Beauty

I spent this weekend in rural Oregon, attending my dear friend M’s wedding. Though the weather was unusually hot for the Pacific Northwest, the setting and (outdoor) ceremony worked together so beautifully that the whole weekend felt tinged with magic. It was wonderful to celebrate my friend’s happiness in such a lovely landscape, with a running creek, pine-covered hills, and strong sunshine providing the perfect backdrop to a happy rite.

Several of us had attended a wedding in the same location three years ago; the house belongs to a friend’s parents, and they are happy to lend it to kids they’ve known for decades for a weekend of celebration. That wedding, too, was gorgeous and fun; instead of staying in hotels, many of us camped out in the field and stayed for a whole weekend, just as we did this time. M was there, and she and I especially spent a lot of time together, since Mr Machine and I were about to move to Chicago and we knew we wouldn’t see each other for months or years.

At this point you might be wondering when SP turned into my personal let’s-ramble-about-the-weekend blog. Never fear! There was a crucial difference between my experience in 2006 and my experience this weekend — and that difference was my view of beauty. Here’s the thing about my friend M: she’s gorgeous. Not just in the regular “Wow, my friends are pretty” way, but in a “Straight guys cannot be friends with me because they are too stunned by my looks” way. (Queer women somehow don’t seem to have the same problem, though I imagine we like to look at her just as much.) She’s tall and blonde and leggy and very slim, with piercing eyes and delicate features. She’s also incredibly photogenic. And the woman she married this weekend is equally stunning, though the only feature they share is their tall lean figures. Basically, in their gowns, glowing with happiness, in this lovely place, they were so pretty you could be forgiven for thinking that no one should need to get married again, because they win for Most Gorgeous Wedding In History (MGWIH). When the wedding pictures are available, I might just paper my walls with them.

In the pictures from the 2006 Oregon wedding (aka The Previous Contender for MGWIH), I am wearing a kicky black and pink striped cowl-necked dress that drapes prettily over my cleavage, and my hair is the perfect amount of wavy, and my glasses add a bit of retro nerd flair. In short, I look awesome. But you know when I realized this? Just this Friday, when looking at the 2006 photos with some of our friends who were there. When I had first seen those wedding photos, in 2006, I thought I looked terrible — lumpy and plain and, of course, fat (I was in the “fine for thee but not for me” stage of FA at the time). I was only a little bigger than I am right now, but all I could see in the pictures was my big hips and big arms hiding in that adorable dress — even though most of the time I felt pretty okay about my body. See, I was hanging out with M, and she is so beautiful that seeing myself next to her in photos was a bit like being slapped; I compared myself to her and found my looks hopelessly wanting. That wedding was beautiful and fun and I have frequently waxed nostalgic about it in the three years since, but I almost never looked at the pictures to reminisce. Why would I? They were clear evidence of how un-beautiful I was. But looking at these very same photos on Friday night, I was startled by how happy and pretty I looked; our mutual friends had even displayed a photo of me and M sitting together laughing. Seeing it framed on a mantel, I wondered how I ever thought I looked anything but wonderful that weekend.

A lot of things have changed in the last three years, but the most important change here is how I view other women’s beauty. It’s not that I used to be jealous of beautiful women, though of course I envied them some — it’s that I often felt diminished by them, as though they were so pretty just to spite me, to remind me my place in the order of things. Of course, this had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. I felt like I was passing as a pretty woman most of the time, and the presence of someone who was Certifiably Pretty revealed my true nature. Standing next to M, who is kind and generous and funny and sweet but also very very pretty, made me feel like my mask had been torn off.

Now it’s like looking with new eyes — but of course it’s really my new brain. I don’t compare myself with her; I love myself with her, because she is my friend. When I see those 2006 pictures now, I feel like I look prettier in her company; her beauty includes me now, because I look at both of us with a more generous gaze. We’re not pitted against each other in a zero-sum contest of finite beauty; we are friends in a world that is, at times, heart-rendingly beautiful.

This weekend, watching these two gorgeous women slide rings on each other’s fingers, I felt blessed too. I’ve been trained to view beauty as a rule that excludes me, a weapon that anyone could use against me: we all have. But when we try to think generously about beauty, to look for it with pleasure instead of with envy, it only expands. Beauty is not a finite quantity. It has room for you. It has room even for me.

91 thoughts on “Beauty

  1. Lovely. Absolutely lovely. And very true.

    I feel that way about my sister. Now that I’m learning to appreciate myself and my beauty and understand that we are not at odds. Putting us together in a room is putting together two women who love and respect each other, and that can’t not be beautiful.

  2. delurking briefly to say that the last paragraph of this article is just so… just YES. Great post, SM!

  3. “We’re not pitted against each other in a zero-sum contest of finite beauty; we are friends in a world that is, at times, heart-rendingly beautiful.”

    THIS! Thanks for this post SM. I long for the day when I’m no longer comparing myself negatively to other women.

    True story: I have a dear, dear friend whom I love and adore. But the woman has some serious, serious body image problems (almost as bad as my own) – not least because her mother has spent a good deal of her life telling her she can’t get a man because she’s fat. But I digress.

    One day, I’m at a street fair with my dear friend. I’m enjoying the music of the 80s cover band on stage, when I see my dear friend’s head whip around. Did I miss some herring juggling act go by? No. As my dear friend explained to me, she’d just seen a couple walk by and was stunned that a girl that looked like THAT had managed to get a guy that good looking. To say I was taken aback is putting it mildly. I mumbled something to the effect of “oh, guess I missed that.”

    But seriously? People are considered unworthy of love or affection or human decency if they don’t look a certain way? This is just….wow….I can’t even put it into words. And I have no idea how to combat this kind of thinking when confronted with it. Advice appreciated.

  4. Rock on, Ailbhe.

    In addition to previous clarification, it’s also worth noting that this woman is NOT, at present, a wife or a mom. (No mention of her having a kid, anyway.) It’s not that she wants to be appreciated for what she does, it’s that she wants a man to marvel at her potential as a wifey-mom.

