Okay, after testing the waters as to how a post about my own cuteness might go over, I have decided to give my account on what it is like to be a woman who was considered “pretty” or “cute” during adolescence and young adulthood. This is something that is hard to talk about because generally it is a topic that breeds resentment among other women and among men, as well: the beautiful woman has something other people want but can't necessarily have. As a result, I don't think there is much written from the perspective of good-looking women about their own good looks. Beautiful women are often considered objects of desire rather than fully human agents in their own right -- but of course that is far from the case.
As I have mentioned before, I was brought up with a strong feminist consciousness. So it didn’t bother me as a child that I was an awkward and shaggy-haired Caroline to my mother’s glamorous Jackie. It was understood in my family that my mother’s beauty was her primary social currency, whereas I, being raised to discover the cure for cancer or whatever, had no need to worry about such a trivial thing as my own surface attractiveness. I expected to be a homely person and I viewed that homeliness as a sign of being smarter and deeper than your average “girly-girl.” I guess I bought into the sexist notion that a woman can be smart or she can be attractive but she can't be both.
That all changed, seemingly overnight, when I looked in the mirror one day at age twelve and suddenly realized with shock that, “Hey, I am really very pretty.” I remember being sort of transfixed by my own reflection because I was so surprised. It was around that age that I started to be flooded with constant compliments about the way I looked. First, an older woman rushed up to my mother when we were in a hotel on vacation and gushed about what a beautiful girl I was. Older men, friends of my parents, invariably complimented me. One said that I was going to be a “heartbreaker” one day. Another called me “dimples” and (more creepily) asked me if I had started my period yet. (To this day, I still don’t know what that was all about.) Boys in my middle school would approach me and awkwardly confess that they “liked” me. One boy asked me in front of the whole school if I would be his girlfriend and ran off in humiliation when I said no. I spent the weekend crying in my bathroom because I felt terribly ashamed for somehow getting this boy to like me and then embarrassing him in front of everyone. I wasn’t sure what I should have done differently but I felt that I was somehow responsible. The boy’s sister declared war on me and bad-mouthed me to all her friends.
I went through some awkward periods in high school (bad haircuts, bad wardrobe choices) when the attention dried up, but for the most part I continued to get lots of validation based on my looks. There was a shrimpy little guy in my class whom I didn’t know but who apparently had some sort of crush on me. Some of the older cooler guys took him under their wing: they would kind of push him forward or dare him to say something to me while they all poked each other and laughed. I got a lot of similar attention from other guys who wanted something from me -- a date, a smile, a relationship, something.
It seems very silly and innocent now, and there are surely far worse problems in the world, but at the time, I really didn’t know how to cope with this kind of attention. I found it sort of pleasant and sort of stressful at the same time. I was kind of a nerdy, bookish girl who was overcoming a strong shy streak. I didn’t necessarily want the positive attention to end but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do about it either. I also had some experiences in which boys became hostile if I didn’t comply with whatever demands they made on my time or my attention. Although I had a fairly natural, low maintenance look, I also became more pre-occupied with my looks at this time. I lived in dread of gaining weight. It seemed far worse to have people say, “Oh my god-- did you see what happened to Happy? She’s let herself go,” than to never have been noticed in the first place.
During my college years, I spent much of my time on my women’s campus, or living in Manhattan where my boyfriend was, and making money as a temp secretary in businesses all over the City. Despite my experiences in high school, I found myself shocked by all the sexualized attention young women receive in New York City. I was not in any way prepared for the daily onslaught of comments on the street or for the fact that I would get “hit on” regularly by men much older than myself. Again, I would be less than honest if I pretended that I didn’t find any of this pleasant-- but at the same time it was a stressor. I used to think of it as “girding” myself for whatever that happened that day when I went out on a temp job -- sometimes it was harassment (the guy who would rub his whole front across my back accidentally-on-purpose when I was trying to get something out of the supply closet), sometimes it was just creepy (the old guy who popped a piece of candy into my mouth and called me “pussycat”), and sometimes it was sweet (someone asking me out on a date). But I constantly had to make decisions about what kind of response was warranted, or whether to respond at all. There was a sense that as a young woman I was somehow expected to react to the attentions of whatever random men on the street might see fit to approach me. (A particularly annoying example has been written about by other bloggers-- the men who would command me to “Smile!”)
The benefits of being considered attractive are, of course, legion. I am well aware that people were probably more polite to me than they might have been if I had been a guy or had been considered “homely” in some way. If I asked directions, a gruff police officer would walk me three blocks to my destination. Sales people or officials went out of their way to accommodate me. I could usually get a date fairly easily. The positive responses of other people helped me to overcome my shyness. There is no doubt in my mind that I am able to have a “happy shiny personality” because people are generally nice to me, and that people tend to be nice to me because I look appealing to them.
For the past 8 or 9 years, however, I really haven’t had a lot of compliments on how I look or other positive looks-based validation. I think that’s due to the fact that I have been living in a more rural/small-town area, that I am married, and that I mostly move in professional circles where it is inappropriate for attorneys to tell each other they’re hot. There is some relief in not having my appearance be such a factor in my daily life. But I also feel flashes of sadness when I realize that I don’t look the way I did at 21. I am no Janet Leigh or Catherine Deneuve, women with great bone structure who look good at any age. My attractiveness was based on the fleeting virtues of a “girlish” figure, a radiant complexion, and good coloring. I don’t feel that I am an old crone by any means, but I certainly feel that I am fairly ordinary looking at this point and that I have lost the “oomph” that people once found so attractive. Although I may not have fully appreciated it at the time, I had some unharnessed power in being able to command instant appreciation when first meeting people. I have never valued looking good above all else -- in fact, I define myself primarily in terms of my job and my marriage -- but I do mourn what once was. I wonder sometimes if my kids will ever believe that I was once pretty, and I am glad that, no matter how old we get, my husband will remember me as I was at 23. I know my mother, who depended on her beauty far more than I ever did, has been very bothered by becoming elderly-- and I wonder whether it will be tougher for me to see the effects of age on my face and my body than it would be if I had never had the experience of constant looks-based compliments and attention.