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.
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.