  5. Lovely post. And the timing is just right for me to really appreciate it – I’m getting married on Saturday and feeling very emotional.

  6. Very well-put SM.

    I like to think it was all so lovely because rural Oregon is inherently lovely… but I’m biased to my homeland.

    It feels so good to realize that beauty includes all of us… all of humanity and is not an exclusive club with a secret password. I don’t feel like that everyday, but when I do it’s liberating and awesome.

  7. Oh, what a lovely post. We should all learn to look at each other and ourselves with such kindness.
    I completely understand Certifiably Pretty. I have been passing as pretty all my life, too, and just want to curl into a ball and die when a Certifiably Pretty woman is in the room with me. Never mind that such women are often wonderful people, intelligent and thoughtful and worthy of my regard and friendship, and probably complete with their own set of worries about their appearances. I only see their flawless exteriors.
    How shallow of me. Perhaps when I can look on the beautiful with more kindness (instead of envy and OK, a little malice), I can be kinder to myself.

  8. Thanks for this. I completely relate with how you were feeling in 2006–that’s pretty much where I am now, I think. I find it so much easier to accept other people’s bodies than my own! And I get feeling like actually beautiful women will expose me as a fraud…and I’m glad that you characterized that as an FA phase because it gives me hope, and makes me feel like it’s ok to be where I’m at now.

  9. What a poignant way to illustrate your journey, SM.

    “Passing for pretty” – that really resonated with me. It’s how I seem to have seen myself no matter what.

  10. A lovely post! (I also really appreciated your earlier piece about queerness and beauty.)
    I do hope I can get to this state of mind (I live in NYC, which is especially thinness-obsessed, but still…) Ideally, I’d like to be able to think not that I don’t fit in with the “genuinely beautiful” women but that all our different kinds of beauty complement each other.
    Working on it.

  11. I’ve noticed this phenomenon at work in my life as well.

    I recently became fast friends with the kind of woman that, in her words, “can’t wear the clothes I like because I’m afraid of people not letting me walk down the street without commenting or trying to come up to me.” (this was in regards to a red dress she loved wearing, but could only wear around her apartment because she was afraid of wearing it outdoors).

    When I hang out with her I don’t feel diminished, I just feel like we are two beautiful women spending time with each other. The only part that sucks or makes me feel angry is when I get pointedly ignored by some jerk who considers my fat to be some kind of invisibility shield — I mean, basic human decency and respect for my humanity is all I ask when I’m with my conventionally beautiful friends.

    By the way, this wonderful woman thinks I’m breathtakingly beautiful and doesn’t understand why women try to change their bodies to look like something they aren’t. I just love her. :)

  12. This was great to read, such truth in there! My closest sister-friend, and really all my friends, are KNOCKOUTS. I have always been the girl that the cute boys would talk to in order to get closer to my friends. I know that envy you speak of. And I have had a similar experience seeing myself photographed with my closest sister-friend and feeling that the picture was just so beautiful, me included, which touched me in a way that was new. Thank you for this post. Love it.

  13. Wow. This was a great post, and hits a bit close to home. I was an awkward kid from a socially awkward family and at some point being unattractive was just part of how I thought about myself. I decided I’d just overcompensate by hyperachieving in academics, joining every single club whether I was interested or not, and so on. I think Kate wrote once about wanting to be a brain on a stick – that was me.

    With lots of years, pain, therapy, great friends, etc., I discovered a way to be comfortable in my skin, a style that worked for me and found friends and sexual partners who found me beautiful and I no longer feel like my appearance is something people have to ‘get’ past to like me. I so wish I could have gotten there before my 30s, but I know a lot of people never get there, and most of the time I feel grateful.

    But sometimes . .. I’m 34 and single. I’d really like to have a partner and family, and I feel like it’s slipping away everyday that goes by. I just feel like I wasted my young years with this crap and I’m never getting back and if I hadn’t been so damn insecure, I would have someone in my life right now. It’s like I’ll keep paying for that early stupidity over and over. That’s the piece it sometimes seems impossible to get past.

  14. SM, this is beautiful. I’m more or less at this point with my high school self. I remember feeling horrible and fat and totally out of place among my peers when I was a teenager. Recently, friends have been posting pictures from this period on facebook, and you know what? I looked good! I wasn’t fat, or abnormal, or out of place at all.

    I’m about 15-20 lbs heavier now, though not particularly bigger, since I’ve put on significant muscle as I’ve gotten older (and I’m damn proud of that!), but I definitely still sometimes struggle to like how I look in pictures. The difference I’ve noticed is that it now takes me about 6 months to start liking how I look in pictures, rather than 10 years. It’s not perfect, but it’s closer.

    My best friend is one of those women who has a certain magnetism for men, at least with friends and in bars. She’s beautiful, naturally thin, has long dark hair, and is friendly, outgoing, and easy to talk to. I’m close to her opposite, but what I’ve realized is that she and I show our best selves in different situations. Sure, she’s good in bars and large groups, but I like small groups and intense, intellectual conversation. We’re just different people.

    Of course, periodically getting approached on the street is flattering…

  15. This is AWESOME. As a woman who has literally had guys knock me off barstools to get to my friends, I was 30 before it dawned on me that it was ok not to be the girl that dudes in bars wanted to meet…and that I didn’t need to resent my friends for being that girl. (They mostly found it annoying.)

    No one would call me me (conventionally) beautiful, but I’m trying to learn to see the beauty in myself as I see it in other people whose looks could be described as unusual, quirky or even *gasp* fat. Reading SP really helps – thanks!

  16. love this so much

    “passing for pretty”–brilliant, and like so many things I’ve found here–both in the posts proper and in comments–puts into words something I’ve felt but have never verbalized.

    Thank you for this, SM.

  17. But sometimes . .. I’m 34 and single. I’d really like to have a partner and family, and I feel like it’s slipping away everyday that goes by. I just feel like I wasted my young years with this crap and I’m never getting back and if I hadn’t been so damn insecure, I would have someone in my life right now.

