You know how sometimes I get all navel-gazing introspective and write posts that are like 3 bazillion words long? Yeah. This one’s like that. It’s also kind of disjointed – sort of a verbal barfing of some stuff I needed to write down in order to sort through, and now going back through to edit it just seems like TOO MUCH WORK. So go get some coffee. I’ll wait.
Back now? Ok.
Michelle over at The Fat Nutritionist wrote a big ol’ post the other day about how she was not pretty as a child/young teen and then suddenly in her teens she became “pretty” and then as she got older she learned that she could put “pretty” on and take it off again. (She called it being in “beauty drag,” and I’m TOTALLY STEALING THAT TERM.) And she tied it all in with being fat, and how conventional “prettiness” offsets certain fat-related things she has to deal with, and how being “pretty” makes you more visible in the word and all kinds of other good stuff you should totally go read. No really, go. I’ll wait.
Back now? Ok.
I read that post, and found myself fighting tears at the end of it, partly because so much of it echoed my own experiences: being nerdy, unpretty, etc., as a kid, and then realizing somewhere in my teens that the ugly duckling wasn’t so ugly anymore. And partly I found myself fighting tears because I had one of those “click” moments, where disparate things in my brain suddenly come together and I have a complete picture, where before there were only miscellaneous puzzle pieces.
I remember “turning” pretty. Some kids turn 13, some turn 16, some turn “old enough to date” or “old enough to drive.” I “turned pretty.” I remember being super-young and in college, and looking like everyone else. (I looked 20 when I was 12, no lie. Even to look at old photos of myself, sometimes they’re hard to date unless my sisters are in them, in which case I can estimate my age based off of theirs. Either that or the hair. I can narrow my age based on my hair style, too.) I remember talking with boys in college and not even realizing that they were flirting with me (thinking I was older), because I did not perceive myself as pretty. It just wasn’t in my realm of experience. And the first time a college boy asked me out, I was floored. Really? Me? He thought *I* was cute? (I had the good sense to tell him that thanks, but I was 14, and if he wanted to retract the offer, no hard feelings. He was TOTALLY flustered, and did in fact retract the offer – which actually made me feel better, because I figured it meant he wasn’t a total perv.)
I remember the year between 15 and 16, when I decided that I was tired of hanging around on the outside of things, and that I was going to be Different. I remember watching the popular girls as though I were studying a nature documentary (which might not have been totally inaccurate – there was a lot of viciousness there), and “putting on” a New Me – a Me that fit in with those girls, but a Me that was certainly a construct. “Be yourself” was not a motto I lived by.
Beauty became something I put on every day: I used to get up at 5am to fix my hair and makeup before leaving for school at 7am. (And most of those days, I had one or two “normal” classes, and then a bunch of dance classes, which killed the hair and makeup anyway.) And as I put on that New Me over and over, bits and pieces of it started to meld into my own personality. It was like the attitudes and outlooks sort of seeped into my pores and became part of me. For a long time, I could point to certain personality traits and attitudes and tell you which ones were organically mine and which ones were grafts. Those grafts had become a part of me in many ways, but they were still somehow different – vaguely alien, like a bad movie about mind-melds or body takeovers. And yet, I couldn’t ditch them: I expressed them reflexively, as though they had always been there. (At this point, many of them are gone, and the ones that stuck have been fully integrated. We are the Borg: resistance is futile.)
One of the things I absorbed was an astounding level of cynicism and rage (those are pretty much gone, now). I was so, so, SO angry. Just in general. In retrospect, I think I was angry because I felt like I had to become someone else to be liked; I felt like my original self was not likable or good enough or cool enough. And I was angry that the same sorts of people who were so cruel to me in elementary school – cruel enough that I used to go to the nurse’s office EVERY DAY complaining of vomiting so that they would send me home, cruel enough that my mother eventually decided to homeschool me (and my sisters) rather than allow me to have hysterical breakdowns in the car on the way to school on a semi-regular basis – the sort of people who treated me so badly were now the ones who treated me well, who accepted me into their inner circle, as though I’d always belonged there. But I knew, deep down, that I didn’t belong there: I was passing for pretty. I was passing for cool. I was passing, and I knew that eventually I would be found out.
And I was angry that with the advent of my “pretty,” as Michelle wrote,
I was highly visible, something about me was now considered highly desirable, and I was no longer just vulnerable to attack — I was actively targeted because of the way I looked.
