Wednesday, September 21, 2011

An Open Letter to an Unhappy Swan, and to All the Pretty Girls Who Get Pissed Off Sometimes About Being Pretty

"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) 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 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,



  1. ...This is brilliant! Can't wait to share it with other women. xoxx

  2. Excellent post. So many times as I read, I was like, "Yes! YES!"

    You hit on something that I don't think is addressed all that often, which is that as a conventionally attractive woman, you are often seen as a status boost to your partner. My ex-husband was really bad about this. I realized shortly after we married that he was really into the image of me and what having a wife like me said about him. The reality of me, though? Not so much. He liked me as an object and an extension of himself, not as a person in my own right.

  3. Wonderful. I hope Unhappy Swan reads it.

    That paragraph about non-excellent guys you've dated made my skin crawl. Yeesh!

  4. This is much better than Cary's advice. But neither of you suggested get therapy to deal with your body issues, sub-clinical though they may be.

  5. Oh, thank you for this. While I'm not exactly a swan, I have struggled with my looks, and how they've changed during different parts of my life.

    Thank you especially for writing about confidence as an attractive quality, and dismantling the assumption that a little extra weight or less time spent on beauty labor results in fewer compliments or dating options. It's so great to be reminded that feeling down, or being overworked, are just as likely to be the culprits.

  6. This is incredible. I am so grateful that I followed the link from Already Pretty and ended up here.

    "Coming closer to the beauty standard meant that I attracted a greater number of people who placed higher importance on that standard." I think a little bit of my life just clicked into place.
    I suspect this is true for other arenas of our lives as well...

    I look forward to reading more of what you have to say.

  7. Oh WOW, this was an excellent post! As a 29 yr old woman who has been through all of these phases, I can totally relate! You articulated everything extremely well!

    I'm actually excited to turn 30...and then 40! I cringe when people talk down about getting older whether it's 30, 40, 50, etc...Seriously, 30 is old now?! 30 is just the beginning!! Personally I can't wait to turn 30. Nothing is sexier than a woman who knows her shit! I think with age comes wisdom and there is NOTHING sexier than that!

    I've found that quality people know and look for that. I have always been "pretty" but had my share of weight fluctuations and confidence issues in my teens and 20's. What I've come to learn is that I'm pretty but I'm also smart; very smart and creative and I don't give people the time of day who value my looks over my mind. Period. In my experience, no matter what you look like, someone can get a clear picture of you by how you hold yourself, your energy, your confidence, your intelligence. I think people are usually very surprised when they talk to me. They usually wright me off as just a "pretty person" but then come to find that I am laid back, smart, funny, silly, and I don't care about all that superficial stuff. I kinda love it actually because it helps to knock down a reverse stereotype.

    Moral of the story: treat yourself and others with respect, have fun, laugh, and don't take yourself so seriously. You'll often times get the same in return.

    Excellent, Excellent post!!

  8. Wow, thank you. Thank you so much. I feel like this was written for me, TO me, as it's exactly what I'm going through right now, and it's exactly what I needed to hear.

  9. I absolutely bow down to you for this response - your tone is not condescending, mocking, or disgusted with "Unhappy Swan," you've managed to set her straight gently and with respect for her tangled feelings, and you have made many excellent points. I want all women between the ages of 11 and 110 to read this immediately!

  10. This is amazing. While I'm not exactly a swan, I've experienced firsthand how 'beauty tricks' can move you closer to the conventional beauty standard, things like chemical hair straightening, weight loss, a little makeup, and although I have to admit that all these things make me feel better about myself, in the very, very end, what makes me feel most good about being ME, is knowing and liking the type of person I am on the inside. Cliche, but true.

  11. Gala, thank you! Both for the kind words and for sharing it in your links roundup--much appreciated.

    LZ, you pointed me toward this in the first place, so a special thank-you your way...