    I promise that this isn’t true. You could have loved yourself with impossible perfect self-love from day one, and it’s still dumb luck.

  18. @Volcanista – Yeah, that’s what I think & feel some days too. It may be my own version of perfect world theory – better to have someone to blame, even if it’s you, than to accept the randomness of it.

  19. Sweet Machine, this was just beautiful.
    I have that expansive ability to see the beauty around me and in me from time to time, and lately, it’s while I’m in my dance sessions — there’s one woman in particular who is so beautiful to look at, but also amazingly open and a generous dancer. At first, I felt really intimidated around her, but the more that I realized she was appreciating some beauty in me, too, I felt more comfortable and confident.
    Yesterday I was watching a video that was made of me speaking at a work training and I thought, I look warm, and friendly, and like I know what I’m talking about, and my hair looks great, and I look at home in my body.

  20. I was 30 before it dawned on me that it was ok not to be the girl that dudes in bars wanted to meet

    I’m 40, and this is only starting to dawn on me. Just barely starting, so it gave me a real rush of relief to read this in someone else’s words. Thanks, AnotherKate

  21. I think about this a lot, how people feel there is only a certain amount of beauty, love and happiness to go around but we don’t feel that same way about hatred, greed and other negative things. It’s like we get so little good stuff in life that we’re afraid that if someone else has it, that means there’s less to go around. But we never say “OH GOD this person hates the same thing I do! What if the world runs out of hatred to go around??”

    It just doesn’t happen that way! There’s an unlimited source of bad energy but only so much GOOD energy? What? Why??

    I think about it more in regards to relationships and jealousy. Like, how a friend may become jealous when a friend starts hanging out with someone new, things like that. But it does apply to anything that makes us feel good and valuable, whether it’s praise, attention, intimacy, or anything else humans crave and need to survive.

    Anyway, it just reminds me to be more generous with positive things and not let other peoples’ happiness make me feel shitty about how I may or may not have slightly less happiness than they do. There’s enough of the good stuff to go around.

  22. My jaw dropped reading your description of the old photo: I have had this experience so many times in the last few months, cleaning out my basement of crap after my divorce. I even brought some upstairs to sit next to my computer so I can remind myself: turns out, I’m not ugly. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that I am conventionally pretty, and not ONCE did I think I was all this time. I would get the film back (yeah, film) and cringe, just cringe at the sight of my face and body. How can I continue to WASTE years of my life worrying about this stuff. Answer: I cant. I cannot bear to look back 10 years from now and admit that I could never be in the moment, and appreciate what I have, and harness that power for good, and not evil.

  23. This was a beautiful post. I resonate so much with what was said on both sides! It is hard to not blame someone else. I struggle-and I hate to admit this-with the fact that almost all of my friends are partnered and I, the conventional pretty one, has been single for six or seven years. My best friend, who happens to be fat, doesn’t get it either. I’ve been spending my time fighting my eating disorder and schizoaffective disorder and she envies my thinness, which is so frustrating to me! Seriously, anorexia is not to be envied and I wish people would understand that it is not in fact glamorous. What I think a lot of people don’t get is that everyone in our culture is taught to hate their bodies.

    There’s a picture of me in the fifth grade where I look blissfully happy and yet as soon as I saw it, I immediately hated how I look in it, even though everyone else loves it. I wonder if I can find this old photo and make peace with this happy person.

  24. I’m de-lurking now to say: Beautiful post Sweet Machine. It was so true it made me cry.

    Beauty is not a finite quantity. It has room for you. It has room even for me.

    I love reading that. I even said it out loud. It is so hard to remember that sometimes, especially since we grow up with all these terrible mixed messages about our bodies from society, from friends, from family, even from lovers. It’s a long, winding road to acceptance.

    I’m making my way down that road after dealing with an eating disorder for years. Even though I loved posing for photos as a teenager, I hated seeing them. I hated everything about my body and wanted to control it, to master it, to punish it. When I was looking at photos with old friends on my birthday a couple weeks ago, I realized how thin I looked. It was bad. My skin was gray. My bones were sticking out. I looked faint in some of them. I thought I was a walrus then at 117 pounds, five feet six inches tall. My goal weight was 100. I was hospitalized before getting there and then shipped off to college, where therapy helped.

    I hope I’m not upsetting anybody by rambling about this. I don’t mean to be triggering. I started reading Shapely Prose recently because of the excellent writing and the feminist standpoint, which got me into the fat acceptance movement, which I am obviously new to. I hate newbies at feminist or queer sites haha so I can understand your annoyance if I upset anyone. I’m sorry. I just struggle with relapses still and reading Shapely Prose makes me feel better and this all came spilling out when I read this post.

  25. re: Not being the girl guys want to meet at bars.

    I think this is what I was getting at, too. I’m (only) 25 and very glad that I’m learning now not to put too much stock in what happens in bars. I actually started seeing a therapist to deal with something pretty unrelated (sexual harassment really sucks), but learning to deal with the fact that not being that woman men go after in bars and clubs doesn’t make me a lesser person – or any less attractive – has been extremely beneficial to my mental and emotional well being. While my therapist wasn’t the one who directed me to Shapely Prose in the first place, she is the person who pushed me to think about accepting myself at the weight I am (or was…that was 10 lbs ago) without the constant diet mentality hanging over my head.

  26. I’ve been out of everyday contact with mainstream media for a while now – I still see billboards and ads of course, but I don’t really notice them. I don’t watch tv, which means that the media I DO consume – some movies, but mostly internet text, audio, photographs and video is mindfully chosen. And more often than not, it’s made by real people, about themselves.

    It’s amazing how much it changes the way you see the world! When I see a photo of my friends on flickr, I don’t ever ever think ‘oh, you can see her wrinkles’ or ‘she looks tired/fat/etc’. I think ‘god, what a gorgeous photo. The lighting is so pretty/she looks so happy/that cake looks deliscious I wish I could have some!’

    And now when I accidentally consume print media, instead of thinking ‘wow, she’s so pretty and blonde and skinny: I wish I could be more like her’ I think ‘huh. She looks so BORED and hungry! And plastic. And hey… what happened to her waist and where did her neck go? Weird.’

