When I was thirteen I went to a friend’s birthday party. The activities included a limo ride to the mall where we were just going to hang out, which was pretty much a thirteen-year-old’s dream come true back in the late 90s.
It was a new group of friends, girls I hadn’t ever really hung out with before. As we gathered at the birthday girl’s house, they proceeded to take turns putting on make-up in front of the mirror, primping for our big birthday outing. My only experience with make-up at that time consisted of chapstick and watching my mom get ready for work. None of my “regular” friends wore make-up. I had never really had the desire either. Put a wand full of black goop almost directly inside my eyeballs? FOR FUN?? Ummmm no thank you. I’m all set with what I’ve already got.
Then one of the girls turned to me and innocently asked “can I try putting some make-up on you?” Peer pressure + curiosity = sure. And within moments she expertly applied a light coat of mascara and eyeliner and *POOF*, the world as I knew it was about to change.
Now, I will never know if it was the make-up itself or the fact that I found myself suddenly among a new group of girls, or some combination of a full moon and teenage hormones and all of the above, but that night at the mall was the first time I felt very, shall we say, noticed. By boys. By men. A lot of them. In a dramatic way.
Since that fateful day of malls and make-up and male stares, people’s reaction to my outward appearance has been the barometer of how I measure my worth for far longer than I care to admit.
This is weird for me to write about. I feel like by writing it I am saying “hello, I think I’m stunning!” Which we all know is rule number one for women – we must NEVER think we are beautiful. EVER. And if we do we should NEVER admit it. And if others say we are we should say NO WAY and YOUR CRAZY and pretend we don’t notice when the opposite sex is falling all over us. Also, commenting on my own appearance leaves me open to all the commentary of other people about my appearance including, but not limited to, talking about how decidedly NOT beautiful I am.
So, in other words, I’m not super excited to be writing this. But my blog is my therapy and you all are along for the ride, so here I go.
The real, honest truth is, sometimes I look in the mirror and think “I need to take a selfie! My hair is perfect!” and sometimes I look in the mirror and think “how is your husband even remotely attracted to you?” But most of the time I feel like I can be beautiful IF and ONLY IF I do the “right” things. Make-up is my crutch. Dressing in a flattering way is an art. I try to do both on a daily basis if I plan on leaving my home. Several weeks ago I was getting out of the bath with my hair piled on top of my head and not a stitch of make-up and I thought “I am beautiful” for the first time maybe ever. Seriously, ever. At least since make-up came into my life. Then I turned my head to a different angle and thought “oh never mind. Just good lighting.”
The truth is, my whole life since that mall day I have been told I am beautiful. I am not dumb or naïve and I am aware of the way men look at me. Why I’m writing this though, is to explain what this has done to me.
When I was in college, I vividly remember talking with a male friend one night at a house party. “You are sexy.” He said. “Very sexy. But your friend? She is beautiful.” I remember feeling like my heart had dropped out of my chest. I felt instantly disgusting and embarrassed. I had a boyfriend at the time and no interest in this male friend but his opinion that my friend was beautiful and I was “sexy” was enough to make me want to crawl away and not come back until I was the most beautiful. In fact, the very next thing I did was seek out another male friend to tell him what happened, just so I could bask in his compliments assuring me I was the most beautiful girl he knew.
I physically cringe as I type this story, its so embarrassing to me. So humiliating that this was the type of thing that was the most important to me. What happens when a girl grows up and the first and most frequent comment she gets is about her appearance?
What happens is, every time a man has told me I am beautiful, I hear “you are beautiful when you make yourself look like this” which quickly evolves into “I only like you if you are beautiful, I only like you if you look like this.” Which turns into “if you aren’t always beautiful, I won’t like you anymore.”
What happens is, when you receive more attention based on the way you look than anything else, you start to focus on the way you look a whole lot more. Men weren’t falling over me telling me I was such an amazing writer or such an inspiring person or that I made them laugh until their stomachs hurt. I wasn’t fawned over for talent or personality or something I had worked hard for – I was fawned over for the way I looked. A crap-shoot genetic offering paired with excellent make-up skills.
It doesn’t mean I didn’t have those other things. I know my strengths and I know the things I excel at. But it does mean those things don’t get focused on a lot.
