French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.
There’s been some talk about the way I look in comments this week, which always brings up issues for me. Then I received the following email this morning, and I thought it was the perfect way to address this issue — which is not just a personal one, but very closely tied to fat acceptance and feminism.
Dear Fat Nutritionist,
Here’s a question from a first-time visiting guy: how would you rate your awareness that you’re so beautiful it’s kind of totally ridiculous? You know, on a scale from 1 for “totally oblivious” to 10 for “painfully aware, I get messages like this every day.”
Have an awesome week … and good luck with the site!
I appreciate the compliment, and it’s charmingly stated. You probably intended it as a rhetorical question, but if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you a story about my awareness of my own beauty.
When I was very little, I became aware that I was considered more valuable to other people when I looked a certain way. On days when my mother curled my hair and dressed me in ruffles, I was treated with a kind of fawning admiration by the adults I encountered. When she didn’t, and as I grew older, out of that perfectly sweet toddler age and into a considerably more awkward and willful one, the more invisible I seemed to become.
I proceeded through childhood seeing romantic movies, even cartoons, that depicted the lives and problems of conventionally beautiful people as more important, and endlessly more fascinating, than the lives and problems of the dowdy or traditionally unattractive.
Do you remember how, in ancient times, and even up through the past several hundred years, plays and novels and epics almost exclusively concerned themselves with the lives of royalty, the nobility, or, at least, the very, very wealthy? And have you noticed that now, in this supposedly classless modern society of ours, the stories of the rich and powerful have simply been exchanged for the stories of the young and beautiful? In 1847, Jane Eyre was considered a startling departure from this convention — and it kinda still is. I’m sure you’ve noticed. At any rate, from a very young age, I did.
I spent my girlhood, like many American girlhoods are spent, wishing fervently to become beautiful. When I was ridiculed in school, when I was ignored or picked on or called a nerd, I turned to the fantasy of sudden beauty as some kind of protector-saint, as though it could save me from the pain of being a human among other humans. Unfortunately (I thought) for me, I was an awkward kid, a tomboy with straight brown hair and glasses, and a pearish figure unaccommodated by the fashionable clothes of the day.
I began to seek beauty like a person possessed, starting around age 11. I read fashion magazines and bought makeup. I put the makeup on. I looked ridiculous, but I kept practicing. I bought clothes, and did it all wrong and got laughed at and made fun of, but I kept trying. I had a feeling that if I could just find the combination to this particular padlock, I would be liked by the right people, I would have the right sort of life, and I wouldn’t have to feel like an alien or an outcast anymore.
Once I hit puberty around 12, I basically looked like a grown-up and stayed that way. People thought I was an adult when I was still in gradeschool. Objectively, my looks did not actually change very much between the ages of 12 and 16.
So imagine my surprise when, one morning when I was 16, I got the combination right — the stupid padlock opened.
At that point, I’d actually sort of given up on the whole enterprise of becoming fashionable, and thought to myself, “Fuck it. I’m just going to do whatever I like.” Since I have a kind of eccentric personal style, this meant styling myself in a way that would have been right at home circa 1915. The previous evening, I’d bobbed my hair and received some new clothes in the mail. All the years of making myself look absurd with makeup had actually made me quite skilled with it.
I got dressed and went to school as usual — pleased with myself, but not expecting anyone else to give a rat’s ass. I walked into school where, just the previous day, I’d been ignored, completely invisible, and considered nerdy and unfashionable and weird. As the doors opened, the first thing I heard was, “SHE LOOKS LIKE A MODEL,” loudly stated by the most intimidating punk of the school to his entire group of intimidating friends.
I froze, half-mortified and half-transfixed. It was one of the few times I’d heard anyone comment positively on my appearance since I was a toddler. It was exactly what I’d been craving for so many years; how could I not feel at least partly pleased? But I was also taken aback — this was not, after all, what I was going after when I’d gotten dressed that morning. Still…it was not exactly a bad result, no? Surely my life would now get better?
Sadly, I realized too clearly that I was not, objectively, “beautiful.” I realized that beauty was not a static thing, not a fixed commodity, and that there were very few people in the world who rolled out of bed looking the cultural ideal. And I was certainly not one of them.
For me, beauty was a costume I put on in the morning and took off at night, when I was finally alone with myself. I knew this, and it made me nervous as all hell, frightened that someone would see through my disguise and take away the status I’d finally, accidentally, managed to achieve.
I began to feel an external obligation to put on my beauty costume, every single day. I was unbearably nervous to leave the house without it. Sometimes it took hours. Sometimes it meant getting up at 5am. Sometimes I rebelled — there was a period where I refused to wash my laundry, to do anything but lay in bed most of the day, and I would literally pick my clothes up off the floor and put them on, then tramp through the mud in my heeled oxfords and long skirts to school.