    It’s gotten to the stage where people in the media don’t even look human anymore. And the older I get, the more I find that the thigns I truly find beautiful are the human things. Someone’s laugh lines. Their frizzy hair when they first get out of bed. These aren’t flaws to be quickly remedied before we dare let the world see and judge us – they are joys and jewels int he world.

    And slowly, slowly, I am beginning to think the same way about myself.

  27. I grew up convinced that I was deathly unattractive, so I opted out of beauty, and went for elegant (nice clothes, learned how to do a good manicure, etc.). Elegant never lets me down, you know? It will also serve me well as I go into my fourth decade, since the wrinkles are coming pretty hard and fast. :)

    But I love seeing my beautiful friends, and am so sad when they get twisted up in notions of pretty and how they’re lacking, because they’re all gorgeous. I think there’s a little of the scare factor in how women see other beautiful women – the idea that there’s only so many men to go around (and boy, the beauty industry likes to play on this myth, so we all panic and buy their stuff), and so they have to compete, and the prettiest one wins.

    Women are beautiful – they just are. It’s something we should all grow up knowing to the core of our being, but it gets taken away from us at such an early age, and that’s a tragedy.

  28. Thanks so much for this SM. Oh, the destruction that looking through the male gazeascope causes. I’m just happy I can look at myself in photos at this point without cringing.
    And to add to the guys in bar conversation, I definitely figured that one out a few months ago when I was at the bar with a few of my younger, pretty, thin friends who kept getting hit on by very drunk guys or even better – drunk, shady, very OLD men. Thank you, protective fat!

  29. Oh, that made my heart ache. In a good way.

    So I have this friend, A., who is always taking photos. She worked for a long time at a living history museum, and is used to having tourist cameras in her face all the time and forgets that the rest of us, um, aren’t. She is also terribly, terribly lovely (and interesting and intelligent and kind). I always get really awkward when she’s pointing the camera around, because I hate hate hate photos taken of me.

    Last October, she snapped one of me while we were all sitting around by the fire on an almost chilly afternoon. I had been way too aware of the camera there, and when I saw the picture I immediately thought: “oh god… I look terrible. You can see the folds of my sweater over all my jiggly bits, my hair is frizz-city, and normal people don’t have pudgy jawbones…. ugh.”

    A.’s take on it? “[L'zhiu] as a Vermeer painting. This might be the best portrait I have ever taken.”

    And all our friends (ah, the powers of the internet) agreed. Made me sit up and take notice… because if my friends see me not as a moon-faced insult to nature and instead as a frickin’ Vermeer, then maybe I should – and can – too.

  30. Thank you so much for this post. Beauty has so long been or seemed to be the realm of “other people” (that is, anyone but you, or anyone but me) or assigned at the expense of others (‘at least I don’t look like…’). I work with teenagers who cut and starve themselves and elementary school girls who count calories and fat grams, none of whom would ever describe herself as beautiful, much less pretty or cute. I wish I could just kind of inoculate this post into them (and heck, into myself too). Thanks again.

  31. But when we try to think generously about beauty, to look for it with pleasure instead of with envy, it only expands. Beauty is not a finite quantity. It has room for you. It has room even for me.

    Thanks, SM. The whole post is beautiful, but this really struck a nerve with me. I think if more people realized this about not just beauty, but also love, the world might be a little better.

    I think about this a lot, how people feel there is only a certain amount of beauty, love and happiness to go around but we don’t feel that same way about hatred, greed and other negative things. It’s like we get so little good stuff in life that we’re afraid that if someone else has it, that means there’s less to go around.

    Colleen, this is something I’ve been mulling over for a while too, and the more I think about it, the more it drives me crazy. Why do the good things get treated like they’re scarce, but all the bad things are inescapable? I think this idea that there’s not enough to go around is what leads to greed, jealousy, and people generally being assholes to one another trying not to be on the bottom. There is enough love and happiness to go around, people.

  32. God I love this post, it’s absolutely perfect, I’m linked it to all my girlfriends. I have a weird experience of being “conventionally pretty” and also have a conventionally “bad” trait. I’ve had people tell me “you are stunning…. but…” And then they’ll follow up with something about how it’s so sad that I have such bad acne/scars/etc. Strangers will come up to me in stores, at work, on the effing street- and say “oh, honey, such a pretty face, but your skin *pity face look and then* have you tried blahblahblahblahblahblah”. I feel so opposite in pictures- flash on, washing out my face? I’m pretty. Digital camera in direct sunlight? Pockmarks and shadows, red raised scars, I’m ugly. I feel like in a dark bar, or on a good skin day, when men hit on me, approach me, it’s because they don’t *really* know what I look like. I feel one part pecked and attacked and constantly harassed and leered at and hit on, and another part shunned and causing disgust and feeling very, very undesireable. It’s hard to reconcile the two when your own grandmother says “it must be hard being so beautiful but having acne, doesn’t seem fair” : / I’m trying to not see it, to just accept hey, despite everything I’ve tried, my skin just wants to be angry and bumpy and crappy, let it go, you’re ok, stop worrying about it. But it’s hard when I’m treated so drastically different depending on where I am in my cycle, how dim the lights are, and whether or not I have on makeup. And if one more person recommends effing Proactiv, I think I’ll scream :)

  33. This post has left me feeling warm and fuzzy. Totally warm and fuzzy. :)

    I recently came back from a vacation with friends, two of whom were ones that I only knew from online. We had all swapped pictures and knew, generally, what to expect in person… but what I hadn’t expected was just how lovely the two of them were. One vivacious redhead, one adorable brunette… and both, said the little nagging voice in my head, a zillion times better looking than fat frizzy-haired me. But this wasn’t a beauty pageant, this was a VACATION. I made sure to enjoy myself lots and lots, and tried not to pay it all too much mind.

