Thank you, Caroline, for inspiring this post with your thoughts about comparing yourself with other women, in this guest post from the other day.
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:
- Life in the woods, without soap, where survival is all that matters and I have to forget to care about this crap
- Being a lesser woman than the effortless beauties of the world, who will always defeat me
- 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!
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.”
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.
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.
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