03/22/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated May 22, 2012

Beauty: What Does It Look Like?

What is authentic beauty? I feel like every woman struggles to define, and to embody, it, but the question is even more pressing when you're a woman with a disability, as I am. When I was four, my left leg was amputated as a result of a birth defect, and I've worn an artificial leg ever since.

Women are told to be beautiful, but not too false looking ("If only it wasn't artificial!" I used to scream at my mother about my leg, begging her to fix it in junior high, those delightful years when a woman finds out how deeply physical beauty truly matters). You should fit a particular body ideal without looking like you try too hard. In other words, authentic beauty should be effortless. And it's often cast as something you deploy in the interest of attracting the beholder, whose eye needs to be seduced, convinced, or irresistibly turned in your direction like the roving Eye of Sauron from "The Lord of the Rings."

I spent many anorexic, miserable years dropping stacks of money on cosmetics and the cheap versions of designer clothes, trying to approximate the beauty ideal magazines peddle without seeming like I was trying. Instead I looked scrawny and overly made-up, and I still wore a wooden leg.

Then I went through a period in my late twenties during which I decided not to put any effort at all into my appearance -- no makeup, no trendy clothes, no lip gloss, nothing. (I kept the leg -- I had no choice about that, although I did get a more technologically advanced version.) I congratulated myself for refusing to alter myself to please and/or attract men, but my mom, a self-described feminist, was horrified by my transformation. She disagreed with what beautifying rituals were about, or for. "I put on makeup because it makes me feel good!" she insisted, sounding slightly panicked. We were on a cross-country road trip, and my mom was wearing foundation, blush, lip gloss, mascara, a dab of her signature perfume -- the full deal. "Whatever," I told her. Wearing sweat pants and my pajama top, my hair unwashed and stringy, I decided she was vain and fake.

"Well, you could at least try a little harder. I think you'd feel better," she said, looking out the window as I glared at her.

I've since learned that effortless beauty is impossible for most women. Find me a woman who doesn't pluck, bleach, brush, weave, extend, flatiron, tone, or groom, depending on her body type, ethnicity, taste, and willingness to conform to beauty standards. Even if we decide not to pay attention to external standards of beauty, we're aware of them. Apart from the fact that I wear an incredibly expensive and (I would argue) sexy artificial leg (no cellulite on this computerized technological wonder -- you could bounce a whole roll of quarters off this thigh!), I am overly conscious of the power of a good haircut, a careful eyebrow wax, and very recently, a pair of ridiculously long eyelash extensions.

This is something I swore I'd never do. I don't color my hair (which is authentically red), I don't get spray tans (although I have been told by more than one man, "you know, it's harder for redheads and other pale women to be hot,"), I don't do much at all in terms of beauty regimens except work out (which is more of a lifestyle than a regimen, right?), buy expensive mascara, wash my face twice a day, make regular trips to the dentist, and wear sunscreen religiously. These lifestyle choices are partly economic, and partly throwbacks from my "effortless" grunge period and body-loathing anorexia. But then something happened in my life that made me redefine, forever and for good, the notion of authentic beauty.

Last year my son, then nine months old, was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs, a terminal illness. My beautiful boy -- pale-lashed, chubby-legged, gorgeous and mine, was given a death sentence. Now nearly two, he has, according to most neurologists' calculations, one more year to live, during which time he will gradually regress into a vegetative state. Just nine months old, he was already lost.

Oddly, this experience made me reexamine all my ideas about what makes beauty authentic, although not straight away. For the first year, when I wasn't teaching or trying not to burst into tears in public during a meal, I wore sweatpants and no makeup and didn't get my hair trimmed and often went for days without showering. I'd forget to wash my face or brush my teeth or shave. I grew a red unibrow. My workouts were sporadic and half-hearted and made me feel exhausted instead of invigorated. My nutrition was terrible (tortillas and milkshakes). My mind was unraveling. I spent most of my time holding my son, crying like an animal for hours at a time, and writing. I wrote myself into a more authentic voice, a more authentic space, and I could feel myself slipping out of one skin and into another one -- terrible and true. With that transformation came the recognition of a new kind of beauty: intellectual fearlessness. I adjusted to my son's diagnosis, and I wrote a book about his life, not because I'm cold-hearted or closed off from my emotions, but because I have no other choice. He will die, and I will live on. There is nothing I can do about this, although every day I wish I could.

But there was, I realized a year in, as I looked at my wan face and split ends and weak body, something I could do about how I felt. I could make myself feel better by making myself look better, according to my own standards. It wasn't a superficial, thoughtless act to rediscover a sense of authentic beauty; it was necessary. It was about survival.

And this is how I discovered eyelash extensions, which involves lying on one's back, initially, for over four hours while an aesthetician resembling a mad scientist pins individual false lashes to one's real lashes, and a process that requires a two-hour refill every two weeks. Apart from my artificial leg, it is the least authentic element of my body, my face, my outward beauty. And guess what? It makes me feel terrific. Superficial? Maybe. But if it's a bulwark against even the smallest bit of pain, it's worth it. I put on my leg in the morning, and I groom my long eyelashes with a special brush. I blink that crazy fringe, and I feel like I can face the day and live through its hardships: my son's seizures and paralysis, his blindness and lack of awareness, the pain of holding him and knowing that any day could be his last, and that I will then have to live on without him, impossible as that is to imagine.

Authentic beauty isn't effortless, but it isn't superficial, either, and it should be for the person to whom it belongs, however she defines it. My mom was right -- it isn't for the eye of the beholder, unless the beholder is the person staring back at you in the mirror -- hopeful and hopeless, grieving yet determined to live.