My first kiss was unremarkable except for the fact that it was mine: 4-H camp, nighttime, crickets, slow motion, etc. I’ll remember it forever, of course, but I will also remember what came next. We managed to break from our starry-eyed hold to go back to the main camp for movie night. We rigged up a makeshift blanket-nest, then he then got us some popcorn. Upon his return, I thanked him, and in a dead-earnest manner that can only be successfully performed if you are a mild-mannered, tender-hearted son of a hog farmer—which he was—he looked me in the eye and quietly said, “I’d do anything for you.”
I froze. I recognized the winsome romanticism of it all, of course, and wasn’t untouched by it. But I remember feeling his eyes on me and thinking that now we were something out of a movie: My gallant hero would do “anything” for me (he’d even fetch popcorn!), which made me his heroine, and heroines were there to be looked at, and heroines were pretty, maybe even beautiful, and I froze and thought, He might be thinking I am pretty right now, at this very moment, and I didn’t know what to do.
I was 14, and in the following years I learned how to not freeze in the face of sweet nothings. But that frozen sensation—the sensation of having been caught in the act of playing someone who is there to be looked at—creeps up nearly every time a man I’m dating looks at me and says, You’re beautiful.
Please do not misunderstand me: It’s not that I don’t want to hear those words from a person I’m intimately involved with. In fact, I want to hear it very much; at times, the longing can be exquisite. Yet when I hear you’re beautiful, more often than not I feel as though I need to stop whatever I’m doing in order to continue being beautiful.
If observing ourselves in the mirror makes us aware of the potential of being looked at, hearing you’re beautiful seals the deal: You are being looked at. It’s with approval, to be sure, but that approval can be instantaneously overriden by the consciousness of being observed. In physics, the observer effect states that the very act of observation changes that which is being observed. In romance, I feel that change creep through my body the instant I recognize that I am being observed. Without having actually seen it, I'm guessing it's a variation of my mirror face: My eyes open wider, my smile arranges itself into an invitation, my belly sucks itself in. You are beautiful is my body’s cue to begin the performance of pretty, a role I fill in a last-minute cast shuffle, hoping the performance can be seen before whatever fleeting beauty the graces loaned me is spirited away.
And, of course, the act of observation not only changes that which is being observed; it can also kill it. For I know that while the companions who have uttered this have meant it, I also know they were speaking not of my God-given face—which is pleasant enough but is in no immediate danger of launching a thousand ships—but of whatever quality it was that drew them to me in the first place. I know You’re beautiful has been the way a fellow here and there over the years has let me know that I am beautiful to him—that I am special, that I am being seen under the incandescent glow brought only by infatuation, or, on occasion, love. I know that when spoken between people under that incandescence, You’re beautiful is not so much a comment on anyone’s looks as it is code for: You, at this moment, captivate me. And the minute the performance of beauty rides roughshod over the captivation that prompted those words, beauty dwindles. Depending on the fellow’s aesthetic tastes, he might find me pretty regardless, for prettiness is not as rapid a shape-shifter as beauty. But if a man tells me I am beautiful because I am being myself, and then I stop being myself, I smother my own glow in trying to hold onto it.
I’d like to start seeing You’re beautiful in terms not of theater but of alchemy, the creation of that golden Venusian glow that doesn’t exist until two people look at one another and pronounce beauty. And, as it happens, I’m in a relationship that happily draws from the school of alchemy over theater. Perhaps my inability to see You’re beautiful in that light all along was immaturity, or a matter of the fellows’ intonation, or simply not being in the right relationships.
But I suspect my frozen reaction to You’re beautiful wasn’t about the words, or even about the men in question, but about the schismatic approach so many of us—including me—have to beauty. For as much as we wholly believe that beauty is about a spirit, a moment, the shape of a smile, a glint in an eye, a roll of a hip, a flip of one’s hair, a caress, a held gaze, a freedom of movement, a peace with one’s self, we also know that’s not the whole story. We know that on the other side of beauty lies the parts that alternately delight and trouble us: the taming of the hair, the whittling of the waist, the sandblasting of the skin, the pinching of a tweezer, and the constantly shifting ground we all occupy within the realm of this side of the schism. When I hear You’re beautiful, unless I know where the other person stands in the vast space beauty occupies, I can’t know what I'm actually hearing. Freezing at least fixes my own footing in that space.
Freezing, as it happens, is another concern of physics: It is a slowing of particles’ movement. When particles slow, they lose energy. When particles lose energy, they lose heat. Freezing is the opposite of incandescence, and while I know which state I’d choose given the option, I also know which one my body has chosen for me before.
This post is a part of the monthly Feminist Fashion Bloggers collection. This month's prompt: dating and relationships.