putting down the gun

Thank you, Caroline, for inspiring this post with your thoughts about comparing yourself with other women, in this guest post from the other day. 

(source)

I saw this beautiful woman in the park and for a second, I resented her. That automatic flash of emotion. The moment of grudging concession.

“Well, I guess you win.”

She had clearly won. Everything about her beauty was at once perfectly sculpted and effortless. A work of art. Rare. Exquisite. Goddamnit. I thought everyone was looking at her, even though they were actually too busy.

I have days when I have to wrestle a good thought about my appearance out from the depths of my brain where it was squirming around in some muck, slowly starving to death. When everything seems at odds with everything else. When I have this hopeless sense that I was never even in the running. That all of my kind assumptions about myself have been deluded. That in some basic way, I am basically flawed.

I think I have a few options:

  1. Life in the woods, without soap, where survival is all that matters and I have to forget to care about this crap
  2. Being a lesser woman than the effortless beauties of the world, who will always defeat me
  3. No more competing

I’m not blaming myself entirely here. We are set up to compete. We’re always being compared, even before we compare ourselves. I remember when I was ten and these two boys I used to hang out with were looking at a picture of me and my other friend, Meg, and they were like, to each other, “Who do you think is prettier, Kate or Meg?” 

And I was suddenly really scared that neither of them would pick me. Even though I thought I was really pretty. What if neither of them picked me?

 

The older one picked Meg. He said, “I like straight hair better.”

The younger one picked me. He said, “I like curly hair better.”

On the spot, I decided I liked the younger one better. He was smarter than I’d expected! And I was full of enormous relief. Thank god for my curly hair!

(source)

Actually, it was Meg who I went to voice camp with, later on, when we were young teenagers. By then she was obviously beautiful, and all of the moms were talking about how beautiful she was. She was talking about maybe becoming a model. I thought I was beautiful, too, but I knew, for so many tiny reasons, that I would not become a model. That my beauty didn’t go that way.

We were in this dorm room at camp and we were hanging out with another girl, Julie, who was tall and loud and very sure of herself. She had even lost her virginity, she told us in a secret whisper late at night (even though she told everyone else she was still a virgin). I never dressed up or wore makeup, and Julie thought it’d be fun to give me a makeover, so she brushed out my hair and made it really straight and put makeup on me and put me in this little tube top that had its own breasts. And a tiny jean skirt. I stood in front of the mirror, staring at my weird new self.

Meg said, “You look so pretty!” She tried to keep the compliment going—“You look like…like a model!” Meg was really sweet.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Julie immediately. “Not like a model. You look like a model. But she looks better than before.”

I believed Julie, because Meg was sweet and Julie wasn’t.

OK, so I knew for sure that I didn’t look like a model, and models were the height of beauty, and Meg looked like a model. Things were not the best for me they could’ve been. (But it was probably not the end of the world.)

In college, I made friends with the janitor who always cleaned my dorm. He was past his sixties and limped a little. We used to sit around and talk in the hall sometimes. He told me about how he loved to play piano. One day I heard him talking to one of the boys in the hall. The boy was on his way to my room, to help me move something.

“You going to see the model?” Bill, the janitor asked.

I knew he meant the very slender, very tall girl next door.

“No,” said the boy, laughing awkwardly.

“Oh, alright,” said Bill. “Then is it the really hot one?” He made a sound that seemed to imply “you know who I mean.”

And apparently the boy did know. He said, “No, no, not her.” Did he sound sheepish?

“Too bad, too bad! So are you going to see that foxy—“

“I’m going to see Kate,” said the boy, firmly. “You know Kate?”

“Oh yeah, of course, of course…”

And then he came into my room. And there I was. Just being Kate. Not a model. Not really hot. Not even a little foxy. I said, “Hi.”

(source)

Actually, I kind of liked that the boy had said my name, instead of my beauty designation. But I was a little worried. Was I supposed to have one? Was I somehow the only girl in the dorm who had not been awarded a sexy nickname? Or was I known behind my back as “the weird-looking one”?

I felt a little betrayed by Bill. I thought we were buddies, but now, when I thought about him ranking all of the girls in order of sex appeal, I felt excluded and awkward. I didn’t want to talk piano technique with him anymore.