    Reflecting back on all the vacation photos, I don’t know why I was even anxious about it. We ALL look fab. And I suspect that all of us, to some degree, have anxieties about being photographed, being considered pretty, so on and so on and so on… Confidence and joy do indeed show up in pictures, because we were all brimming with it. (Though I suspect that some of it was that the Florida humidity and heat did really great things for my skin… other than the sunburn. Oi, sunburn…)

    Megan, what you said about being anxious around pretty women rings true around me, too. I have a slight reflexive distrust of anyone ‘traditionally beautiful’, all dressed to the nines… some of it is a worry that I’m somehow being judged. Lots of it is likely vestigal survival reflex from high school, where the girls that looked like that really WERE out to get me. Intellectually, I know that no one’s got anything in particular against me in the real world… my friends, especially. And, frankly, I think all of my friends are beautiful, in some way or another.

  34. “Straight guys cannot be friends with me because they are too stunned by my looks” way.

    I think that’s doing a lot of straight guys a disservice, to be honest. The most movie-star-gorgeous women I know have straight guys as friends (including my husband).

  35. I can’t remember ever being distrustful of a beautiful woman, but insanely good-looking men? Oh yeah. Still, after all these years, I have to talk myself down from a hostile attitude when I meet one. Poor soul doesn’t have to do anything but just stand there looking gorgeous and I’ll have trouble talking normally. Even thinking about it, I have to remind myself that this is prejudice. It’s like I don’t think a hunky alpha male is human, just a device for delivering pain.

    And to make myself clear, I do not think I am right to behave this way, that’s why I talk myself down. I’m just amazed at myself for having such a hard time with it.

  36. I realised when reading this that I’ve learned to *like* being plain beside prettier women, because I don’t have to be the centre of attention. Maybe I should try doing things differently.

  37. I think that’s doing a lot of straight guys a disservice, to be honest. The most movie-star-gorgeous women I know have straight guys as friends (including my husband).

    That’s fair, JP. That particular phrase probably came more from my knowledge of my friend (who is gay and out and has been forEVER but whom straight guys always think they can “convert,” Nice Guy TM style) than from my knowledge of straight guys.

    Dear Straight Guys: I apologize! But just this once.

  38. so much love for this post. i’m not “there” yet, but it’s good to know i might someday be able to see that much open and kind beauty when i look at the world.

  39. I can’t remember ever being distrustful of a beautiful woman, but insanely good-looking men? Oh yeah.

    AAAAAAH, are you me, OlderThanDirt? I think you’re me. I’ve conquered my issues around the ladies, but men? …N.. no. No I haven’t. Again, I’m positive that it’s leftover reaction from high school, where it seemed like every single creature with a Y chromosome was determined to abuse me in some fashion.

    I can hang around average-looking guys. I can talk to the guys at work. I can have fantastic chatty times with geeky guys that share my interest. I have oodles of male friends online, where visual appearances aren’t even an issue. But the concept of trying to… like… flirt with a really hot guy? It makes me want to vomit from anxiety, no joke. It is absolutely terrifying to contemplate. Or at least pretty scary. It’s not just the prospect of rejection, but humiliation. (Logically… what, are they going to call the Ugly Police on me and have me taken away in handcuffs? But this is not logical! My stomach is not listening to logic.)

  40. A beautiful, beautiful post, Sweet Machine. I read it and the thread before I walked my dog this morning. As I was following around my little wiener boy, I had a smile on my face because the notion that beauty exists within and between friends is just lovely.

    Last night I was really struggling with my death fatz. Reading your words reminded me that beauty transcends cultural standards. You inspired me to think that it is possible that I am beautiful. Then I thought of Keats’ words:
    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

  41. I’ve always been fortunate to be relatively unconcerned about appearance (mine or other people’s), and I do wonder if a lot of it is because I never really did the whole dating scene thing. I met my now-husband when I was 18, and that was it. I was already engaged before I was even old enough to go to a bar. LOL

    I’ve thought before about what it would be like to start dating again, should anything happen to my husband or our relationship, and it is a frightening prospect. I’ve been with the same person for pretty much all of my adult life, and so I just don’t have any real experience with seeing people as potential sexual/romantic partners. On the odd occassion where some random guy starts coming on to me, it just strikes me as weird and kind of “Why are they doing this?”, not because I think I’m so unattractive that nobody would flirt with me, but because I don’t really ever look at people as people I’d even consider flirting with. (Plus, most of the random come ons I’ve had have been really weird, like the guy a few weeks ago who followed me around a store for a while then told me, “You smell nice.”) I think because I’ve never really been out looking for a romantic partner, I tend to have a more detached view of beauty. It’s something I can appreciate when I see it, but that’s about it.

    Probably the most beautiful human being I’ve ever known in real life was a girl I went to grad school with. She was just absolutely gorgeous. I don’t remember ever feeling particularlly insecure or jealous around her, but I also never had the “We’re both two beautiful women” feeling, and I don’t think I would now. It was more of a “She is an unusually gorgeous person, I’m a pretty average-looking person like most people in the world, and that’s all okay” kind of thing. I don’t know, I agree on the one hand that everybody is beautiful in their own way, but I also think that it’s perfectly fine and good to be average-looking, and to acknowledge that.

  42. . I don’t know, I agree on the one hand that everybody is beautiful in their own way, but I also think that it’s perfectly fine and good to be average-looking, and to acknowledge that.

    Okay, so, I know I said I felt pretty next to my pretty friend but I did not actually suddenly become movie-star gorgeous with huge violet eyes and cheekbones you could rest a drink on. This post is actually all about acknowledging how it’s fine not to be classically beautiful — and the phrase “average-looking” rests on the very hierarchical paradigm of beauty that I had a joyous transcendent escape from for a few hours.

  43. This made me cry a little. Most of my friends are pretty – prettier than me. But what I cannot come to grips with is ‘certifiably pretty’ women. I’m not proud of it, but I instantly dislike them. I have overcome it occasionally, when the woman in question has been exceptionally warm and friendly and doesn’t treat me like the toad that I feel like when I’m standing next to her. Your post gave me some other ways to think about beauty. Thanks!

