for the love I’ve found, and profoundly humbled by my good fortune. And I’m doubly grateful for the U.S. Supreme Court’s October 6th rejection of the Fourth Circuit Court’s appeal, a decision that declared Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional and granted the right to marry to same-sex partners.
Beauty (says the middle-aged model) is in the eye of the beholder. True beauty comes from deep inside, and it is a powerful, intangible force. Love, I believe, is much the same. And so I can no more dictate how someone else experiences love than it is possible for me to decide for another who or what they find beautiful. Love in all its forms should be honored and celebrated, for deep and abiding love enriches us all.
May we all learn to love boldly and beautifully. It is, after all, what makes this crazy world go ‘round.