We are supposed to compete with each other. Biology. Magazine sales. Makeup sales. Those skin firming/age-defying magic potion lotions and their sales. More biology. I don’t know. I don’t honestly care very much. I just know I learned relatively early on, like everyone else, that when you look at another girl you immediately line your little mental image of your little self up next to her, and you figure out who wins. Sometimes it’s relatively even, which is great. It’s like “Oh, her hair is better, but my legs are longer, but her lips are fuller, but my boobs, but her arms, but my waist, but her toes are definitely less hairy.”

This sounds like a lot of stuff to compute, but the brain is an incredible machine, and it can do it in like a quarter of a second. Which is some sort of victory for evolution, I think. Zzzzzap!!! Oh. OK. About the same. Not threatened. We can be friends.

This is totally embarrassing to admit, because it’s—god, do I even need to explain why? You KNOW why it’s embarrassing. We are not supposed to be this damn superficial. We’re supposed to go around pretending we don’t notice. We are past it. We are better than this.

I became very close with this absurdly pretty girl a while back. You know, the kind of pretty that caused people to talk about it every time she left the room. She’d be like, “Hey, I have to pee,” and the moment she was gone, everyone leaned in to be like, “Oh my god, she is so friggin’ gorgeous. I LOVE her outfit. Why does she always look so good?” Almost as though what everyone was really about to say was, “God, she must be so friggin’ happy, right? Her life is, like, PERFECT. I want to BE her. If I could be her, my life would be so good right now…I would not even worry about any of the things I worry about.”

So pretty that whenever I looked in the mirror after looking at her, I was like, “Oh SHIT. This is worse than I thought! Have I always been this horribly ill-proportioned or did this somehow just happen in the last hour or so? Maybe some sort of parasitic disease from the water?”

And this is the thing: I was amazed that she was friends with me. As though she was this famous medal-winning Olympian and I was this kid in too-big Nikes with a poster over my bed that says “Dream Big! Reach for the stars! You can achieve anything you set your mind to!” I kept waiting for her to replace me with someone prettier. I mean, yeah, yeah, I am beautiful in this unique fascinating way that occasionally causes men who claim to be students of art to write to me and tell me my face reminds them of a Renaissance painting, but mostly, come on, let’s be real, I am just not on that level. Her level. The level of the friends that I expected her to have.

(source)

Eventually, she did slip out of my life, and I couldn’t help but think that probably she was finding people who were better suited. You know, better looking. More graceful. With longer, more elegant necks. Which is kind of crazy, actually. So I tried not to think that. And I thought other things instead about the situation. But the thought was there.

It’s easy to compete. To lose. To be relieved when you win. You know, when you meet the girlfriend of your partner’s friend, and, well, I’m not going to get into the gory details of the battle in your cruel, calculating brain, but you win. In some obvious, trumpet blaring way. So you feel a little sorry for her, and also thankful, and you move on with your vaguely triumphant evening. It’s easy and automatic. The way that all prejudices are. The way that people think automatic racist thoughts. The way that people make all instantaneous, uninformed judgments.

It’s probably impossible to stop making them. But we probably owe it to ourselves and other people to go a little further.

The girlfriend of your partner’s friend, laughing and wearing red the second time you meet, is suddenly startlingly lovely. You’re blindsided. The beautiful woman you lose to has this whole story about a lot more things than the way she looks. There are more important characteristics. There are more interesting details. There is simply more.

There are so many people who I misjudge. So many people who I completely change my opinion of, one second later. One day later. One month later. Years later. I begin to see them more clearly. There is so much real beauty that comes into focus gradually. A mix of the inner with the outer, so that someone’s goodness gets necessarily folded into the impression of her body, but also just a better understanding of the lines of someone’s face. There are so many easy mistakes to make. There are so many different lights, and different shadows, and different perspectives. There are so many preferences. Mine change regularly. Mine are complicated. Multiply that by nearly seven billion and you get the world. A world that might in general agree that the woman in the park is beautiful, and at the same time prefer curly hair, and at the same time not remember whether or not its closest friends are beautiful or if they are mostly just wonderful, and at the same time also be wondering about what it might have for lunch and if it’s alright to have a burrito from that amazing Mexican truck three days in a row or if that is somehow very bad.

Remarkably, it turns out that I am not in competition with every other woman in the world. Even if some of them show up in exactly the same outfit. We wear it differently. That’s the cool thing about bodies. They’re all fascinatingly different.

I am not like a model. I’m like a girl who sometimes ties her life in knots with her flailing mind, who looks different in every photo, who is sometimes stunning in the mirror, more often interesting in a potentially cool way, and who cares about writing more than she probably should. That’s me. Even if I lose every beauty battle, I will still have some stuff going for me. But I don’t want to lose anymore. Or win, for that matter.