  44. SM, I loved your post, and hope it didn’t sound like I was taking issue with it.

    I totally agree that it’s important to think about beauty differently. I just also think that, given how huge an emphasis is placed on appearance in society, it’s also important to just decide it doesn’t matter. I think there’s certainly power in the idea that everybody is beautiful, but I think it can be just as empowering to decide that whether or not somebody is beautiful doesn’t matter one bit.

  45. Julie–
    RE: “But what I cannot come to grips with is ‘certifiably pretty’ women.”
    I am right there with you. I was in a Panera Bread the other day, and this amazing-looking woman with long, blond, straight hair came in the door. Her fashion was impeccable, and her body was gorgeous. Hence I began to rip her apart in my mind, thinking that she was stupid, vain, uneducated, etc. So. Ashamed.

    I realize that I do this because I struggle so much with the way I look–because I do not fit the societal norm of gorgeous. So I hide in my intellect and in my education. Sigh.

  46. Julie-
    It’s interesting what you’re saying about how if they’re exceptionally warm and friendly you’ll be able to overcome your dislike, because I’ve been that person that is acutely aware that I have to be not just warm and friendly, but exceptionally so, and as non-threatening as possible, so as not to be disliked- I think in my head “talk to the girls first, barely glance at the guys, to the point of almost being rude, back to the girls, be sure to compliment them and/or make fun of something I’m wearing/doing/saying”. On top of thinking “say something smart so they know you’re not dumb” or something along those lines. I’ve had many people actually say, pretty much verbatim “it’s weird that you’re so nice when you’re so pretty”. Yet when I see a blonde girl in preppy clothes with a spray tan I’m instantly judging her as being shallow- WTF? Why do I do that, it’s so unnecessary. It’s such a touchy subject that people don’t talk about- because it’s all wrapped up in self esteem vs. vanity vs. the dynamics of female friendship- but it’s all definitely there, we can all feel them, maybe if we could all talk as openly in real life they would dissipate. No matter where we are, what we look like, we all suffer under these fears and anxieties about being misunderstood, that no one will really see *us*, just see their assumptions about us based on what we look like, how we dress, on and on. Can you imagine being free of all of that, just the whole thing? I can’t, but it’s nice to work towards :)

  47. I feel like I go back and forth and up and down so much on beauty, body image, and attractiveness. There’s someone in my life to whom I would really like to seem attractive, and someone else I’m about to get reacquainted with after not seeing them for about 8 years. It’s these situations that make me want to put it off, to not let them see me until I look better/prettier/thinner. I don’t have those feelings as much as I used to (I’m trying!), but it hits at the weirdest times. I was having a thoughtful week anyways, especially about beauty and gender expression, so this is an interesting addition to the mix in my head…

    This post was beautifully written, SM. Likey. :-)

  48. Y’know, I think one of the biggest things that helped me stop feeling less when around those exceptionally beautiful women was the way other women would assume me for an ally in their nasty, bitter, behind-the-back sniping at them when they were out of earshot.

    There is a woman that works in the same building as me who is very much the epitome of conventional beauty; very tall, slender, willowy, a classical yet refined face, long legs, traditional hourglass figure, gorgeous hair. She would not look out of place on a catwalk in Milan, is what I am saying. And in the few encounters I have had with her she has always come across as sweet, funny, kind, intelligent, polite and just a generally unassuming, nice person.

    And every time I am sat with one or more of a certain group of women I unfortunately have to spend time with for my job… and she walks past… the most nasty comments come out. And when I am sitting with a certain group of male colleagues and she walks past the most derogatory comments come out.

    But when I am sitting with the men and women that I choose to spend my time with, and she walks past, they say nothing. Or at most will say “hey, do you know WHATSERFACE? She works in BLAHDEPARTMENT with THINGY. I should introduce you guys to her or something, she’s really cool.” Or sadly, lately, “Oh, isn’t WHATSERNAME in BLAHDEPARTMENT? They’re facing redundancies right now.”.

    It actually was only recently that it clicked for me (hooray for my brain!) that this showed how much bullshit it was for me to worry about how I compare to others. The only people who would see anything unfavourable in me are me, and the sort of people who find the negativity in ANYTHING.

  49. Awesome post, SM. I have to say, I have several Certifiably Pretty TM friends, and when I was younger and before I discovered FA, though I would forget that I was the “ugly one” when I was just hanging out with them, interactions with dudes always reminded me, and it was like a crushing blow to my self-esteem, even when I was happily dating someone or just not interested at all in the dude (because obviously he was acting like a douche).

    The other week I was helping my gorgeous friend look at apartments, and the two tool realtors were completely flirting with her in that way that is sort of gross but also manipulative, and completely ignoring me, to the point of not responding to direct comments/questions. I mean also I think they were mad because I was there to talk her out of their crappy apartments, but still. I had a moment of feeling that old high school feeling and steeling myself for the rush of shame and sadness–like to the point where I physically felt myself flinch–then when it didn’t come, all I felt was RAGE. Just blinding rage at all the years I let idiots use my insecurity as a club. It felt good but also scary. SO ANGRY.

  50. @Marianne from Cali – I am right there with you. I was in a Panera Bread the other day, and this amazing-looking woman with long, blond, straight hair came in the door. Her fashion was impeccable, and her body was gorgeous. Hence I began to rip her apart in my mind, thinking that she was stupid, vain, uneducated, etc. So. Ashamed.

    I realize that I do this because I struggle so much with the way I look–because I do not fit the societal norm of gorgeous. So I hide in my intellect and in my education. Sigh.

