My friend was flipping through a magazine, making appreciative sounds towards a series of photos of a model with a flower in her hair.
“These are so good! I love this!”
I looked over her shoulder. She paused on the next page, squinted, and tilted the magazine a little.
“Wait,” she said, “Doesn’t that look a little like…” and then she stopped.
“Like what?” I said. “Like who?”
“No, I don’t know. I was gonna say, she looks a little bit like me.” She looked immediately guilty. “I mean, not a lot, but just a little—there’s something about her face from that angle. Do you know what I mean?” She pushed the picture closer to me, still talking. “I’m not at all saying that I’m that pretty. Obviously she’s really beautiful and I am not. But for a second she just reminded me—“
“No, no,” I said quickly, “I can totally see it! It’s the shape of her nose. Her features are sort of delicate like yours. I can definitely see it.”
“Yeah, right? I mean, I’m much less—“
“You’re beautiful,” I said.
“Aw,” she said, laughing and shaking her head no. “You don’t have to say that.”
She is. And I did have to say that.
I catch myself doing it, too. That thing you do when you suddenly realize you’re complimenting your own appearance. When you’ve gone too far and implied that maybe you’re pretty.
It’s like a nervous reflex. I really think it’s tinged with fear. What if someone corrects me, and tells me, alright now, honey, let’s not get carried away…
(you’re no Queen Amidala! source)
I have a friend who never does this. She’s Russian-American, and sometimes I wonder if it’s a cultural difference. She says things like “Of course, everyone was checking me out,” and “Obviously, he loved my dress” and “I know I look good right now.” And she doesn’t sound like she’s bragging and obnoxious and conceited. She sounds like she owns a mirror and has looked in it before. She smiles playfully sometimes when she says these things, as if to acknowledge that people aren’t really supposed to say them.
I laugh aloud in surprise. Did she just say that? I shake my head in fond disbelief.
But she’s right.
I am not beautiful like her, I rationalize. Which is why I am still not allowed to talk the way she does. I am also not Russian, so no one will say, “She’s a fiery Russian!” or whatever it is that people say. Even though once a guy yelled at me in the street “You Russian?” and I yelled back “a little!” because I definitely am a little Russian, somewhere back there in history. The point is, it doesn’t count.
I don’t really want to draw attention to my appearance because what if it turns out that there’s nothing there worth paying attention to? Because what if some comment I make causes people to wonder why I think I’m so great? Because what if I accidentally imply that I am stunning, and that would be absurd and everyone would have to laugh at the absurdity of that idea.
What if I look arrogant and misinformed and oblivious?
Even movie stars and supermodels are supposed to find, memorize, and readily identify their own physical flaws, to prove that they are real people who we can get to know through magazine interviews with titles like “What she REALLY thinks about love, her hair, and being the ‘it’ girl of the year.”
Oh my god. It’s shocking. She thinks her thighs are too fat! They’re not fat at all! She thinks her eyes are too big! But that’s her most famous characteristic! She thinks her boobs are too perky! She is eating a burger in this picture, as though she eats them all the time!
She is insecure like us. It’s refreshing. I’m glad it hasn’t gone to her head. I’m glad she doesn’t think she’s too pretty.
I’m not really sure why I’m worried. So what, if someone thinks I’m arrogant? So what, if someone thinks I’m not that gorgeous? Wouldn’t it be better to go through life feeling gorgeous anyway? Or at least pretty. I’ll take pretty.
It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a while, I think I’m ravishing. I think I’m awesome looking. Once in a while, I momentarily adore the awkward girl in the photo with the round eyes and the strong nose and the confused hair. I own her. And I’m proud of her, the way I am of my Dinotopia collection. I even like the places where the binding is worn, because that proves it’s really mine.
(it’s so awesome it gives me chills. source)
Occasionally, I think my legs are perfect at this length, not because they look good next to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s legs, but because they are mine, and I don’t have to stand next to her anytime soon anyway.
Once and again, I am content and pleased with this whole person that I happened to be.
And the rest of the time, I am apologizing.
I am backing away slowly, my hands up, waving placatingly. I am making sure no one gets the wrong impression. I’m not a threat!
Oh, I don’t know if I’d look good in that…Maybe if my legs were longer.
I couldn’t pull that off because of my arms.
Yes, she is gorgeous! And she is gorgeous, and of course, she is gorgeous. Oh, and her! I didn’t even see her. Yup! I agree. There’s just something about big boobs… I don’t even really need to wear a bra—ha! Ha! I’m basically twelve, developmentally! Except for my thighs. That’s where all that pie I just ate went!
But you know what? Secretly, Natalie Portman has always reminded me a little of myself. Something about her face. The round eyes, maybe. I can’t exactly place it. Maybe it’s nothing to do with her features at all. Maybe it’s something about the way she moves, her expressions. I can’t explain. But once when I was a teenager I said something about it to someone and they laughed and were like “Are you kidding me?” and I realized that I sounded ridiculous and delusional because Natalie Portman is famous and famously beautiful and I am just a normal person with an awkward face.
Sometimes we’re watching a movie with her in it and I have to resist the urge to lean over and whisper to Bear, “She reminds me so much of myself!”
Because who do I think I am, exactly?
But now that I think about it, I’m not sure why it’s a secret that Natalie Portman reminds me of myself.
(I swear, it’s not actually the buzz cut! I thought it before that! source)
And I know exactly why I’m always apologizing, but I want to stop.
It was true—my friend looked like the model in the magazine. The only difference was their hair. Hers is brown, the model’s was red. But even if she had compared herself so another model who to me looked nothing like her, would it really have mattered? And if she had said, “I would look amazing in that dress she’s wearing. I have the legs for it,” would there be something wrong with that? And EVEN if she had stood up and yelled “I am friggin’ gorgeous!”
Well, sure, that would’ve been a little weird, and I would’ve worried about the neighbors since this is a new apartment and I want to make a good impression and I get all anxious about the volume on the TV. But really—whatever. It would be better for her to think that. It would be better for us all to think that.
But at the very least, it would be better for us to stop apologizing.
* * *
Do you ever just admit to people that you like the way you look?
Unroast: Today I love the way I sometimes just throw on the most comfortable thing I own and walk to the park in it. There was a time when I didn’t really do that because I thought I had to look better to go outside. No, for real.
So sometimes women and girls send me pictures of themselves with new, short hair. I love it. This is one from a reader named Isabel and it made me so happy. Speaking of looking gorgeous:
Isabel says: I’ve been chemically straightening or braiding my hair with extensions since I was 8 years old. I haven’t seen my natural hair literally since childhood. As a black woman the whole issue sooooo fraught. Some people will tell you aren’t being true to yourself if you’re not wearing your hair natural; other people give you real push back when you talk about going natural because they don’t want to do it, but feel threatened by it. Hair, for black women, is this really charged, political issue and it took a long time for me to muster up the courage to do this. Two days ago I took out my braided extensions and then yesterday I went to the salon and told them to cut off everything that was chemically straightened. At first I was terrified that I’d accidentally ended up with my father’s Afro from 1987, but the hair stylist showed me what to do and as soon as I threw on some big earrings I loved it! I’ll probably post on my own blog about this at some length (haha) at some point, but I wanted to send you my picture as well to honour the fact that your courage helped give me courage as well.