Pretty soon, I stopped leaving the house as much as possible.
There was another reason for this — when I reached puberty, but not quite fashionability, at age 12, I had my induction into the world of womanhood via the ritual hazing of sexual harassment. I was tormented, squeezed, hissed at, touched, groped, fondled, and pulled forcibly into people’s laps at school.
Do not misunderstand: this was not flirting. It was humiliation and cruelty. These people were not interested in me as a human being; they did not have crushes on me; they did not care for me. It was degradation, plain and simple. And I wanted no part of it. I physically and vociferously fought back. But I was confused — I did not understand why it happened, what I’d done to deserve it, and why no one came to my aid.
As bad as this was, it only got worse when I started dressing in beauty drag. I began attracting the attention of perfect strangers, of people much older than me, people who didn’t just mean to humiliate me, but who actually meant me harm. I went from feeling like an invisible person who was occasionally objectified for other people’s pleasure, to being a deer in hunting season. I was highly visible, something about me was now considered highly desirable, and I was no longer just vulnerable to attack — I was actively targeted because of the way I looked. My life and physical safety were threatened more than once.
My peers also seemed continually amazed to discover that I was intelligent, as though the previous ten years — when I’d been known by reputation as a school-nerd — were blotted out completely by my changed appearance.
Even so, boys at school wanted nothing to do with me — except to talk to their friends about how badly I needed to be screwed — and girls who weren’t already my friends started kissing up to me because my status was now higher. I rebuffed them. I told them off (in my head.) But I was desperately lonely.
As I mentioned, I started becoming afraid to leave the house. A computer nerd from way back, I started using IRC a lot in order to talk to people in a context where I could control how/when to reveal my sex and my appearance.
I had internet boyfriends, who sent me mix tapes, instead of real relationships because I thought I could keep myself safe that way. I was almost completely isolated.
I’d been depressed since about age 12 (SHOCKER), but I was finally diagnosed with depression formally by a therapist who told me, “You look like a Maxfield Parrish painting.”
My last year of high school, I started to mess around with my beauty disguise. I played with the levels of visibility I could achieve, I suppose as some manner of taking back control over this thing that had gotten entirely out of hand. I dressed up some days, and then, other days, I’d wear running shoes, old jeans, my mom’s jacket and glasses.
Once, a kid I didn’t know approached me at school as I sat in my habitual spot in the commons, doing homework.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I have to ask — are you the same girl who normally sits here?”
“I mean, you normally wear a long dress, right? And no glasses?”
“You just — you look like a completely different girl. Wow. I thought you were someone else.” And he walked away, shaking his head a bit.
I was oddly pleased by this, but it also reinforced my knowledge that the beauty thing was just a disguise, a costume.
In college, when I was 18, I saw a boy in my mythology class who seemed interesting. He took absolutely no notice of me for several weeks, dressed in my jeans and army surplus jacket. I decided to conduct an experiment: for the next class, I would dress up and see what happened.
What happened was he came and sat by me, asked me if I was new in the class, then carried my books while walking me to my dad’s car when class was over. The only thing different was my mode of dress.
I am older now and a lot fatter, but I still can manage to put on the costume when I need to. I am conscious that I am treated differently when wearing beauty: better in certain circumstances, worse in others. I am sexually harassed more on the street, but receive better service and kinder attentions from people. I get more attention, but people, perhaps, take me less seriously.
I made the conscious decision, when I started this website, that I would use an attractive picture of myself on the front page. Because being fat in this world is already a black mark against me, I knew I would have to tap some of the status that my false beauty can afford to partially make up for that. I knew my writing would be more likely to be read, and people would be more interested in hearing me out, perhaps even giving me media coverage, if they thought I were beautiful.
The truth is the same as it has always been: I’m not actually beautiful. I’m simply and idiosyncratically myself. Beauty is a cultural construct designed to keep people balanced on a knife-edge of anxiety over the potential loss of status, and the rabid desire to gain it. That knife-edge is so slender that hardly anyone, as I said before, rolls out of bed in the morning and balances on it effortlessly. Those who do are highly paid to do just that.
There will come a time when this costume no longer fits, when I am old enough and changed enough that no amount of makeup, no hairstyle, no set of clothes will be able to obscure my nature to the extent necessary to imitate cultural standards of beauty. When that happens, I imagine I will grieve, but I will also feel relief.
So, to answer your original question, the answer is somewhere around 152. Not because I’m constantly showered in praise for my looks, but because I deliberately construct or deconstruct this papier-mâché facade in front of my mirror, depending on what needs to get done that day.
Oh, and I married the internet boyfriend who sent me the most mix tapes.
P.S. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m publishing this email :)