Review // by Shirley Chan
Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones
“I’ve been here before and I know what comes next. In a minute he’ll tell me beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
I am a woman, Asian, with average height, and average weight, with symmetrical features. I am a checkmark on a census report, a goal on a diversity dashboard, and a notch on a bedpost. I am more than labels can contain, but I am labeled.
In many ways, we are all defined by the people around us. For Chloé Cooper Jones, author of the memoir Easy Beauty, life is an endless experience of being studied by others. Peers debate the value of her life, strangers stop and stare, and doctors announced that she will never have a normal life.
“Some people are going to look at your body and see that something’s wrong,” her mom tells her. “That will be their first and only thought about you…They will not attempt a second thought.”
Jones is “born a ball of twisted muscle and tucked bone” with a rare condition called sacral agenesis—the bottom part of her spine is incomplete—causing consistent pain, stunting her height, and decreasing her mobility, all of which affects the way people see her. This, in turn, affects how they treat her, which affects the way she sees herself, which affects how she acts, which affects how the world reacts to her. It is an infinity mirror, reflecting and distorting the view of who she is as a person.
To Jones, her body is normal because it is all she has ever known. But a high school friend informs her, “No man will want to date you unless he, too, is desperate or ugly.” When she wonders if she gets to have a say about the meaning of her own life, another man states, “Beauty is what we’re told is beautiful and what we’re told becomes the truth.” According to him, no one gets a say.
Fed up with this cycle, Jones begins to chase experiences around the world as if her life depends on it (perhaps it does). In Italy, she is moved by art, opera, and Beyoncé; in America, by fleeting communion with Peter Dinklage and the athletic grace of Roger Federer; in Cambodia, by the disparity between the tourist-filled Killing Fields and the private grief of her tuk tuk driver. Along the way, Jones discovers a way to transcend the judgment of others. One of my favorite scenes comes after a low point (I’ll be a little vague to avoid a spoiler) when it seems that strangers have removed her from a show “for her own good.” She insists that she is fine and that her choice to stay is honored. By refusing to accept other people’s assumptions over her assessment of herself, she ends up getting a seat to watch the show up close and personal—on the edge of the stage!
In this book, beauty is truth, and truth guides the course of our lives. Easy Beauty gets its title from a theory by the philosopher Bernard Bosanquet. He explains that some beauty is easy to enjoy, like “a rose; a youthful face, or the human form in its prime,” but that is not the only kind of beauty in the world. People can choose to appreciate “difficult beauty,” which requires “more time, patience, and a higher amount of concentration.”
This memoir chronicles Jones’ world tour as she seeks out novel experiences and explores how artists and philosophers have pushed past the boundaries of the norm throughout the ages. It is a journey to learn how to communicate her own, deeper truths. She wants to escape the infinity mirror of society telling her that she is worth less than other people because “holding on to all the anger, anxiety, fear, and disgust… nearly cost me everything.”
This is how Jones establishes a new path forward, “for a new future shimmers in the distance.” She claims the authority to define her own truth. By deciding this, she also finds a way to believe that she is worthy of the love she gets from friends and family. She reminds the reader that society is what we, the people, make of it. The act of self-determination becomes an act of evolution when what is “normal” is hurtful. She decides she can be beautiful without matching the ideal of a Bernini sculpture. We can always look for a choice when we disagree with the way things are.
However, self-determination is not easy. Because the rules of the status quo are trained into us at an early age, it takes effort to question them. Free will lies in the realm of difficult beauty. It is much easier to go with the accepted flow. To illustrate the importance of doing this work, the book offers a parade of able-bodied men as cautionary tales. They are all foils to Jones’ father who “was never happy with what came out of himself, it never matched the ideal form of the thing in his mind.”
Without passing judgment, Easy Beauty examines how men blame others for their own unhappiness. When an acquaintance projects his own suffering onto Jones, she realizes that he has no power to make her feel bad if she doesn’t agree with his view of the world. “It wasn’t that I thought less of him, only that I no longer thought less of myself.” She sees the steep cost of abdicating choice, and she chooses to view herself as complete.
Two mirrors, facing each other, create an endless hallway on both sides. Each of us is a mirror, reflecting back a vision of the people we encounter. How we see and treat each other affects the world. Our society is a complex infinity mirror.
In telling the story of her journey—from isolation to reflection to self-determination—Jones shows readers that we are not stuck in an infinite loop. Society reflects how people see us, but it also reflects our choices. I began Easy Beauty to learn how the author transcended the limits placed upon her, and ended up gaining wisdom from her lived experience. I am not held back by being labeled, as a woman, Asian, or other. In fact, I have the power to change the meaning of those labels in people’s minds.
Let us evolve society by living our truths to the fullest.