"He thought how he had been driven about and mocked and despised; and now he heard them all saying that he was the most beautiful of all beautiful birds. And the lilacs bent their branches straight down into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and mild. Then his wings rustled, he lifted his slender neck, and cried from the depths of his heart—'I never dreamed of so much happiness when I was the Ugly Duckling.'" —The Ugly Duckling, Hans Christen Andersen (photo via)
Salon.com advice columnist Cary Tennis responds this week to "Unhappy Swan," a twentysomething woman who modeled herself from dowdy teen to “hot” young lady, and who is now pissed about the labor she puts into her appearance and the attention she garners as a result of fitting the mold of conventional beauty. His advice: “Enjoy it.” I have a few other words for her.
Dear Unhappy Swan,
The world has no shortage of advice for pretty young women, but not much of it is rooted in an understanding of the conflict you’re experiencing. I can’t claim to understand exactly where you’re coming from, but I think I come closer than Mr. Tennis, who nicely pinpoints the roots of your concern but then sweeps it all away with the glib idea that since “female beauty...is short-lived” you may as well “enjoy it” since one day you’ll miss it—even though in your letter you actually express a desire to fast-forward through your life to the time when you’re “old and ugly and happy with life and not thinking about this.” Instead, I'd like to ask you to look at the "rewards" you describe as "addictive."
What sort of rewards are they? There are ways in which beauty is an advantage, but there are only four rewards you enumerate: compliments, numbers, dates, and discounts. And while all of those things are nice enough (particularly dates, which we'll get to), ask yourself: How much do these rewards really, truly matter to you? How much does it matter to get yet another phone number you know you're never going to use? How much does a compliment matter when it's not from someone you admire? How nice is a compliment to hear when its takeaway might be: Now you have to keep on being beautiful? How many discounts (or free drinks, or free meals, or quickened entry to clubs) are worth the self-respect that you, by your own account, are seeing slip through your fingers? (And might I remind you, those discounts can be taken away at whim.)
Dating, while I'd hesitate to call it a reward, is different from discounts and random phone numbers, so let's look at that separately. You say that when you gained some weight, the "quality and quantity of men" asking you out nose-dived. Have you considered that it was your self-identified work stress and the exhaustion from the "tedium of counting calories" that made you your lesser self, bringing lesser men to you? Have you considered that when one feels "depressed and worthless" as you did during this time, one isn't able to be one's shiniest self—which means that men of the caliber you're after will indeed overlook you? Have you considered that it was your fear of being your 16-year-old self, not the few extra pounds, that telegraphed to others that you were willing to settle for less?
As for the men themselves: What do you mean when you say that the quality and quantity of men plummeted when you gained a little weight? You may well have been attracting men who prey upon women's insecurities, which is obviously a quality dive. But I suspect you were referring to other factors: men with less money, maybe? Or less prestigious career paths? Less good-looking? Less social prominence?
I ask these questions because while I can’t claim that my experience is the same as yours, it’s similar in some ways. Unlike you, save for a particularly awkward year of junior high, I was never really an ugly duckling—and I was never really a swan. But there was a time in my life when lost a lot of weight to the point where I was finally bona fide thin, and I suddenly started buying more revealing clothes, and getting better haircuts, and wearing high heels. I was as conventionally attractive as I was ever going to be. Now, in my case, that wasn’t ever going to be “hot,” and undoubtedly the challenges that someone resembling a Maxim cover girl faces are different than the challenges I faced when DWT (Dating While Thin). Still, people noticed, and yes, I got hit on a little more, and yes, the type of men hitting on me changed.
Until I started DWT, I had a penchant for slightly nerdy, unathletic types—think chess team, not football team. Luckily, they had a thing for me right back. But DWT brought a new sort of man to the fore: the slickster. I started being asked out by more aggro types corporate business dudes who called their friends "bro" without irony. They were covertly nerdy (most people are), but they were also the type of man upon whom a certain strain of society often confers the title of Winner.
I don't want to paint every man I went out with during DWT with the same brush. Some of them were pretty great guys, others weren't. But what I found—repeatedly—was that the men I suspected wouldn't have looked twice at me when I was 30 pounds heavier weren't winners at all. One of them referred to his best friend's girlfriend as "thunder thighs." One of them stopped midsentence on our first date to let his eyes—obviously and visibly—trail up and down the body of a beautiful woman walking across the restaurant. One of them told another woman, while I was standing right next to him, that she was "the most beautiful girl in the room." Another kept hinting he'd like for me to ask along a particularly gorgeous friend of mine the next time we were to hang out; another, in a particularly telling exchange, told me he thought I was too thin, because if I put on some weight my breasts might be bigger.
