Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Hearing "You're Beautiful" Makes Me Freeze


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.


  1. so let me be the first one to say that you write beautifully.

    A tip which I just got from a friend of mine for self review ( I don't plan to do it though ) is to mediate.


  2. Beautifully written!

    "the very act of observation changes that which is being observed" - the crux of why I never really "got" acting. I performed...but as soon as I got in to character, I started observing myself, and then suddenly started sucking.

  3. So this post is beautiful. This is so amazingly written and so TRUE! I've always struggled to express why I feel so uncomfortable when someone says "You're beautiful" but this pretty much sums it up perfectly.

  4. I completely agree with what Frances Joy, it makes me uncomfortable too and this is beautifully articulated. Not that I can remember the last time I was told i was beautiful. I have gone to some effort to make it known that i prefer specific compliments rather than sweeping statements because they make me feel less self conscious. I can wholeheartedly agree that a dress emphasises my shape, or that the dimples in my cheek are cute, but tell me that I am sexy or beautiful or even pretty and I end up feeling awkward.

  5. Lovely post. I loved your thoughts on performing pretty, and how the performance almost inevitably kills whatever endearing, natural thing we are doing that our significant other found so captivating.

  6. Yeah. This is why I intensely dislike those supposedly empowering sites that claim that EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL. Apart from being not true, this notion is terribly reductive, and reinforces the idea that women's only value is is in their beauty.

  7. Do you know what cured me of this? whispering under my breath to myself 'you are beautiful'. It didn't involve a mirror and it reinforced the fact that beauty actually is about one's spirit.

  8. I have at least three things to add to this.

    1) It happens to men too. I've told my husband he's beautiful (we have the same gendered use of this word in Norwegian, complete with 'handsome' as the one you're supposed to use about men). He kind of freezes and starts to ponder what exactly it is that makes him beautiful [to me]. And I guess he tries to enhance it, and keep it, and all that. I'd like to add that he's not exactly vain. He's reasonably clean, shaves some days and not others, wear clothes that fits him and buys them himself etc. He wants to be beautiful, but he doesn't see that there are things to do about one's appearance to make him so. Also, I tend to say it when he's naked, so it's not very much he can do about that aspect of it ;)

    I'm trying not to do this to him anymore, but sometimes, it's overwhelming. I need to say it more than he needs to hear it, even though I know his reaction, and have often reacted that way myself. But. Nowadays, if he says it to me, it's easier for me to just say thank you, or smile. We have a relationship based on trust and love, so there's not this feeling of ... I'm not sure what it's called. Invasiveness? when he says it to me.

    Also, I feel quite secure in my beauty, such as it is. I don't wear any makeup, but I dress nice and add earrings and a fake flower in my hair, etc. So it's not like I don't care about how I look, it's mostly that I'm allergic to almost everything with perfume and crap in it. Haha ;)

    The more true reason I don't like make-up, is that I find it oppressive and consider it a waste of money. One of the links you had a week or two ago lead to a story of two british women who swapped beauty regimes for a day. What was most striking about that was the fact that on average, a woman spends 100,000£ on makeup during her life. That's completely insane and it's total bullshit for society to tell women we need to do that.

    2) Someone who can tell me 'You are X' could just as well be saying 'You are NOT X'. Both sentences are judgemental (not sure if I use the word right here, I hope you catch my drift). This person is evaluating me and saying words that are defining me. That IS uncomfortable, no matter if it's X or NOT X.

    3) I tried to tell the teachers at daycare that it made my daughter really uncomfortable to be greeted with: 'Good morning, you look so nice today!' I tried to make them say 'Good morning, it makes me happy to see you (today)' which is what I think they were really trying to say. But since girls are encouraged to dress well and be pretty, it's considered acceptable to evaluate them on their appearance EVEN WHEN they are as young as 1 or 2 years old. They did not do this to boys, except when they were exceptionally dressed up (birthdays, etc.). I didn't become aware of her uncomfortable-ness untill she was maybe 2 or 2 and a half. Now she's 4 and LOVES to hear people tell her how beautiful or pretty she is. I kinda hate that, and it makes me sad how little I have been able to influence her in this, even though I've been aware since before she was born.

  9. Vishal, thank you! I have a hard time meditating too but I have zero doubts that it would do good things for me. (One of my idols, David Lynch, seems to have stopped filmmaking to...meditate. Hey, works for him!)

    Cameo, thank you! You know, I remember Bob (!) saying that sometimes the best performances were ones where we didn't think they were all that great. Because when we think we're really "on," that means we're truly observing ourselves. He had a lot of crap to say but that made sense to me.

    Frances Joy, thank you--I'm sorry that you share the sentiment (I'd love to just be all smiles about it...), but glad that we can relate on this!

    Franca, the specific compliments are indeed nice. For whatever reason, though, I don't have such a trigger with other words. I guess usually if someone is telling me I'm sexy it's because we're...having sexytime? So then hopefully I'm feeling sexy, you know? I know when I'm feeling sexy, but I don't know about "feeling beautiful."

    Krystal, thank you. I imagine that in your line of scholarship you deal a lot with the performance of femininity, and this is pretty much exactly that!

    Fish Monkey, yep, I have a hard time with that notion too. It's like, well, it is true--and it's also not. Like, of course conventionally homely women have beauty to them! We all do! But the type of beauty that can cause pain is what we're talking about, and a reductive statement like that isn't really helpful.

    Terri, wow--you know, I read that and thought, "Well, that's cool for her but for me...?!" and then I realized how stupid that was of me so I tried it, and you know what? I got tears in my eyes. Now, I cry at commercials for products I hate, so I can't place too much emphasis on tears. But to say something like that out loud has a power I hadn't recognized. Thank you.

    Martha Joy, that's intriguing about you needing to say it more than he needs to hear it. I feel like when we tell a loved one that they're beautiful we're saying so much more, but we also tell them those things too (ideally)--it's a variation on a theme, and one that carries power, and that's exactly why it can come with internal conflict. And excellent point about how even a positive judgment is a judgment. I try to not be stingy with love, but I find that I have a hard time complimenting just someone's appearance--something specific, sure, but just to say "you're beautiful"--I feel like I'm appraising the person, even though I'm just appreciating them. I think that particularly applies to your third point, about children. I'm sort of wary of praise overall, but in this manner particularly so.

  10. You write beautifully!! I remember during my trip to Cambodia in Angkor Wat, a Cambodian man was touring me inside a temple then he mentioned that I am beautiful. Honestly, it was my first time to hear such a blunt statement and I didn't know what to do or say-- I was silent for a few seconds and as a courtesy, I just thanked him for the compliment.

  11. Thank you for analysis about the beauty and everybody loves with beauty and thesis help available for students.

  12. Yes! I've always identified as a "normal" person all my life, never been called cute or pretty growing up. But once I hit my early 20's, I had people call me cute and even pretty and stare at me. And it was terrifying! Just as intelligence and personality can be a currency, beauty is now a currency I was somehow granted and the thought of losing is scary. And I hate how I'm now thinking about maintaining the beauty.