Pretty Cynical

Disclaimer: this is still a hard subject for me to talk about, which makes me feel stupid. I hate admitting that I’m easily influenced by completely artificial constructs, most of which probably have something to do with the media. Also, I’m totally old enough to know better. And guys out there? I guarantee some of this won’t even make sense.

At 15, I found social concerns far more captivating than, say, Algebra. There were the usual distractions—what to wear, who to sit with, how to start a conversation. However, all these things paled next to that ravening concern that blindsides so many teenage girls. Being Pretty.

I observed early on that being pretty was a tricky situation, a balancing act that called for absolute precision, and the footholds weren’t always obvious. After a good deal of thought, I developed a theory. It was good to be pretty—but not too pretty. It was good to be not-ugly. It was bad if the boys liked you more than they liked other girls, because then the other girls might hate you.

I myself was not a hater of pretty girls. They kind of scared me, but in a mesmerizing way, like poisonous flowers and solar eclipses are sometimes scary. More over, I felt sorry for the girls who drifted too far toward the stunning end of the spectrum and so, had to be punished for it. This is most apparent in the case of Rosie—to this day, one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen in real life, and in 10th grade, virtually friendless:

Angela says she’s jealous of Rosie, because all the boys like Rosie because Rosie is beautiful and friendly and knows how to make people pay attention to her. I’m not jealous of Rosie. I mean, I am. But I wouldn’t want to be like her.

And even Angela began to notice, after a few weeks, how Rosie eats lunch at a table by herself, walks through the halls alone, has no real friends. Shark-Boy’s her friend when we’re all in PE, but outside of class he barely glances at her.

All those guys who flirt with her, they’ve got other friends, real friends, and once the bell rings, she doesn’t exist anymore.

Pretty much everything about this troubled me, but the most troubling part was my own failure to befriend Rosie. I wanted to ask her to eat lunch with us. I wanted—badly, even—to talk to Angela about the Whole Rosie Predicament, but I didn’t know what to say.

The beauty conversation was one you were only allowed to have if you were tearing yourself down. I knew I didn’t want to get into that, so it was easier to avoid it. Subsequently, I kept quiet about Rosie. I refused to admit that I ever even thought about clothing or makeup or boys. Those things were “shallow,” and also, if you admitted to anyone—even in private, even in a whisper—that you might possibly be pretty, you were clearly stuck-up and full of yourself.

Then, boys started liking me—not all the time, but enough to make things uncomfortable. I did the only sensible thing. I freaked out, went to Target, and bought a terrible hat,* which I used to hide my hair and a good portion of my face.

terrible hat

Couple this with well-cultivated silence and a staunch refusal to make eye contact, and you have the formula for invisibility. It helped. Sort of.

This next excerpt is from the Hat Era and is as close as I came that year to discussing any of my attending beauty-panic. Also, it’s pretty representative of my 15-year-old propensity to leap from topic to topic in the style of a flying squirrel.

My mom said that she’s going to buy me an alarm clock. She told me the other day that I was like the Snow Queen, cold and untouchable. That boys might be frightened of my tiny wrists, how smooth my skin is. Sometimes she says these things like they come out of nowhere.

But I can only see it the other way, like I am Jane (It doesn’t matter which one. They are always the girl-next-door). When I was little, I had a book about Plain Jane. Her bangs hanging down in her eyes, she said, “I wish he loved me.” And the fairy-godmother’s hobby was making wishes come true. I haven’t got a fairy-godmother and the boys around here smoke too much pot.

I want to point out that none of this is precisely true (except, my mom really said that, and I had the book with the fairy-godmother, and the part about the boys smoking pot—that was true). I wasn’t plain, I wasn’t Jane, and I wasn’t the girl next-door. I was pretty, which is scary to say even now. Also, I lived halfway up the side of a rather treacherous mountain and was no one’s next-door neighbor.

More importantly, the whole time I was writing it, I didn’t really believe it. But even in the privacy of my own journal, I had to go for the tear-down. I couldn’t talk about what it meant for boys to like me, because I might be punished. I couldn’t talk about how it felt, because that would mean admitting that boys might possibly (sometimes? a little?) find me attractive.

It was two more years before I could think critically about the hazards of beauty without feeling like I was doing something wrong, because part of the beauty game is that you never acknowledge you’re playing it. Even now, I want to reduce it, just throw up my hands and say “Yeah, fifteen was a really weird age.” But that’s not adequate. The game was a kind of survival exercise, and I was always amazed that we played it right in front of boys, parents, teachers, without them even noticing.

I can look at it now and say (emphatically, if not objectively) that it was a bad game. Although the rules were nonsensical, the message was clear: Beautiful was what you were supposed to want, and it was also the worst thing you could be.

*Exhibit A: Hat I wore for roughly eight months, in order to diminish attractiveness and prevent scrutiny. Also, photographic evidence that I look exactly like my father.

25 thoughts on “Pretty Cynical

  1. Hi bren. You look like one of my daughters. She’s not talking to me so ouch! You were and still are pretty. I’m a bit worried about those wrists though. If you can handle my big nose I’ll overlook the wrists.