    If I had a quarter for every time I did this…

    I think you hit on something interesting with the “hiding in intellect and education.” Ever since I was a little girl, society, my parents, my teachers, my mentors, my friends, the media and I have all pit “beautiful girls” against “smart girls.” I was taught that I shouldn’t care about my looks because I am smart, and the pretty girls are vapid. Female heroines in the movies and books I read either seemed unattainably perfect – gorgeous AND smart – or just smart, in which case they would almost always have to outsmart/defeat the pretty, mean, stupid rival. Plain/average/ugly and smart is rarely pitted against ugly and smart, or even ugly and stupid, although occasionally it is up against pretty and equally smart. Ugly/smart and Pretty/stupid are portrayed as opposites, and plain women are never allowed to celebrate our imperfect bodies and looks. Instead, we are told that while some women get their worth from their looks, we get ours from our brains. As if we wouldn’t be worthwhile anyway. As if we can’t appreciate the bodies and faces we got. As if pretty women should be allowed to celebrate themselves for both reasons, but we aren’t allowed to because we violate some (false) law of nature by existing.

    I don’t think that what we are doing is “hiding” inside our intellect, Marianne from Cali. I think we are responding to what we’ve been taught – that if we don’t meet societal norms of beauty, we are to respond that “We are smarter, nicer, more interesting, etc” than the beautiful women who seem to be elevated above us. We are taught that we should have to “justify” our plainness/averageness/ugliness/whatever because we are smarter, and that we would somehow be totally worthless individuals if we were plain and not smart. But this is just another way that the patriarchy divides us…it’s not because we are cowardly hiders, it’s because we’ve been divided by a system that survives by keeping women divided and conquered.

    Great post btw

  51. Gottalovemn, this is really interesting:
    Ever since I was a little girl, society, my parents, my teachers, my mentors, my friends, the media and I have all pit “beautiful girls” against “smart girls.”

    I think that’s a huge part of the whole female dynamic. My parents were pretty good about not dividing my sisters and I up into “pretty” and “smart” but society did the job for them. I was the smart one: the prodigy with “unlimited potential.” My sister became the “beautiful” one with the perfect body.

    Years later we had a whole conversation about how as a young child she felt like she could never measure up to me, and then after she hit pubery and I got out of school (and no one gave a damn what my IQ was), I began to feel that I could never measure up to HER. It was actually really fascinating, to compare stories (and neuroses) from both sides of the “fence.”

  52. LOL, I just betrayed my own remnants of cultural conditioning.

    ” . . . the “beautiful” one with the “perfect” body.”

    Perfect should have been in quotes. :)

  53. gottalovemn-

    “But this is just another way that the patriarchy divides us…it’s not because we are cowardly hiders, it’s because we’ve been divided by a system that survives by keeping women divided and conquered.”

    So very true.

  54. this is such a great post and it REALLY resonates with me. confronting/unpacking that feeling of being “diminished”–which for me extends beyond looks to all areas in which, as you so aptly put it, certifiable beatitude might be found/appreciated–is painstaking but so worthwhile. i have to remind myself –too often, still–that i don’t have to participate/perpetrate those dialogues that frame beauty/success/ as limited and rarified and exclusive. there really is enough beauty/success for everyone to participate when we opt out of framework that only divides/demoralizes us.

  55. I totally understand what you wrote about. I’m having my own crisis of beauty and weight, I wrote about it on my blog. Every time I come to an ok place I seem to lapse back. Here’s to finding our happy place and staying there…

  56. Count me in the “Wow, I suddenly have this rather large lump in my throat,” crowd. :)

    What this post made me think of was not only how we allow ourselves to feel “less than” when in the company of others who are conventionally attractive, but maybe even how we hold ourselves apart from those people. Obviously, SM, you haven’t done that with your friend, which is fantastic… but it reminded me instantly of my cousin, with whom I’m also friends. She is the kind of woman who causes reactions in men like you see in commercials – walking into parked cars, tripping over their tongues, etc. I realized that I deliberately hold her at a distance – so others are (perhaps) less likely to compare us, and so I’m less tempted to make that comparison myself, because I always felt I came up short. That doesn’t make me happy. So I called and left a voicemail message telling her I loved her. :)

  57. This is an excellent post. I’d like to contribute, and I really hope not to come off like a self indulgent asshat.

    I don’t know where I fit anymore. While I’m certainly not movie star gorgeous,
    I was always considered “Certifiably Pretty” in my 20’s and early 30’s. Now that I’m firmly planted in the high overweight category, I’m not sure how I’m perceived. I suppose I’m still pretty, but I’m also fat, especially by so cal standards. To myself, I identify as a pretty fat woman, but it almost feels like those are contradictory terms. “She was so pretty, such a shame she let herself go” echos in my brain constantly, especially when I see people from the past. Is it possible it’s even more of a societal crime when a conventionally pretty woman gets fat? Does this make sense?

    Sorry In therapy now, with a long way to go, folks…..

  58. It’s amazing how much it changes the way you see the world! When I see a photo of my friends on flickr, I don’t ever ever think ‘oh, you can see her wrinkles’ or ’she looks tired/fat/etc’. I think ‘god, what a gorgeous photo. The lighting is so pretty/she looks so happy/that cake looks deliscious I wish I could have some!’

    I hear this, totally. When I’m taking or looking at pictures of friends and family, all I can think is how great they look, or how funny or silly and generally awesome. And when some of them make comments about how horrible they look, I’m always thrown for a loop. (And I admit, then I sometimes get annoyed.)

  59. This was wonderful. I’m think that beauty is a huge umbrella that everyone can stand under, and we all fit comfortably.

  60. Gottalovemn, I loved reading your thoughts. I agree totally, although my situation growing up was a bit different. My mom expected me to be smart AND beautiful. My dad only cared that I was smart. The dog just wanted a tummy rub.

  61. Hey, Charlotte! Your new picture is, well, beautiful

    Thanks, Sniper! I was just messing around with the camera on my phone the other day, and I saw that picture and was like “hey, that’s an awesome picture of me!” There are very few pictures of me that I like, so that was kind of a mini-breakthrough for me.

  62. “I often felt diminished by them, as though they were so pretty just to spite me”

    THIS. If I could ever learn to stop feeling this . . .

    I am right there with you. Totally new to FA, firmly in the “fine for thee but not for me “stage (what an apt description, btw). I, too, wonder how and even if I will ever change this thinking.

