Friday, January 21, 2011

Jennifer Miller, 35, Single Mom/Superhero

Jen and I became friends in the gifted and talented class freshman year of high school. I was the new girl, and entering a new gifted class meant reconfiguring my assumptions of what “smart girls” were. I eyed Jen with curiosity: With her wavy auburn hair, enormous green eyes, and killer curves, she defied my expectations of what my smart-girl cohorts should be. She rode horses, went out with older boys who could drive, and had a sharp, sassy sense of humor that carried a hint of the “bad girl,” even though she was just as beholden to the rules as I was.

At the time, I looked at Jen and saw the impossible: She was smart
and beautiful, something that seemed beyond my reach, available only to students of, say, Sweet Valley High. Yet here she was, in my midst, first in the classroom, then in each other’s homes for slumber parties, later in one another’s cars as we drove around suburban Portland looking for just enough trouble to keep us feeling saucy. My envy of her never overtook our friendship, but for me it was a part of our connection, me always looking toward her for guidance on glamour, beauty, and womanhood. (She gave me my first-ever sex tip when we were seniors, which involved a soft-serve ice cream cone.) My mind permitted me to view her as both smart and beautiful, even as I felt that having both was somehow forbidden to me. The first time someone asked us if we were sisters, I was thrilled—it was one of the moments that allowed me to see that maybe part of what I envied in her, I actually possessed but was unable to see. I never had her Mae West-tinged attitude (or the mile-long eyelashes to match), but having her as a role model through the tricky waters of gifted girldom did me pretty well. Sixteen years after high school graduation, we chatted about beauty, brains, and the intersection between the two. 

Jen and daughter Annika.

On Feeling Beautiful
In all honesty, it’s been a long time since I truly felt beautiful. If pressed, I’d say I felt "sassy" a couple of weeks ago [see picture below], but I don’t know that I’ve felt really beautiful in years. Which I’m sure stems from my inability to like myself without some kind of male approval, but I’m working on that! Sadly, I think at least 80% of how I feel about my appearance comes from male approval. I seem to need a lot more in the way of compliments and approval than most people. I don’t know if that stems from it not happening in my childhood, or from middle/high school when I felt like a raging geek. It makes it hard in relationships, because I feel like if I don’t get compliments, then he doesn’t find me attractive anymore, even if that’s not the case. Caused more than one argument…

And the first time I felt beautiful? My first wedding. I think a big part of it was that I was in love, and marrying a man that I thought was way out of my league. Hindsight, I know… It was amazing to feel absolutely beautiful. I think it wouldn’t have mattered if my hair was a wreck and my makeup didn’t work—I felt like I was floating.

On Hearing “You’re Beautiful”
I blush. Like a total dork. And I make some kind of sarcastic comment about getting eyes checked. The only time it differs is when it’s my daughter telling me, and then I know she’s wanting something! My parents’ attitude toward beauty was pretty much to ignore it. Good hygiene, yes. Compliments for no reason? Oh, hell no!

A very sweet, older gentleman, in his 80s, maybe, stopped me at the grocery store one day when I was totally grubby—jeans, hoodie, hat—and told me I had beautiful eyes. I almost cried, and I’ve held onto it for a long time. The first time someone told me I remember someone telling me I was beautiful, it was senior year, and I’m pretty sure the guy said it so that I would write his English paper for him. But I do remember it gave me butterflies and warm fuzzies.

On Pretty vs. Smart
I was the “chubby, oversmart, drama geek.” I guess I still think of myself that way. I don’t know that I find beauty to be an asset. In my life, I’ve gotten a hell of a lot farther on my brains and perseverance than on my looks. I almost exploited my looks for personal gain once—I auditioned to be a stripper. I think I auditioned to know whether I was “good enough,” though I don’t think it would have meant anything to me at that point in life but being able to pay the bills. I didn’t take the job.

The idea that girls could be pretty or smart but not both? I know I absorbed that message. I was smart! I think it affected my attitude by making me try to hide my brains so that maybe people would think I was beautiful. I always tried hard in classes, but I’d also try to hide grades on papers, keep my head down so the teachers didn’t feel the need to praise me out loud, that kind of thing. I’m not sure how I got rid of that idea, but I do know that now I’m very proud of being smarter than the average bear… I try to get it through to my daughter that it’s cool to be smart. She’s in second grade, and loves school—goes to the third-grade classroom for math and the fourth-grade classroom for reading/writing. She has the advantage of also being tall, thin, and athletic to go along with her brains. She’ll be all-around awesome.

On The Most Beautiful Person in the World
My daughter, Annika, is naturally the most beautiful person I’ve ever laid eyes on. She has all the "physical" beauties that society wants—and I need another shotgun or two before she starts dating!—with long legs, super-fast metabolism, long hair, sparkly eyes. But more importantly, she has a generous spirit, does not judge anyone, and has never met a person that she hasn’t said many fabulous things about. I tell her she’s beautiful every day. I never heard compliments—unless it regarded grades—from my parents. I want the polar opposite for my daughter. I want her to never for a second doubt how much I love her, or how incredibly beautiful, smart, charming, and talented she is. And it’s my job to make sure she knows.

On the Beauty Ritual
I think 90% of me feeling beautiful comes from prep. If I take a hot bubble bath—with wine, please!—use body butter, straighten my hair, put on makeup and use perfume, I feel a hell of a lot prettier than when I just shower, do the bare minimum, and use deodorant. But in reality, I look pretty much the same both ways. I never have time for myself—it’s really rare that I can even find half an hour to devote to a book or an episode of Glee without interruption. I’m not sure what it is about the ritual that works, unless it’s just that I can lock the door and ignore everyone else and have a little me time.

On Confidence
I think I’ve actually gotten more attractive in my 30s. I have a bit more confidence, and I know who I am and what I want. Confidence goes a long way toward projecting a good self-image. An average/plain woman can come across as gorgeous if she has confidence. When I’m in a good/sassy/confident mood, I feel better about me—and I feel more attractive. I wish I knew how to make it happen more often…

One thing I’ve learned since high school is that the only person whose opinion of me really matters is me. If I’m happy with me, and proud of me, and sure of me, whatever anyone else thinks is nothing but window dressing. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be complimented, or that I won’t solicit opinions from whomever I’m with as to how they prefer my hair, clothes, etc. But in the end, it all boils down to being able to answer “Would you be proud to have you as a friend/mother/daughter/sister?” with a resounding YES.

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