  2. So much of this summons ghosts of my teen-hood. I have diaries that are filled cover-to-cover with less than genuine lamentations of my daily struggle with anorexia. Secretly, I relished the attentions I received from concerned parents/friends/doctors/shrinks.
    I find those journals (locked away in a bin somewhere in Mississippi) so intimidating that I’ve left them there. Unread for years. But maybe I can approach them from your perspective and cut myself a little slack.

    • It’s funny to realize how less-than-genuine I often was–even with no intended audience. Maybe I just had a false sense of always being watched. I think that must peak in the teenage years :D
      And I’m finding more and more that slack is crucial when I think about my adolescence. I was growing up and figuring things out, which, as much as it kills me to say it . . . kind of meant screwing up a lot.

  3. Oh man, I’m afraid to look at the diary I kept when I was 14/15/less than human. I seem to recall that it was Maggie, absolutely untapped, and that that was a fearsome and terrible thing that took several strong years of Anglo-Saxon history and retail to tone down.
    But this is such a true post. I’ve often bragged that I’m cute but not beautiful, so people can still like me — girls don’t hate me and guys aren’t afraid to have their wives see them talking to me.

    • Trust me, there were plen-ty of less-than-human moments. Of course, in retrospective posts, I get to pick and choose ;)
      I will admit, sometimes I’m tempted to share some of my more irascible stuff, just for posterity.

  4. Ah hah! So that’s why I was always a misfit–too beautiful for my own good (j/k). No, really, I remember this feeling well. I, as an artistic teen and, well, a girl (as much as I like to call myself ‘one of the guys’) was always oddly fascinated with the ‘pretty girls’. The ones with the willowy figures and the long legs and the shiny hair. I used to think they lived some kind of charmed life, like a fairy tale. I grew up in a really image conscious family and it was often beaten into my head that being ‘pretty’ would get me farther in life. Why settle for being a size 7 when I could be a size 4? Why not wear more color, pinker make-up? But I did the opposite. I got angry..resented this notion of being pretty because it was always forced on me as something I should be. So I think in some ways I did everything I could NOT to be pretty–wearing the biggest band t-shirts I could find, shredding all my jeans, letting my hair go into dreadlocks, etc. On one hand, I wanted to be invisible..and on the other, I hated it. I put it mildly..very conflicted on the whole beauty thing. To the point that I blasted Hole and ranted about anorexic girls in magazines… yet often went on starvation type diets myself. Yep, even I..the self proclaimed anti-mainstream chick was seduced by the media to a certain degree.
    So don’t feel dumb. It happens to MANY of us. Thanks again for another thought-provoking post. It’s important to remember these feelings when writing teen characters…no matter how much we want to forget.

    • Especially in 10th grade, I *loved* watching the girls who worked at being pretty. At that age, I was a shredded-jeans-and-huge-shirts girl too–but I secretly wanted to be the other kind. Later, I started wearing makeup and clothes that fit and stopped hiding my hair, but it took so long for that to even start seeming like an option.

    • Re: Being around that age myself…
      Thanks! I’m glad you liked the entry (it’s so weird talking about ideas, because I’m always thinking “what if I am the only person in the world who is preoccupied with this?”).

  5. Wow … this post really resonated with me. Please forgive my anonymity, but I have a hard time with this one also, for all the same reasons you said. Except here’s the hook: I’m a guy.
    I remember the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school with this strange clarity. I got my braces off. I was allowed to buy my own clothes instead of wearing my brother’s ratty hand-me-downs, and I filled out some. When I went back to school, I was totally unprepared for what was about to happen. I went from invisible—and more than slightly nerdy—to one of the “hot” upperclassmen.
    My own looks were initially a source of great confusion for me. I didn’t believe it. I thought people were playing some kind of trick on me, that there was this big joke, and the moment I started to play along, everyone would laugh and point. Over time, I accepted it … and very shortly after that came the Ego Years. My friends and family surely recognize these years, and I’m still a little ashamed of some of the things I did and some of the ways I learned to use my own appearance.
    Then came the Accidental Pregnancy Year, followed by the Baby Years. You can imagine.
    But I always had a mixed opinion of my own looks. It was always gratifying to receive attention, from men and women. I think anyone who says it isn’t isn’t being completely honest. But then … there was a feeling that I didn’t earn any of it—and it’s not enough for a guy to be attractive. We are expected to earn our place in the world through brains and brawn, not beauty. And yet, sometimes I knew people wanted to be close to me simply because of it. I know that sounds horrid and conceited and all those awful things, but it’s really not because a truth is a truth, and recognition of a truth (like you’re being pretty) is value-neutral.
    Much of the heat from those years has worn off. My wife jokes that when she met me, she couldn’t stand me. Before we were dating, she once got drunk and yelled at me about my “conceited physicality” and angrily swore that she would NEVER be caught dead with a guy like me. I’m aging now, and I can finally get some perspective on it and the ways that I was terrified of it, the ways I used it and enjoyed it, and the ways I lost a bit of respect for myself sometimes. But mostly, it just squats there in my past, little talked about, rarely recognized.

  6. Okay, I know I’m joining the conversation late here, but when I read “terrible hat,” I seriously expected some wide-brimmed apparition with plastic flowers tucked behind a ribbon. Alas!

  7. I really connect with the way you describe high school. A lot of the things you talk about, I remember feeling and thinking. I think you should write a non-fantasy YA about high school. I just know it would be gorgeous and bittersweet and sad. And I love all those things :)

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