Originally published on The Trephine and cross-posted here with permission.
I used to dread the day when I would no longer be attractive to men. I was never a supermodel, but, thanks to obsessive spackling/whitening/dabbing/eyelash-curling tendencies and my ability to maintain a very slender figure into my thirties, I was Attractive Enough.
Or, you know, just easy prey. Only in later years did it occur to me that my feminine efforts to be attractive may have done more than make me look good — those efforts may have broadcasted my vulnerability to manipulation.
I want to say that appearances don’t matter, that what you look like says nothing about your personality, but there’s a certain logic behind the idea that anyone maintaining such a carefully constructed facade can be easily set off balance or even knocked completely askew by challenges to his or her ego. Such a thoughtfully curated personhood communicates a certain anxious self-preoccupation that, if leveraged properly, could be used as a strategic diversion. (I believe we call that “negging” these days. I don’t know. I’m not a pickup artist.)
I don’t get wistful about how put-together I used to be, how I could pull that off as a daily routine and now I can’t or won’t most days. If anything, I want to give those women hugs, the ones who are in their thirties or forties or older and still would not be caught dead in public in sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt, not even at the grocery store, not even at midnight.
I used to want so badly to be that woman, and even in my awkward youth I sometimes managed to imitate her for days in a row. Even these days, I admit to the occasional fit of sentimental hunger for whatever warm emotion she is striving to embody, the one you see in catalogs, the one that can make you miss a safe and perfect place you’ve never been, that instant nostalgia that scored Instagram a billion dollars.
But mostly I kind of want to become her friend and encourage her to feel free to sit on my couch with me and chill the f*ck out about polishing and coordinating and accessorizing.
This is because I can’t help but suspect her of subconsciously believing that if she finds the right lip gloss and the most cheerfully reassuring scarf pattern, she will manage to be worthy of love and nothing too terrible will ever happen to her.
It’s funny, how we expect those little totems, those dangling charms and crisp lines, to protect us. I mean, I kind of still buy it, a little. You can’t tell me that those she-shamans who wear lacy, matching underwear every day aren’t going to live forever.
I am aware that this is still completely about me, if that’s not clear. These women probably just enjoy fashion. They may even be using it to express something of themselves, so everyone on the outside can see what is inside, which is a perfectly natural thing to do.
They’re not necessarily equating their appearance with their worth, as I was.
Weight is another matter, a harder one, though I’ve made great strides in being okay with myself in that department. I was practically skeletal for years, and my body was not objectively more attractive than it is now. My sternum stuck out, and I’d wince at the sight of my bony neck in pictures. As a carbon copy of my mother, I knew that I would eventually fill out a little, and I finally have, and not unpleasantly.
As someone who sort of looked forward to that and who is generally confident and resistant to bullshit, I am the last person I would have expected to ever have mixed-up feelings about eating, and I am not fat. (If you’re one of those people who needs to define what is or is not fat, I just weighed myself for posterity. 137.6 pounds. There you go.)
Your reaction to that number was varied, but I know at least some of you are all, “The last time I weighed 137.6 pounds, I was in PRESCHOOL!” Which: that’s fair. I elected to put my weight out there just now. I offered it, and you can make it about you if you want.
But when I was thinner, I didn’t have a choice: I was so obviously an anomaly that I didn’t have to share anything about myself to invite a continuous stream of commentary. I was endlessly praised by other women for remaining thin long past the age when most put on a few pounds. The same women who might complain about airbrushed models or waif-thin movie stars would, without invitation or permission, reach out and wrap their hand around my upper arm, sighing with envy and expressing their desire to steal my metabolism.
I never bought into that worship and still don’t, but once I was all of fifteen pounds heavier, the silence was deafening. Only in that silence did I begin to recognize, with a sinking feeling, how much of that noise I had absorbed.
No one ever comes up to me and sighs, “You look so normal and age-appropriate!” That would be awkward, of course, and I wouldn’t say that to anyone either, because it would be weird and invasive.
But listen: If you are prone to complimenting a person’s figure or looks or expensive rug, you might ask yourself whether you are using your voice to praise the things that you truly feel are important in a human being. If you don’t think it should matter how thin a woman is or how pretty a woman is, consider making an effort to avoid contributing to the cultural dialogue that reinforces those traits.
Surely a better and more meaningful compliment would appear in its stead anyway.
I know that praising appearances can seem harmless, and even esteem-boosting. But I doubt I felt fat at 137.6 pounds primarily because of absurdly photoshopped magazines that offer me 500 tips on giving the perfect blowjob or God knows what; those publications and their ilk are laughably unrelatable.
I’m pretty sure I felt fat at 137.6 pounds mostly because an overwhelming number of perfectly average and well-meaning citizens stopped on their way past me to hammer the value of my thinness into my skull.
I never thought much about those people, but once they abruptly stopped paying homage, I could not forget them for a long time. If you don’t think your voice is significant, I am here to tell you that you are wrong.
The most ridiculous part is that, contrary to what so many of those women believed, being thin wasn’t much of a romantic asset. At my thinnest, I often wound up dating men — well, boys at the time, really — who would nervously monitor every bite of food I put into my mouth and subtly elicit reassurance that I understood my obligation to them, that I was willing to be vigilant about my weight as a matter of honor. Anything else would have been a betrayal, or, as I believe some refer to it, “false advertising.”
If you’re looking to date a shallow individual, may I recommend having a flat stomach and itty-bitty thighs? Because it really helps!
At any rate, between my dwindled interest in getting my roots touched up and my cheerfully ordinary body and its yoga pants and sneakers, I am clearly older now.
I’ve become invisible to so many of the men who once might have called out after me on the street. I watch them see me out of the corner of their eye, recognize a feminine figure approaching on their radar, swivel toward me, and immediately forget they ever saw me as their eyes go blank and their passing interest is forgotten before it has even managed to completely surface in their consciousness.
I thought this would upset me, or make me feel inferior, but it floods me with triumph, every time, that I am finally free of something that I hadn’t recognized as confining. Oh, you don’t want this? I think with scorn, as I walk on by. You better BELIEVE you don’t want this.
And an outburst of unreleased laughter bubbles up in my chest, because that’s how absurdly, deliciously, triumphantly funny it is that I ever cared, and how ironic it is that some tottering, leopard-print-stilettoed young thing going in the other direction on the sidewalk would probably feel as much repulsed pity for my frumpy ass as I once would have.
I used to be all kinds of things, but I am older now, and I can get so much more done this way.
Jennifer Gilbert is an editor and programmer. She lives in the Bay Area,California, with her boyfriend and entirely too many pets. As a former roller-derby player and coach, and a regular attendee of tech events at which there is never a line for the women’s bathroom, she enjoys feminism. A lot. Read her blog, The Trephine, and follow her on Twitter @jay_gee.
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