I want the girl in the park to keep being beautiful on her own, without me to bolster or clarify or confirm or complicate or confuse or become confused by or compete with her beauty.

When I look at her, I want to see her, and not myself, for one full second. She has nothing to do with me. I am over here, eating this amazing burrito, having awesome chipping metallic green toenails. Wearing this cute striped maxi dress. Living this fantastic life that would have seriously impressed ten-year-old me. The rest—that’s a battle I don’t need to fight. Someone put this gun in my hands, and I’m just gonna gently set it down. I’ve been carrying it around too long and I don’t like shooting.

*  *  *

Have you learned to stop competing?

Unroast: Today I love the way I look in a striped maxi dress. With a bright yellow belt. Also, I love the way I feel when I’m reading a mystery novel. There is nothing like a good mystery novel.

This cake pic was taken for ETDC at an office party! I LOVE IT. 

Jodi says: a pic of me and some of my work colleagues who just enjoyed some crème de menthe cake and homemade ice cream! In case you’re wondering, I’m the one with the spoon in my mouth :)  

 

24 Comments »

Kate on July 9th 2012 in beauty, being different

24 Responses to “putting down the gun”

  1. Melanie responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 11:05 am #

    I know that society wants us to compete. What better way to be yourself than to refuse to? Before I liked myself for me, I compared myself all the time. I wasn’t as funny. I wasn’t as thin. My hair wasn’t as perfect. But the more I worked on me and doing things so I could look in the mirror and like who I am, the less I would compare. Now I honestly don’t compare at all. I notice, and I compliment, but I don’t think about other women in relation to me. I think, “Wow! She has a great set of legs. I’m gonna tell her so!” And that’s that. It took a hell of a long time to get here, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. If all women could stop competing, and start complimenting, we might actually start to get somewhere.

  2. Sarah responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 11:19 am #

    I struggle with the competition at times. I married into a family full of women who are all about their looks and they were models at a time so their appearance was their currency in a very real way.

    I am not like that but I struggle with a feeling of inadequacy. When I find myself feeling that way, I try to remember this day when I was 16 and I was talking to a girl in my class who had long wavy red hair. It was the kind of hair that you could do anything with and it was this gorgeous shade of red.

    Somewhere in the conversation I mentioned that I loved her hair and had always wished I’d had red hair like hers. She said that her hair drove her nuts and she’d always wanted to be a blond like I was.

    After that we’d joke about how someday we’d trade hair, but the story serves as a reminder that those beautiful girls who seem to have won the competition probably don’t think they have.

  3. Kristina responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    Remeber in our school yearbooks there were always those superlatives? Best eyes, prettiest girl, best hair? It’s no wonder we are all trying to outdo the person next to us, we are practically spoonfed that mentality from the time we are in gradeschool. Also, it’s not as if someone had to work really hard to get “best eyes”; they were just born that way. I wonder if there is a school somewhere out there that have superlatives that are deeper than appearance, like “most caring” or “best advice-giver”…just a thought.

  4. Misty responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Sometime between 22 and 30-something things shifted for me. I stopped comparing myself to other people as much and like Melanie above, I was able to compliment other women and truly mean it. Even random people! I was thinking the other day about how I also truly believe that all of my women friends are beautiful, regardless of their age, shape, etc. Obviously, the whole don’t judge a book by the cover thing applies, but I also think that I’m fortunate enough to have good people in my life and that shines through and enhances their natural beauty.

    This was a nice post. I could write a book about what I think about society and current standards of beauty. But, like the author, I also prefer to to make it about winning or losing. Sometimes you have to fake it and consciously redirect your thoughts, but fake it till you make it and the positive thoughts come naturally!

  5. Misty responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Oops, that should have been prefer to make it about MORE THAN winning or losing. Wow. Way to just contradict everything I just wrote with one slip! :)

  6. Sarah the Violinist responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    Thanks for this post. I’m having “a day.” You know, the kind where you see your belly getting bigger and softer and hate yourself a little for it. Panic a bit. Think, “Maybe I should give up cake and cheese and alcohol,” forgetting that with the newfound softness comes the fuller breasts I’ve always wished for. Say to myself, “Why don’t you spend an extra 30 minutes on the treadmill?” instead of enjoying a femininity that’s been foreign to me…

    Anyhow, I ramble. Thank you for the perspective, Kate!

