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Archive for April, 2013

The Perils of Pretty

I wasn’t that attractive as a kid and teen. I had short hair, braces, acne, glasses, no breasts, and a malnourished thinness (also big teeth and long toes). Whatever boyfriend I had, and I always had one if I wanted one, I’m pretty sure I got by sheer force of personality.

Back then I didn’t worry too much about being “pretty.” In my teens I cultivated a look, but it was a look that pleased my aesthetic. I dyed my short hair many different colors and and got my clothes, which were always too baggy, from the thrift store. I wanted boys (and girls) to like me but I wasn’t trying to get there with my looks, because I never had.

Then, when I was around 18, the braces and acne were out and contacts and c-cup were in. My hair had grown out long and I dyed it blond. I looked pretty good. Good enough that it mattered. Now people paid attention to me without ever having talked to me, without even having made eye contact (Pre-pretty I had developed exciting eye-contact skills).

I look back now and try to remember how being conventionally attractive helped me. Did it open any doors that I wanted to walk through that I couldn’t have opened pre-pretty? I am not so sure it did. But it did get me unsolicited attention from people I didn’t want to talk to. Creepy stuff like “anonymous” presents left on my desk at work (I knew they were from an older Director level guy, outside of my chain of command). And guys I had only briefly talked to a handful of times in a professional setting, getting drunk and calling me late at night. And attractive but ultimately annoying co-workers calling to ask why I don’t like them and why we couldn’t “hook up” since, hey, we are both attractive. And lots of married men letting me know that they weren’t that married, and basically ruining my faith in menfolk for a long, long, time. And always jokes and comments about my breasts and my body that were probably supposed to be complimentary, and in some ways made me feel special because I was getting approval from men, women, and society, but also made me feel unsafe, targeted, like my mind was divorced from my body, and devalued.

As this kind of behavior went on from age 18 to my mid-thirties I developed coping devices, like not making eye-contact (when you are an attractive female regular eye-contact can be interpreted as an invitation for much more than you intended). I erected a stony wall that would protect me from smarmy guys. I mostly stopped befriending any guys, even though growing up guys were my best friends and I tend to have a lot in common with them (comic books, role-playing games, fantasy novels, horror movies, sci-fi television, etc).

As my weight, post-baby, fluctuated I struggled with feeling like a failure and a loser because I knew my body wasn’t sticking to the narrowly prescribed standards of beauty communicated to me through the media (even the geeky media I continued to consume). I felt like I was losing something, a special power that male/patriarchal society had granted me. Their approval. And, it was all the worse because there were so many things I could be doing to earn back their approval. So many different kinds of diets, exercise, constricting and uncomfortable undergarments, pills, eating disorders, surgery (both outpatient and in), and even sickness (I used to say the silver lining of getting really sick is losing weight.)

I didn’t try all of those things but almost everyday I felt like a loser. Was it because I lost society’s approval or because a long time ago, when I was still pretty much a kid, I had lost the power to define my own self-worth? I didn’t give up that power knowingly. But the approval you get from conforming to society’s standards is pervasive. The skinny, ample breasted girl with long blond hair is practically an archetype, and she is celebrated everywhere.

But I am not an archetype. I’m really really not. And if I could choose to be one I would be the Hero, the Rebel, or the Sage, not a drawing of a person that can be summed up with a silhouette on the back of a trucks mudflap.

I am not saying this is the experience of every slender, blond girl in America. I have my own complicated reasons why this approval was important to me. When I was growing up and still the too skinny girl with short hair and big teeth I was also the smartest kid in my class. I was smart and weird. I read thick books and wanted to talk about deep things. I valued that about myself but being an intelligent and different girl rarely gained me approval.  With an emotionally absent mother and physically absent father the opportunities for validation of who I really was and what was special about me were few and far between.

I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that being pretty is not the answer. It is not how you make friends, it is not how you find love, it is not indicative of your value. Being pretty may bring you attention and approval, but not the kind that matters. Being pretty is not an uncomplicated good feeling. Being pretty has a price.

I wish I could help my younger self stay strong and stay true. I wish I could have helped her when the message she got from society, that her appearance was more valuable that who she was or what she did, started to infiltrate and get a strangle hold on her self-worth. I wish I could have been there to validate who she was as a person rather than what she looked like. I wish I could have told her that she could walk through this world with true friends, true love, a strong sense of self-worth, and the power to make a difference. That all that and more could be hers and it didn’t matter one damn bit the color or length of her hair, the size of her breasts, or if she was pretty.

I can’t go back and help myself, but I have a 12 year old daughter.

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Do it Anyway

I have a new personal theme song. It’s Ben Folds Five “Do It Anyway.” The last time I had a theme song it was 1997, and I was newly divorced, and had also just been dumped for the first time after a brief but intense rebound love affair. I was skinny, because I always lose weight when I am in a doomed romance. I had a awesome new hairstyle, because when you are trying to start a new life you definitely need a new ‘do. I even got my belly button pierced. I was an energetic mix of optimism, determination, and  fuck-you-ness. And I think I might have also been writing some bad poetry.

I was renting pool house/efficiency, the kind where your couch is also your bed, and if you cooked you’d cook on a hot plate. I didn’t cook. My narrow refrigerator only had milk for cereal, hard cheese and a pepperoni stick in it. I really liked my place. It was the first place I had ever lived alone. And I really liked my life. I felt like I could do anything, be anyone, (even do anyone. ;P) My anthem during those times, the song I shouted in the shower and blasted in my car was Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping.

Apparently “Tubthumping” is number 12 in Rolling Stone’s list of 20 Most Annoying Songs and it is mostly hated by people who rate music. I am not going to argue that it is good music. But it fueled my fuck-off-ness, which was what I needed then. Because I’d be singing, when I’m winning. 😉

My new personal theme song has much less fuck-off-ness. It is much more optimistic. It is more open. It is sometimes frenetic while also being thoughtful. It hits me where I am right now. And the video has Fraggles in it.

Many of the lines speak to me about specific things I am going through right now, but my favorite lyrics are the chorus:

“Tell me what I said I’d never do
Tell me what I said I’d never say
Read me off a list of the things I used to not like but now I think are OK”

A few months ago I realized that over the last 39 years I’ve built up quite a list of things I don’t like. Most of them were random and irrational. Many I couldn’t even remember why I didn’t like them. Some of them had just become jokes, like my hatred of Kevin Bacon, “because he is noodley.” Like, the first time I tried running, back in 2005, I hated it. Now I sometimes love it. I used to dislike Van Morrison, now I’ve totally found the appeal.

It’s exciting to challenge myself. To notice when I am disliking something and asking myself “why?” and if it still makes sense in my life, if it ever did. It feels good to shed some of the negativity I’ve accumulated over the years. I am challenging and shedding all over the place. I’m running. I’m hanging out with new people. I’m getting involved. I even applied for a job, (only one day a week.)

I think I have always been a pretty honest person and I’ve always tried to meet challenges. I’ve even created challenges, just for the fun of it. I thought of myself as a person who wasn’t afraid to do the hard thing. But now I have found there are even more layers to that. There is even more that I can do to become more the person I want to be. Plus + Fraggles.

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