Do you see a pattern here? No man I'd ever gone out with while 30 pounds heavier had made comments about my looks, or other women’s, that coldly to me before. I hadn't always picked gems before—I'd been with some fantastic men, and a couple of louses, and that's pretty much how the story goes for a lot of women. But the type of louse I'd chosen before wasn't the type of louse who overtly evaluated women on their looks. By pursuing a low-maintenance, attractive-enough-but-not-a-total-bombshell type like me, they'd already demonstrated that while they might value looks, they were going strictly by their own barometer. But shed 30 pounds and put on a lower neckline, and men whose values diverted from what I was used to were suddenly paying attention.
Now, this isn't strictly because I was DWT. It's not like conventionally attractive women are doomed to attract douchebags, or that average-looking women wind up with all the keepers. Nor is it that all “bro” dudes make these sort of evaluations of women, though I’d argue that men who gravitate toward status-conscious professions are more likely to choose mates whose appearance also brings them status. Had highly aggressive, highly looks-conscious men been after me all my life, I'd have developed a different sort of screening process rather than the one I'd developed for my own purposes. (For example, I'd long learned to put the kibosh on men who exploited my accommodating nature, because that was the sort I tended to attract—I'm guessing I would have added "appears to be seeking a status symbol" to my no-go list had this been a problem for me before.) And my own fluctuating self-esteem was part of the problem here—frankly, the first time one of these "winner" guys asked me out, I said yes only because I was so flattered to be asked. But I couldn't ignore the evidence: Coming closer to the beauty standard meant that I attracted a greater number of people who placed higher importance on that standard. In my case, that wasn't the kind of man I wanted to date. And while you express some conflict about this, I don't think that's the kind of man you want to date either.
For your sake, I hope that your experience was different than mine. I hope that when you say the "quality" of men was higher when you were thinner, you meant it in every way: That they were kinder, more engaging, more fun than the men you'd known before. But a hunch tells me that this isn't true. My hunch tells me that you're young, and that your confidence wasn't great to begin with, and that like I was at one point, you're just flattered to be asked out by a "winner," and that you're fucking terrified that if you ease up on yourself even a little, you'll be 16 again with a big nose and dowdy clothes.
You're, what, 24? 25? You're not long out of college, which means that you're not long into the world in which dating is what people do rather than just hooking up at house parties. Do you know that people will ask you out next week? They will. Do you know that people will ask you out next month, next year, when you're 35, when you're 45? They will. They will ask you out when you're unavailable, when you've gained a little weight, when you've lost a little weight, when you have a horrible breakout, when you're at the bookstore in a long skirt and a baggy sweater, when you're at a bar in a miniskirt and halter top. You will get dates. You will get plenty of dates. This I promise you.
Listen: If you take care of your body—if you feed it nutritiously (trust me, you don't need to be weighing and measuring your food anymore; you could mete out healthy portions in your sleep by now) and give it the exercise it craves, pay attention to what kind of clothes you feel best in, and develop a hair and makeup routine that highlights, not conceals, your natural looks, you're going to look just fine. More than fine, from what it sounds like. You don't need to eschew all of the grooming habits you've cultivated in an effort to be "hot," but you can evaluate what's really working for you and what's a ritual you cling to based on fear. You went through years when you were unattractive (or just felt it—I'm gathering that like many a 16-year-old you weren't nearly as hideous to others as you found yourself), then you went through a phase when you worked your tail off to be "hot," and then a phase when you felt the "hotness" slip away. You've been through some pretty drastic shifts, and all that is going to educate you for what comes next.
And what that will be, I don't know exactly, but I have an idea. It doesn't go away totally—hell, I’m 35 and writing this blog in order to work through my own thoughts and feelings on appearance, you know? Speaking of age, I think Cary Tennis’s advice is right to a degree: You’re already looking forward to old age so you can be relieved of this attention, so hell yes, “enjoy it” now, for that’s a far better alternative than living the next 40 years of your life in misery. But I don’t think you will live in misery. Most women I know have grown happier as they’ve gotten older, in part because we naturally come to a more nuanced understanding of these things. Everything in your letter indicates that you are becoming one of those women—that the anger and confusion you’re experiencing is part of that road. I suppose maybe my advice is indeed to “enjoy it”: the cognitive dissonance, the confusion, the occasional discount (why not?), the path. It is leading somewhere good. I wish you luck.
All my best,