  7. Blake responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    Hi Kate,
    Great post. We have all had that moment where someone else tries to deflate us by making a comment about our looks. I’ve had this happen so many times in my life–and as an adult I’ve learned to laugh and let it go. I don’t take it personally, and value so many other aspects of myself over my looks. I write about this a ton on my blog, in fact here is an example of a guy who told me I wasn’t pretty. I LOVE this blog and find it refreshing. Thank you!
    http://blakelandau.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/hairapy-doesnt-work/

  8. Mandy responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    Oh, MAN! Yes, this is so familiar! When I was younger, I used to compare myself to others a lot. Now that I’m 46, I don’t do it nearly so often–but I still catch myself at it, on occasion.
    But I think, now, I compare myself (unfavorably) with how my younger self looked, more than with other women.
    But, I’ve also gotten better at appreciating how I look, now.
    What a weird paradox!

  9. Maja H responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    I do compare myself to other people, but I’m working on it. I try to catch myself when my brain goes down that road and then I give it a stern little talk.. :)

  10. SolariC responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 3:24 pm #

    I went to a wedding this weekend, and felt the sense of competition creeping up – not so much about looks as about just being myself in general. Everyone else looked comfortable and easy, but I just felt awkward and like I was pretending to be cool.

    The thing that helped me was remembering that everyone else is probably pretending too. We feel isolated in our insecurities with our appearance or accomplishments or whatever, but actually everyone struggles not to compare themselves to others, and we’re oddly united by that. I find remembering that idea helps me feel less self-conscious and competitive and instead kinder to other people.

  11. lik_11 responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    I do not consider myself competitive. More often than not, I see parts of a woman that I admire more than her overall beauty.

    Unfortunately- I’ve recently recognized a competition within me towards one of my oldest friends. I’ve always been a big girl, and she was always thinner than me… and let me know it. Recently, she told me that she has gained a lot of weight and told me how much she weighs (I’m still surprised!). On the other hand, in the past year, I’ve changed my lifestyle significantly to lose a substantial amount of weight- which I refrain from telling her. Honestly- I know when I see her again, she’s going to be pissed at me. She’ll be angry that I didn’t tell her, but mostly she’s going to be pissed that I’m smaller than her.

  12. Meg responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    It’s funny and interesting how we remember different things. I don’t actually remember those bits so much. At camp and at homeschool group I remember how I loved your clothes, and the flowy skirts you used to wear. I envied your tallness and your beautiful full lips and the way you could just sit at a piano and play these songs without even trying. And you knew how to harmonize on the fly to CDs of the Indigo Girls. I always had to listen first, and then you would teach me the harmony, and then I would sing it. At camp I remember being annoyed at Julie because she borrowed my shorts for 3 days and didn’t wash them before returning them. I wonder what happened to her. I was jealous of Julie because she wasn’t a virgin and I liked a guy, Winston I think, and he wasn’t either, and I thought I wouldn’t be good enough for him since I still was.

  13. Sooz responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 7:20 pm #

    I am confused and amazed by women who say they no longer compare themselves to other women or judge them or judge themselves harshly or have no body image issues (or very small insignificant ones). Because I am turning 40 this year and even though I work hard EVERY day to feel better about myself and NOT compare myself to other women…..I still do. And it sucks. I’m pretty sure I’ll have to work REALLY HARD my whole life to overcome a lifetime of feeling bad about myself and comparing myself to every other woman. And even though I certainly hope I can get to where these women who don’t compare and who don’t have body issues…I am highly skeptical that it will ever happen for me. (maybe that’s part of my issue…ha ha).

  14. Sheryl responded on 09 Jul 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    In the past couple years I’ve noticed myself slowing down on the comparisons. I still do them, and I really need to stop (because they kill my confidence in ways they have no right to) but they’re less frequent. Like there’s less pressure somehow, to fit exactly a perfect mold.

  15. Rosanne responded on 10 Jul 2012 at 7:24 am #

    Yesterday, shortly after reading this post, I found myself having an unroast-moment while doing a short yoga practice. As I changed poses I caught my reflection in a large frame and before I was even conscious of it, I thought: wow, my legs look strong! Shortly after, I tried my very best not to fall over in tree pose and when I succeeded (whoo!!), looking straight at the reflection in the frame, I put my hands over my head, a smile came on my face and I was honestly amazed at how strong and tall my entire body looked. I felt good.