    Caitlin, I'm not sure if you followed through to the link in the piece about women's looks as status, but it's interesting, even as I think that this isn't something "men" default to but rather a certain sort of man who craves visible status. (Here's the link: I'm sorry that you were in a relationship like that, and glad he now has a prefix.

    Rebekah, yeah, some real winners, eh? Someday I should do a post about the awesome men I've gone out with--somehow only the snakes make it on here! My luck isn't that bad, I swear! One dude lit candles on a rooftop!

    Robyn, I hope Unhappy Swan reads your comment--because certainly therapy would be helpful here, I'm guessing. (I'm of the mind that therapy is pretty much always helpful, shhh...)

    Anonymous from 9/22, thank you. I've interviewed plenty of women about beauty and inevitably they wind up talking about some friend of theirs who just has "this quality" but who isn't drop-dead gorgeous...and is hella attractive nonetheless.

    Hannah, welcome! I'm pleased I could help you crystallize something. And it is absolutely true for other arenas of our lives. Much of the time it's a positive thing, or at least in my experience, but it can work the other way too.

    Linda, thank you! And YES about the age thing. You know, for all the demonization of age out there, most women I know are so vocal about getting happier and feeling better as they get older. And IMHO most of my longtime friends look better than they did at 20 as well--they've grown into themselves.

    Anonymous from 9/23, I'm glad I could write something that you could read at the right time. And the fact that it resonated shows that you're going to be okay.

    Erin, thank you! What a wonderful compliment to hear.

    Lylim, isn't it funny how the cliche stuff like this so often is true? Confidence is beautiful--we hear it over and over, but it really and honestly is true.

  12. This was a really great exploration of what pretty is and how it has to do with social status. I was shocked at the behavior of the guys who asked you out and then criticized your 'flaws'. What ugly things to say! Anyway, this post helped me let go somewhat of my obsession with fitting into what society says is 'pretty'. Thank you!

  13. Oh God, thank you so much. This is exactly what I needed to read-- I actually would classify myself as a girl who's "swanned," and while a lot of it has been great, I'm starting to have to deal with women disliking and distrusting me along romantic-competition lines. :/ My instinct is that most people would/do interpret my discomfort as snobbery, when really, I just don't like what's happening to my relationships with other women.

    You've given me a lot of great advice and a lot to think about. I imagine I'll be returning to this post frequently in subsequent months.

  14. Grace, I'm honored to have had a small part in helping you work your way toward freedom from what can feel like the tyranny of pretty. I've gotta say, the time I was writing of helped me do the same to a degree--when I start to panic and think that I should somehow be doing more to look good, I remember that at my personal best-looking, the rewards weren't worth the effort.

    Mercuriazs, I'm so glad I could give you some thoughts that can help you work through this period. That's particularly difficult to hear about other women. That doesn't usually happen to me (when I sense that might happen I tend to do cartwheels to make women feel comfortable...), but it has on occasion, and it stings. I suspect that a well-placed smile--your best, your most genuine--may help on occasion in this situation. It probably won't always help (some people are just going to feel distrust for their own personal reasons, and there's nothing you can do), but I know that whenever a woman I'm feeling intimidated by gives me a big, warm, genuine smile, I can't help but assume she's on my side. I wish you luck and peace on this front!

  15. You're AMAZING. Thank you for this. It's great to read some smart words on beauty once in a while.

  16. Thanks, Poli! That's exactly what I'm trying to do here--host intelligent conversations on beauty.

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  18. I hope you're not saying only shallow men aren't attracted to overweight women. Because that's silly. Biologically we are attracted to DIFFERENCES in the sexes, not the similarities. That's how the feminine hourglass and the "V" for a man's body ever got started. Beauty has a direct correlation to health that is reflected in our lifestyles. People certainly vary in "thickness" and that is natural. But as far as flab the US is still the fattest country in the world and 50th in life expectancy. Why do we have such trouble with moderation or healthy lifestyles? I'd say it's because our excuses are a lot more high tech and fashionable than anywhere else in the world.