But what happens when I’m not beautiful anymore?
What happens when that attention disappears?
What happens when the way I look is no longer considered beautiful by society?
What am I left with after that?
When I was twenty-four, I was interning as I finished my graduate degree in counseling. One day a male counselor came in to give a presentation. He was not well-received for a number of reasons, and at our clinical supervision meeting later that day it was brought up that this man seemed to pay an inordinate amount of attention to me, the other counselors strongly inferring this was due to my looks. Also brought up was the idea that a counselor felt it wasn’t a good idea for me to be a part of a teen boy’s group counseling sessions because they wouldn’t be able to “be themselves around me” as they would be distracted by my appearance. The clinical supervisor was watching me as this conversation was happening. And I will never forget what she said.
She asked me how these comments made me feel. I shrugged my shoulders and said “I’m just kind of used to it by now.” And she looked at me a beat longer than it took me to finish that sentence and said, with all the genuine empathy in the world “Man. I bet that is so hard.” I sat in shock.
I bet that is so tough. I bet that sometimes, that feels like a lot of pressure, to always have to look perfect, to always have people commenting on the way you look.
And I burst into instant tears. In this room full of fellow counselors, I was finally allowed to cry because people told me I was pretty.
Does that sound ridiculous? Does that sound so self-indulgent? Because before that moment, I had never been given permission to be anything but pleased over the way people reacted to my appearance. I had never been allowed to acknowledge that it happened or that sometimes it was quite the opposite of pleasant. That sometimes people treated me much differently, that sometimes people didn’t trust me, that sometimes people didn’t like me, that sometimes people assumed I was dumb or self-absorbed or superficial or mean. That sometimes I felt that the only thing I had to offer this world was a pleasant looking exterior. Because sometimes that was the only thing people appeared to notice. The pressure, you guys. That damn pressure to look and be perfect. My kryptonite.
I am older now, and I’m not in the shape I once was. When I’m with my toddler, I am quite certain nobody is looking at me anymore. It has been humbling and shocking and a little relieving. A little relieving to suddenly fly under the radar unnoticed, a little relieving that maybe people will stop expecting me to be pretty now that I’m a mother.
I still clutch my mascara, I still think about which clothing is going to be the most flattering before I walk out the door. This week construction workers have been working on our windows and I have honestly avoided all areas of our home where they can “see in” because I don’t want them seeing me in pjs and make-up free. Because why?? What the fuck am I afraid of?
I think I’m afraid of wondering what I am if I’m not pretty. Will I cease to exist if men stop noticing me? Can there be a sadder sentence than the one I just wrote? Will I cease to exist if men stop noticing me? GOOD LORD.
When I was told repeatedly that I was beautiful it hammered into my head that I MUST STAY BEAUTIFUL. Or risk disappearing. Or risk losing love. And unlike a lot of things that tend to stick with you as you age- you intelligence, your ability to make people laugh, your ability to be kind, your musical gift, beauty is a slippery, squirmy snake, threatening to dart from your grasp with each passing year, each life season, each beauty trend or look that the fickle media has labeled “the one”.
I am left with two options: I can chase beauty forever. I can invest in cosmetic procedures and anti-aging skin treatments and spend each night at the gym and deny myself the pleasure of pizza and ice cream and martinis. I can study magazines and Instagram for “the look” that I should achieve and buy the right clothes and accessories and waist trainers (what in the actual fuck, people?).
I can accept that my outer beauty is time-limited. This is where I am. I have no interest and frankly, not enough energy left after some 17 years of being so deeply focused on my appearance. The other day I noticed an unflattering angle for my neck. My neck, people. I have never noticed my neck until this day when I realized it wasn’t as beautiful as it once was. And I thought, “Well, ok. Here it is. Physical proof I am officially aging. See you later, youth. Goodbye, random men at Target looking for a little too long.” And I got a little sad. And then also a little relieved.
I am more than size of my jeans, more than the color and length of my hair, more than the freckles on my cheekbones and the thickness of my eyelashes. I am more than cat-calls and lingering stares and the approval of a man’s gaze. I am more than the word “beautiful.” I am much more than that. I am enough. More than enough.