    It felt good, because I tend to feel big rather than tall (I come in at about 6’3″ and I’m curvy). Of course I’m aware that I am tall, it’s only that in comparison to other people, other women, I often appear big. Add to that the words other people have used to describe my appearance (huge, giant etc.) and you’ve got a girl who can be quite uncomfortable with being ‘big’.

    Thankfully, over the years I have become much, much more comfortable in my skin and since I figured out what kind of moving/exercise works for me (mostly yoga and riding a bike everywhere) I have been increasingly able to see my body as strong, capable of supporting me, and tall. My legs are heavy (thanks dad’s genes!) but they much more than ‘wobbly’ and ‘too wide’. Changing my views on bodies, my own and those of others, has been such a relief! Less stress and doubt, more appreciation, time and energy for things that are more valuable than being down on the way you and others look.

    Reading this blog, all the excellent contributions by commenters and guest bloggers has been wonderful and inspiring. I’ll be 27 later this month and what I mentioned above does not mean that I feel my body is a temple and it’s oh so wonderful all the time. Far from it. But hearing from everyone participating in this blog, all ages and stories included, and looking at my mom (who’s 57), I generally feel it’s ok. We all seem to feel similar about these things, recognizing more in each other’s stories than we can’t understand. So I say a big fat YES to less comparing, less judging of bodies.

    Thank you for being so open and honest in your way, Kate. I’ve been reading ETDC for a few weeks and have hereby made my first (much longer than anticipated) contribution to a blog, ever.

    Love from Amsterdam, NL

  16. Caroline responded on 10 Jul 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Yes! I am so glad to have inspired this post. I really think that’s been one of the key parts of my journey, stopping the comparison cycle. Let’s lift each other up!

    <3

  17. Rachel SV responded on 10 Jul 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    Thank you for this. I feel so many of these feelings all of the time, and I want to stop, too. Thank you – this is wonderful.

  18. Patricia responded on 10 Jul 2012 at 7:43 pm #

    In defense of Bill and the young man, the reason he refered to you as Kate is that to him you were actually a real person, not just a collection of body parts…I bet he did not know any of those girls names and had no other way to reference them.

  19. jessica responded on 10 Jul 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    I find that I compete more when my husband is around. If he’s with me, I find myself constantly looking around trying to see who is better looking than me…I wish I were exaggerating. I want him to think I’m the best sooo badly. When I’m by myself? It’s a completely different story.

    I keep retreading the last two parts of your post. Thank you.

  20. Gemma from NZ responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 12:48 am #

    God I love that line “it turns out that I am not in competition with every other woman in the world”

    This is exactly how I feel all the time, comparing other womans thighs with my own etc etc, if I don’t win at pretty stakes I find another way e.g. funnier, smarter, nicer.

    Why do we do this?

  21. Ceci responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 12:59 am #

    This post really is how I feel sometimes. Beauty is a competition and I’m already the loser no matter how hard I try. I really started to feel this way in my mid twenties and being single. I saw how easy it was for pretty girls to get guys attention without even trying. I keep thinking if my breasts were bigger, I was taller, had nicer skin I would get a boyfriend with no problem. One guy even told me the story about how many men would hit on his legally deaf beautiful friend and no one picked up on her strange manners or awkward gestures in attempts to tell the men she is deaf. This just shows how personality and communication are not what men want, looks is most important. However, I don’t treat pretty people any differently that others.

    There are pretty people I know and I like them because they are nice. But in the back of my mind, I know they have won the beauty competition over me. And although I don’t treat people differently on looks, it’s hard not to have some resentment because many people will be nicer to those who are more beautiful-especially men.

  22. Cat responded on 14 Jul 2012 at 9:26 pm #

    The last two lines of your post –about setting down the gun– are two of the most inspiring sentences that I’ve read in a long time. Keep up the great writing!

  23. Beth {Southern Bluestocking} responded on 21 Jul 2012 at 10:54 pm #

    Loved this post. Seriously. I’ve been reading your blog for more than a year, I always find that you extend or challenge my thinking, but this was especially insightful.

  24. ayana responded on 31 Jul 2012 at 11:08 am #

    i’m 4 ft 11ich…100 pounds…but that didn’t stop my ex from ogling other girls in front of me,not to mention commenting on their phyisicality..yet never complimenting my looks…so anyone who thinks being cute & petite.will bring nothing but respect & admiration…think again. men like so many different things. don’t compare yourself.

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