There’s this idea (among—almost exclusively—men) that the women they consider to be attractive (or beautiful or hot or a plethora or other descriptive words they consider to be complimentary) but who themselves say feel (or believe to be are) unattractive (or not-beautiful or ugly or hideous or a number of other, better or worse, adjectives) either have a fragile sense of self-esteem or are fishing for compliments.
News flash: while this might be true some of the time, this is far from a universal truth.
But that isn’t the point, not really.
There’s a subset of these women: the women who hear men say they are beautiful; the women who have learned to say “thank you” because it’s less rude than arguing and less embarrassing than explaining why they don’t agree. But no matter how often men say they are attractive or stunning or whatever word happens to be used that makes them uncomfortable, they certainly don’t believe so, even though on some days, perhaps even many days in a row, after getting dressed just right and doing their hair & makeup just so, they might catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror and think they look vaguely pretty or attractive enough to catch an attractive-enough man’s eye on the subway (what they would do with such attention, they do not know). They might have been told by more than one man that they have kavorka, that ephemeral quality known to Seinfeld fans as the ability to make men fall in love with them; they are as baffled when this happens as their male friends are amused, even if their male friends are not attracted to them, they are men and they continually attempt to point out to these women that, surely, they must know what affect they have?
They do not. The aforementioned embarrassing explanations could be legion. But many explanations lie in something a good friend of mine told me in middle school: some girls peak early. Some don’t peak until they are in their 30s, after they’ve had time to become full women, with inner lives and rich personalities that have had nothing to do with having depended on their looks for decades. When their beauty appears, almost as if a surprising accident, these women brush it aside as if it weren’t there, because it never had been something they had known.
In case it weren’t obvious, I’m one of these women. In my first marriage I was told my husband looked at pornography because I’d never be beautiful like the women in those photos. My second husband was largely uninterested in sex, and while he may have called me “cute,” I can’t remember a time when he particularly commented on my appearance. Maybe on our wedding day. My younger son’s father, though he may not remember and would probably try to correct me on the matter, when asked why he never said I was beautiful, replied, “beauty implies perfection, and you are not.” And growing up, I was always the smart one. My sister was the pretty one. (My first husband agreed.)
Lest you think these facts are solely the result of and reside in self-esteem issues, when I look back at old photos, whatever it is I’ve cultivated in myself today—a sense of style, the life I want, the knowledge of who I am, kavorka (as claimed by a handful of men since around the time I turned 35 or so), I don’t know—wasn’t there back then. I look lost and confused. I’m chubby and lifeless. I’m wearing clothes that don’t befit me, hairstyles that don’t flatter. In some I’m tanned and blonde. In others I’m permed and wearing oversized flannels. In none of them am I happy.
I’ve had years of therapy since then. Years of loss and tremendous grief. I’ve had things (and people, people I love and have loved) both stolen and taken from me. Almost everything I thought was important ended up being the wrong things to value and almost everything I had overlooked ended up being precious. My entire life has been ripped to shreds, and I’ve been the one to rebuild it with my bare hands, sometimes with the tools of recovery, sometimes with the help of a therapist, sometimes by ripping out my heart and carving it into words that end up here and other places, sometime by crying until I have no more tears left to cry.
What’s left is a person men call beautiful and I’ve learned to say thank you even though I still wonder what they want from me because surely they must want something because why else would they tell such a hurtful lie?
What’s left is someone I know is the kind of someone my friend in middle school was taking about 30 years ago. I don’t think I’ll ever believe I’m beautiful (the Catholic proscription against pride was inculcated in me too early on), but I do know I’ve grown into having a certain affect on men. I’m learning to move on to not saying thank you and simply smiling, acknowledging: Yes, I know, what are you going to do about it?
But this brings its own challenges as well. At work yesterday I had to deal with a client sitting across the table from me, getting his taxes prepared by someone else. He kept staring at me, and then he started trying to pick me up, more or less. Finally I went to stand by my boss. The client kept staring at my body. So I went to sit at the intake table, where I explained why I was there. When I did, my coworker went into an explanation as to how I don’t understand the affect I have on men and how stunning I am. I told him he wasn’t helping and left. And he wasn’t. Suddenly I was hyper aware of the men at the site, my coworkers, and how they were watching me. Watching as I walked to to bathroom, to get more lemonade, to print out returns. They were staring at me when they were bored. Suddenly their sidling up to me for random conversations, something I thought had been friendly, was suspicious. And given that it was the last day of work and there were only three other women, one of whom was 60 and the other two of whom have boyfriends, I felt like the sole female of the species being circled by the males vying for attention, seeing who’d be chosen.
Of course, given that I’d had my own crush on someone the entire tax season, it was Game On. Yes, I know, what are you going to do about it?
As I mentioned, there are still challenges. People are still people. Whether they find you ugly or beautiful, they are still human beings. They still have the capacity to be kind or hurtful. The way they act on the job doesn’t mean they act the same way anywhere else. I’ve made it a point to perhaps only show a sliver of who I am in certain contexts, but when anyone sees the other 95% or 84% or whatever percentage remains, they won’t find any surprises. I don’t live by any different principles. I treat people the same way. I laugh the same and cry the same. I’m compassionate and kind and moody and temperamental and wonderfully (in my opinion) complex in any context you’ll find me. I try to never hurt people’s feelings (unless it’s the Anne Lamont principle about writing about people who become fair game, and even then I don’t name names); I try to apologize when I do things wrong; and I try to never purposely be a shitty person.
This doesn’t mean I’m a better person than anyone else and I don’t claim to be. In a lot of ways I’m probably a shittier person than a lot of people.
But apparently it does make me a different person than some people.
The crush? So far he’s one of the different ones.
Do I want you to read between the lines here? Of course I do. I picked the wrong one. I shouldn’t have picked anyone. I shouldn’t have taken a cab to a hipster bar in Bushwick with someone who, in January, was a total stranger and whose last name I only learned from having seen it on a computer screen by reviewing tax returns. When the bartender forgot the cherry in my Shirley Temple, was it a sign that it was all a mistake and I should have gone home alone?
Saying women beautiful is the easy part. What are you going to do about it?
And this, too, might be why women don’t want to hear it. Not only because we don’t see it—do you understand how many thousands of images we see every what, month? week? day?, showing us what “beautiful” women look like? and we know we don’t look like that—but because of how you treat us after you say it.
I’m done saying thank you. I’m done being grateful that someone with their male gaze thinks I’m worthy of a compliment. It’s just a word. One word. It means nothing. I’m also strong and resilient and whip-smart and resourceful and talented and intriguing and educated and funny and overall fucking incredible. Plus dozens of other unique adjectives men would come up with if they bothered to have any sort of credible and meaningful answer to the new question: Yes, I know, it means nothing unless you do something about it, what’s your grand plan?
And if the only grand plan is to take me to a bar in Bushwick where I won’t even get a cherry in my Shirley Temple and to leave at 5am and to not even give me the decency of a text message the next day? Well, that’s not even nearly close to good enough. And, yes, the missing cherry was a sign. Afterwards, I barely slept and the room was stifling even after I opened the window, hoping the noises outside would drown out his snoring and give me room to breathe.