    Just the other day I was sneering at models in the VS catalogue because I instantly hate them for reminding me of what I can never be. I hate them because they have no idea of how sad and damaging the experience of being fat can be. I know it’s nothing to do with them and everything to do with my irrational and unhealthy, warped thinking. Yet it persists, percolates and spreads like a cancer in my mind. Sorry for the overarching prose, but it just sucks.

  63. Thank you for this post.
    I am almost 30, and in my life I’ve heard really a lot of people telling me I am cute “enough”, that my face is pretty and I am so lucky to be skinny etc, but..what a pity for me to be quite short (5 ft 4), as to say, you are pretty-but- not-enough -to-be-a-model-or somethinglikethat. Sometimes I am afraid that every woman is identified as member of a sort of “beauty social class”: the stunning , the very pretty, the acceptable ones, till the “not attractive but still fuckable” and so on. Now I have started to reject and refuse all this, but or much time I have felt really inconfortable with my height , doing absurd things like checking if a I was the smallest one in a group of girlfriends: I was afraid to stand next to a tall girl, I was sure to appear pathetic.

  64. Love this post! I could totally related to the sense of being in some sort of unspoken competition wth other women. Letting go of that has been a crucial step towards becoming a more secure person, because even when I “win,” someone prettier could walk in the room at any second! Appearance is not a safe base for my self esteem.

  65. Stacia said: Is it possible it’s even more of a societal crime when a conventionally pretty woman gets fat?
    ——————————–
    People behave as if you have failed in your moral duty to be decorative! And that duty is all the more weighty (ha-ha) the more decorative you started out.

  66. Sometimes I am afraid that every woman is identified as member of a sort of “beauty social class”: the stunning , the very pretty, the acceptable ones, till the “not attractive but still fuckable” and so on. Now I have started to reject and refuse all this, but or much time I have felt really inconfortable with my height , doing absurd things like checking if a I was the smallest one in a group of girlfriends: I was afraid to stand next to a tall girl, I was sure to appear pathetic.

    Sandra! This is so interesting. I have also had this idea of an imagined hierarchy of attractiveness in my head for quite some time, but I’ve never heard it laid out so clearly.

    Also: so interesting you were insecure about being short. I’m around 5’8 (funny story- I’m 21 and had figured I was done growing, but I actually grew an inch in the last year!!) but I have almost always been the tallest friend, and I’ve always ALWAYS felt like a giant. I often felt sad standing next to my shorter friends because I was sure that I looked like a mountain next to their pixie-ish cute desirable frames!!!

  67. Gottalovemn, thank you for your feed back.

    I know my case is curious, and I’ve ever been someway conscious that most girls are not so worried about their height (they are much more about their weight, breast size etc.)
    Anyhow, I know it sounds ridiculous, was sure that this defect was the main reason I was out of the highest ranks of these beauty social classes I mentioned.
    I almost thought, as the post suggests, that any tall girl like you was born with the aim of making me look like a flea. An insignificant, ugly flea.
    And if I had heard word like yours from a tall girl ” I’ve always ALWAYS felt like a giant. I often felt sad standing next to my shorter friends because I was sure that I looked like a mountain next to their pixie-ish cute desirable frames”, …I would have thought “yeah, she says so, but indeed she pities me”.
    I’ ve fought against these feelings a lot of time, and I still do. But at least, now I’m trying to learn to think about myself just as a person, a human being, who deserves love and respect as anybody else, and not like the “”pretty but short, what a pity” in this meaningless daily beauty contest that seem to involve the female half of the Western world.
    Now I wouldn’t be afraid anymore of you and your 5’8. Thank you again.

  68. Interesting post and responses. I am not sure where I am in this one. I have always considered myself to be not very attractive and decided I must find my worth elsewhere. I was smart, kind, helpful and tried to be a good person. I was taunted and bullied a lot in school and became suicidal. Being a chicken saved me at that point. People were more forgiving by senior year but by then I was sure everyone was looking down at me. There were a few very attractive girls and I was jealous that they could do no wrong. I didn’t hold it against them but the essential unfairness burned. I felt completely written off before I even spoke. For me being invisible was sad but also a relief. I would come to realize through talking to others being “pretty” or “beautiful” offers no safety, security or reward when we’re all just objects to be enjoyed then discarded according to whim. I realized that no would ever write sonnets about me but at least I wasn’t dealing with angry guys who felt slighted because I had the nerve to not be interested in them. I still resent the idea you can be brilliant at what you do, a veritable saint in character or both but you must look damn good doing it. The saving thing for me was realizing I didn’t look at anyone in my life through that lens. The people I admired most were amazing mostly at being themselves. Who they were completely transcended the arrangement of features or what style of clothing they wore. I remember the friends who could always make me laugh, or listened to me vent, or just had a kind word on a crappy day. I know I don’t say thank you enough or tell my friends why I appreciate them enough. I try not jumping to quick conclusions about anybody because of what I learned. Sorry this ran so long, I’m mostly a lurker.

  69. @AnotherKate So well put! I remember so well wanting to be that chick that walks into a bar and all the dudes flock.

    Having a friend that seemed not to appreciate it made it worse for me.

    Of course, in hindsight, she was right to be annoyed and I was lucky not to be looked at twice in that situation.

    *sigh* Why couldn’t I have been this smart at 16? LOL
    ———————————————————————-
    This post is beautiful, and I’ve bookmarked it because my beautiful daughters are only 3 & 4 now but with wildly different body types … they will both need to read this one day.

    The very thought of zero-sum beauty gave me chills.

  70. Lori, on July 31st, 2009 at 10:10 am Said:
    Stacia said: Is it possible it’s even more of a societal crime when a conventionally pretty woman gets fat?
    ——————————–
    People behave as if you have failed in your moral duty to be decorative! And that duty is all the more weighty (ha-ha) the more decorative you started out.

    I’m just rereading this beautiful (hee!) post because someone linked to it in the comment thread on the “We Saw The Epidemic, and It Was Us” post, and this is such a good point. The “she used to be so pretty, but she’s really let herself go” type of reasoning pisses me off to no end – and this is an important reason why, but I hadn’t been able to articulate it as well as you did.

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