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Older now.

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 fuck 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. I hope.

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.

15 Comments

  1. scott wrote:

    First, I have to confess: I am not a woman. I’m a man. And, as a man, there are any number of things I could say about women and what’s attractive and blah and whatnot and who cares. I’m probably not a typical man, I admit. I don’t really know. In truth, I don’t know or like many men. Anyway, none of that is what I want to say. What I want to say is about me in reaction to what you’ve written about you: I’m older than you (I’m 41), and I’m so confused and conflicted right now about attraction and beauty and what it takes to make a person of the opposite sex want to be intimate with you occasionally, a thing I enjoyed for more than twenty years and a thing I am admitting to myself I really need to have in my life in some quantity more than zero (eventually). So I’m working out and losing weight, which is good for my health and longevity (I hope to live to 200), intimacy notwithstanding. But I’m also thinking more about what I wear and how I look and I’m really just lost in all of this. And here you’re describing from such a different perspective, but we’re in different situations, I guess. I don’t know. I cannot tie this comment up into a nice little Seinfeldian ending except to say, “I don’t know.” Hello, Jennifer.

    Friday, November 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  2. Jen wrote:

    Scott, it’s a complicated topic, that’s for sure, and I could have drawn a better distinction between “looking nice” (I certainly do still make an effort to be attractive, to varying degrees, depending on the occasion) versus fretting and suffering and checking my hair in the bathroom constantly and wearing shapewear under my dress that makes it hard to breathe.

    I think that in dating, yeah, some effort is required, and I did always put forth that effort and still would today, out of respect for the person I was seeing and out of a desire to have a nice time, rendered in romantic technicolor, in which I feel pretty and confident. But it would be unhealthy if I thought I had to be unnaturally thin or unusually beautiful to be worthy of love. It would also be unhealthy if I were expected to wear makeup just to be around that person, day in and day out.

    It’s a spectrum, I guess, and everyone has to find that spot where they aren’t totally repellent but aren’t making themselves miserable in their efforts to be attractive.

    There is also the additional layer of how much of my worth as a human is wrapped up in how I look, something we are all affected by but something that can be really damaging to women in particular, as successful businessmen can get a little paunchy or bald with seemingly fewer repercussions.

    So, I don’t know either, maybe. Hello, Scott.

    Friday, November 30, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  3. Brenna wrote:

    Yes, absolutely, to the notion that commenting on appearance can be unintentionally hurtful. I recently lost 20 pounds, and my mother-in-law commented on every single one. Every time she told me how great I looked, it reeked of judgment. It told me in no uncertain terms that she had also noticed every pound I had put on over the years, and would notice every minute gain in the future. This is the same woman who rarely (maybe even never) asks me about anything that matters. But she apparently notices every detail about my personal appearance. It makes me extremely uncomfortable, to say the least.

    I used to tell my kids that it was rude to comment unfavorably on a person’s appearance. Now I just leave it at it’s rude to comment on a person’s appearance. Like you said, surely there is a better compliment to be paid just waiting to present itself.

    Friday, November 30, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  4. beck wrote:

    A fellow high metabolism “sufferer”! Yes it’s so true that people notice/comment on weight. I am just fine about my height (5′10″) and (under)weight (I hope around 125 but haven’t checked recently) but people feel compelled to remark all the dang time. The more I provide reasons (genetics! Metabolism! ) the more I come across as an anorexic in denial. People comment all the time about how much food I should be eating, too. “What? That’s it? No wonder you’re so thin.” “You need some meat on you. Go back for seconds!” “Are you sure you’re not hungry?” No, people, it’s because i eat all freakin’ day in small amounts. And when did this become any of their business?
    I feel like I can’t say anything, either, because to complain or struggle with my body would be ridiculed by others.
    Anyhow, thanks.

    Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  5. Sara Foley wrote:

    Intelligent, well thought out and mature – the benefits of growing up :) . It’s very freeing isn’t it?

    Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  6. Jen wrote:

    Sara, it really is. It is jaw-dropping how much effort I once put into managing what other people thought of me, and how much more resources I have to Do Stuff with now that I don’t give much of a shit if you saw me wearing this same T-shirt just a few days ago.

    Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Jen wrote:

    Beck, my favorite is that if you eat, you’re told “I could never eat like that,” to point out that you don’t DESERVE your thinness, you’re just lucky, and in fact the other person is more responsible and dainty with food than you are, so don’t go thinking you’re hot stuff just because you’re skinny.

    If you don’t eat, you’re told, “Why not? You can certainly afford it,” and treated with suspicion, as if you might have an eating disorder.

    And yes, above all, you must never complain about any of this.

    Honestly, there was never any winning with anyone when I was that thin, nor was I allowed to simply leave it alone as a non-issue.

    Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Permalink
  8. This is exactly why I never comment on how much weight someone has lost, even if it’s a huge amount. If they bring it up, I will sincerely compliment them on their hard work and perseverance in attaining their goal, definitely. But weight gained or lost has no bearing on their value as a human being or how I feel about them, and I would never want someone to feel—like Brenna does about her MIL—that I’ve been judging them quietly in the past. Because I most likely haven’t been! Probably most people aren’t, because people are fairly self-absorbed, even the best ones.

    Actually, that’s not true. I do tend to judge people who talk about dieting and losing weight all the time. I judge that they are boring and worried about the wrong things. And even that isn’t fair, because I’ve made snap judgements about people before and then gotten to know them better and realized my judgement was based on a small part of the whole.

    I’m trying to think of a coherent way to end this comment but it’s 3:30am and I really can’t. So I think I’ll just go to bed now.

    Monday, December 3, 2012 at 4:38 am | Permalink
  9. Jen wrote:

    I completely agree with everything that you’ve said, but what about friends/acquaintances that need the affirmation? While I might try to rehabilitate them into putting their personal worth elsewhere, the removal of acknowledging all of those superficial qualities might crush them.

    Monday, December 3, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink
  10. Jen wrote:

    Jen, that’s a really good question, and I probably shouldn’t even attempt to answer it without highlighting the fact that I am not a psychologist, so no one should take me too seriously.

    That said, this is the INTERNET and that means we all get to have as many opinions as we want, so here is mine:

    Even when a friend needs validation, I think I have to fall back on my “surely that’s not the best compliment you can give them” shtick. I’m thinking of those studies here in which some children are told how smart they are and others are praised for making such a great effort. I think you could argue that both groups needed validation (as children definitely require encouragement), but the ones praised for effort ultimately performed better.

    Also, sometimes, I think the need for physical validation comes from damage already done. Of course I wanted to hear how skinny I was once I had filled out; I had heard it my entire life and it was hard to no longer have that validation. It doesn’t mean that the aunts and cousins and friends and strangers who provided that constant validation were doing me a favor. I don’t think a stream of people reassuring me that I was STILL SKIN AND BONES!, as if I am a crazed little king, would have resolved the issue half as well as me realizing I had become irrationally dependent on hearing how skeletal I was.

    Similarly, it’s hard for me ot see how praising a friend for being skinny/having beautiful long hair/having awesome new clothes is really doing that friend a favor in the long run, whether you’re part of that initial stream or whether it’s years later and the friend is begging for it.

    I’m a total hardass about my principles and not everyone likes that about me, but if I had a friend who was honest-to-God pushing me to say she was pretty, we’d be having a much more comprehensive talk about my concern for her self-esteem and for our friendship.

    I admit that I would also likely explain, not completely patiently, that I am not a compliment machine. I am a person. One does not just feed in a script and pull one arm as a lever. If the compliments I’m offering on kindness or some other trait are not good enough, and I give in, I’m going to feel like an enabler puppet and I really can’t operate that way, for better or worse.

    I also think none of us would be quite so in need of such superficial validation if our culture weren’t so obsessed as a whole with superficial accomplishments like having plump lips or shiny hair. If you want today’s little girls to someday NOT be that friend who can barely get out of bed unless people tell her how pretty she is, my feeling is that you can help by praising the right things and maintain dialogues about our culture’s tendency to praise the wrong things as a whole.

    For what it’s worth, when people have told me that I am skinny/pretty whatever, I have appreciated the intent. Some of my sweetest friends say such things occasionally, and sometimes I feel guilty about not returning it. I do hope that I manage to return their efforts in other ways.

    Monday, December 3, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  11. Jen wrote:

    Great advice. Being a mom to 3 girls, these issues are always on the forefront of my mind. I try very hard not to focus on their looks. There is a lot of praise for effort and also for being kind to one another.

    Monday, December 3, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  12. I just finished Bossypants by Tina Fey and I highly recommend it. She has a great bit in it about being overweight and being underweight–and not being her right weight.

    She says that saying, Oh, you’re too thin! is something that too thin people LOVE to hear. But being that weight was a full-time obsession for her, involving eating nothing and running three miles a day on a treadmill.

    Monday, December 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink
  13. This is why I’ve decided to never become a woman.

    Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  14. I think I might have split an infinitive there. Piss.

    Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  15. Tracy Bryant wrote:

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. I’ve discovered rather recently that nothing brings the avalanche of comments on one’s body than being scheduled for surgery. “You’re going to look so much better!” (I had a 10-lb tumor.) No one could talk to me about anything but the surgery, both before and after. I felt reduced to a lump of diseased tissue. It bothered me so much that I didn’t announce it to one circle of friends until days before. What a joy to have that unpolluted pool! Afterwards, the comments went on and on. The brightest people were the ones who said, “You look so healthy! I’m glad to see so much color in your cheeks!” I could have kissed them. What delight to hear from people concerned with the actual state of my health rather than my reduced size.

    Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

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