I developed (some might say OVER-developed) a “fuck-you” attitude. From somewhere deep inside spiraled up the feeling, “If you try to hurt me, you might be bigger and stronger, and you might be able to hurt me – but the police will find you tomorrow by the scratches on your face and the fact that you will be missing an eye.” There is an axiom about how there are no strangers; only friends you haven’t met yet. I felt just the opposite: I assumed you were out to do me harm (emotional, mental or physical) until you demonstrated otherwise. I developed an incredibly accurate sixth sense (which now serves me well in the online dating world) about who was a danger and who was safe, but I always preferred to err on the side of “danger.”
And I was angry that all that felt necessary to me: it felt necessary to assume the worst and hope to be proven wrong. I was angry that when I was homely I was a target for humiliation, and that when I was pretty (but passing, I still believed), I became a different kind of target, for a different kind of humiliation.
I got angrier and angrier. I developed that cold sort of rage, the kind that sits in your chest and causes people to avoid you (except those with the same cold anger – we always found each other). That worked for me in some ways: I very seldom was (am) harrassed by men, and the ones who start usually back down in a hurry as soon as I look at them (with my patented Death-Ray-Please-Piss-Me-Off-I-Haven’t-Killed-Anyone-Yet-Today-AND-I-WANT-TO stare). I was two people: the person who wanted desperately to be liked, to be cool, to be PRETTY, and the person who wanted everyone else to leave me the fuck alone.
Michelle writes in her post about playing around with the levels of visibility she could achieve, depending on what clothing and makeup she wore or didn’t wear. For me, makeup became a sort of armor. The more aggressive and dramatic my makeup, the angrier I was. I still have a specific look that I think of as my “fuck you” look, which I wore daily my last year or so in college: dark, blood-red lipstick, no blush or eyeliner, lots of black mascara. I used to wear it all the time. I still wear it on occasion, but those occasions are (thankfully) rare.
I’ve been told by men I’ve dated that they were intimidated by me at first; that if we hadn’t met purposefully (on an internet date, for instance) or if we hadn’t been friends already, that they never would have approached me. I’ve been told, in various ways, and always by men, that I’m incredibly pretty, but somehow distant on first meeting: that I seem out of their league, that they feel as though *I* think they don’t measure up. They never are able to pinpoint something I’ve said or done – in fact, when I’ve asked, they’ve all responded with a variation on, “No, you were really nice and friendly and outgoing . . . it was just sort of an impression I had.” And in fact, the only times I ever get hit on in random places like the grocery or hardware store are the times when I’m having a bad-ish day, when I’ve left the house in sweatpants or overalls, with my hair in a messy 30-second braid or piled on my head with a bunch of pins and – this is the one constant – no makeup on at all. No armor.
I wear makeup as armor. Even when I’m not angry, even when my makeup is soft and pretty and stereotypically feminine, it is an armor that makes me both more visible and less approachable. (Sort of like a puffer fish or an animal that draws itself up to be noticed – and avoided. *wry grin*) But the funny thing is, I’m not even conscious of it. I don’t put on makeup to drive people away. Most mornings I put on makeup to look pretty. But in reading Michelle’s post I was suddenly aware of all these associations – associations that I didn’t even realize I had. (Well, beyond the obvious “fuck you” makeup, anyway.)
And I wear makeup to counter the fact that I am fat. Oh, not DeathFat, certainly. But not thin, or even average. And there is that part of me that still thinks I’m passing for pretty, that part of me that still thinks that my date will suddenly look up from his dinner and say, “Oh my god! I didn’t realize you weren’t really pretty! But now that I have better lighting – you’re totally not!” – there is that part of me that wears makeup as a deflection. I have Such A Pretty Face. See, society will forgive a lot of my weight if I’m PRETTY. I’m treated better when I look pretty than when I don’t (and I don’t think I’m unique in that). (True story: I have had people – more than one – say to me, “But you’re not fat – you’re pretty!” *snort* As though I can’t be both, and if I’m one, I must not be the other.) I figure my pretty face “buys” me about 30 pounds. People treat me as though I’m about 30 pounds thinner than I am, as a general rule – when I’m wearing makeup.
And so I protect that pretty face with a certain ferocity. Even though it makes me both more visible and (apparently) more distant – because it also makes me more acceptable and provides me with armor at the same time.
And all of this is coming up because of the change in my eating. I eat to hide. I stay fat to hide, and at the same time, I wear makeup to be visible, and at the same time I project an intimidating attitude (at least to men – women don’t seem to have that problem with me, but I don’t know if it’s the men’s problem, or if I project it more around men). No wonder my brain is all confused.
But I wonder sometimes, if I will ever stop feeling like I’m “passing” for pretty. It would be nice. But it seems so foreign that I can’t even imagine the ability to imagine what it would feel like.
See? I told you I had Thinky Thoughts this weekend.