In the Eye of the Beholder
When my dad first saw me in my full bridesmaid garb it was in the narthex of the church right before the procession. “Whoa,” he said, “I’m going to have to get the shotgun ready.” Then he chuckled uncomfortably.
It was not the first time he had said that to me. He said it back in my early days of high school, when I was getting ready for my first spring dance. Back then my imagination jumped to a scene of teenage boys rushing my house with bouquets of flowers in hand and my father standing on the front porch with a menacing frown, cocking a shotgun in preparation. At the wedding, a little less than seven years later, I didn’t picture anything. I don’t even think I said thank you. I just smiled a little tight-lipped grin that was not necessarily happy, but was as much of an acceptance of the uneasy compliment I could muster.
That wasn’t the first time that day I had been complimented on my appearance and it was not the last. It started that morning as the bride and all the bridesmaids congregated at my aunt’s house to prepare. I had been told: “You look really cute,” “I love your hair,” and “Your dress is great.” These didn’t just come from my sister or cousin, both bridesmaids too, but from the other girls, ones who were friends of my soon-to-be sister-in-law; they were girls who I had only known since the bachelorette party the weekend before. Here they were barraging me with compliments that probably should have gone to the anxious bride instead.
I had only put in a little more effort than usual that day, to be fancy enough for the occasion. My hair was curled instead of straight and lank, my contacts were in, my makeup had been done by a beautician friend of the family. The only thing I was particularly enthused about was my dress. It was strapless, which I usually shied away from, and the top fit perfectly. It had a poofy knee-length skirt with clear sequins ringing the bottom. It was red and sassy and entirely unlike anything I had ever worn before.
When the bedroom that was the sort of wedding control center had emptied, I sat on the bed and leaned back, propping my torso up with one arm. I observed myself in the full length mirror on the opposite wall. I experimented with the tilt of my head to make my neck look thin, let my maroon-painted lips form into a little pout, and lifted my spare hand up to my forehead. I held the pose for a moment, maybe seeing what all of them were seeing. I perhaps looked a little bit glamorous.
After the ceremony, Matt Glim introduced himself to me while I stood in the receiving line. I didn’t really know him, but I had met him, briefly, before. He had been in various incarnations of my brother’s crappy rock bands, was in his forties, and had solid silver hair. “I’m Eric’s little sister,” I explained, resisting the urge to say other little sister. No one would confuse me with Allie. She was the outgoing, popular, pretty one. He hadn’t recognized me. “You clean up nice.” His wife laughed, but looked ready to hit him for saying something inappropriate.
“I didn’t realize it was you at first,” my best friend told me at the reception when we ran into each other in the bathroom, the one place it was quiet enough to hear each other talk. “Until after I took the picture and looked at the camera.”
“Grandmom was sitting behind me in the church,” my mom told me later that evening. “When you came down the aisle, she gasped.”
“That was the most–,” my Grandmother cut off. It was the next day and she was driving me back to college as a favor, because I didn’t have a car. I can fill in the words she didn’t say.
I must have been called beautiful at least five times the weekend of my big brother’s wedding. I’m not saying this to brag, I’m saying it because I’m not used to it.
* * *
When I was in fifth grade, I got asked out on a date for the first time. It was a joke, and I knew it was a joke from the moment the words, “Are you doing anything this Friday?” were uttered from the mouth of the class troublemaker Joey Hanson. He was kneeling on the dirty lunchroom floor behind my seat, hands clasped before him in a begging gesture. The boys at their table were snickering behind me and Joey had a big, fake, embarrassed smile on his face. I turned my back on him as soon as I looked.
“I’m busy that night,” I replied in the toughest tone a shattered fifth grader could muster. I actually was busy, but that was irrelevant to the clatter of coins on the table that told me that this had been a dare to get some spare change, not more than a dollar, to buy something at the lunch counter. Probably ice cream. Anyone who came to school with extra money was always getting it bummed from them for ice cream.
That was how much my humiliation had been worth. A big flashing arrow pointing me out as the most undesirable girl in our class for an ice cream sandwich. Granted, it was a small school and our class was maybe twenty people, half of it girls, but the end result was the same. I was the worst option. And I hadn’t deserved it. Not at age ten. I was smart, but too shy to be a know-it-all, and had been deemed by my teachers and classmates alike as “the nice one” which came partially from personality, but also from my timidity. But I was fat, in the midst of an awkward stage that I swear went from fourth grade to freshman year in high school, had pimples, and wore big glasses. To this day, whenever I find photographs of myself at that age I hide them amongst magazines and other paper clutter on my desk.
I didn’t react then. I didn’t run to the bathroom crying. None of the girls I was supposedly friends with said anything. Now that I think about it, I wish they had. It didn’t really affect me much at all, immediately, but I can remember this moment with concrete exactness. I have kept it filed carefully away in my mind, labeling it, for a long time, as the cruelest thing anyone has ever done to me. They didn’t realize how malicious they were acting, that they were giving me an example I could use to say “this is why I can’t be ugly.”
* * *
Beauty is grouped with power, genius, money, and fame on Cracked.com’s list of “5 Things You Think Will Make You Happy (But Won’t).” There are advantages to beauty, studies have been done, Twenty-Twenty TV specials have been aired, and statistics have been acquired. On average, attractive people get better grades, have better jobs, earn more money, have wider social circles, and find more successful partners than people deemed ugly or just average. Strangers are even more likely to help them when they are in a crisis, but it turns out beautiful people have just as many self-esteem issues as everyone else. It’s all relative, because it depends on who you start comparing yourself to. Even if you are the hot one amongst your group of friends, you will start seeing yourself as ugly compared to the photoshopped-the-shit-out-of celebrities on magazine covers.
There are even downsides to beauty, although I always want to scoff when I hear girls complain about how their boobs are too big or how they are a size eight and need to go on a diet. Turns out the phenomenon of guys laughing at pretty girls’ not-funny-jokes is applicable in the bigger picture. Attractive people live in a world of bullshit compliments, so every compliment they get, no matter how genuine, about things other than their appearance, gets lumped together with all the other flattery they receive every damn day.
I have believed other compliments and praises I have received in my life. Having my advisor at college tell me he thinks I am a really good writer is uplifting. Being called someone’s best friend for the first time and holding the title for years is rewarding in a way that is hard to describe. I believe them because I was in an ugly-duckling stage for a long time. But those are not the things I want to hear most.
* * *
I want to have slimmer legs, because I hate having thighs that are wider across than the width of my outstretched hand and ankles that are barely smaller than my chunky calves. I want my butt to be reduced by two pants sizes at least. Three, if I want to be able to reach that impossible dream of wearing jeans that are a single digit size. I want bigger breasts. Most days I feel pretty flat, even if my bra size is a c-cup. I wish the peach fuzz on my upper lip, that I am so self-conscious of I have begun bleaching it every couple of weeks, would disappear. I want my nose to be smaller (it gets too wide when I smile), my eyes to be bluer, and my skin to be clearer. I wish I could pluck my eyebrows into equal curves, and get rid of the gap between my front teeth without needing braces. I like my hair though. I think it is a good color, a light brown that isn’t mousy or dull. So it’s not all bad.
Recently, I lost ten pounds by surprise (I hadn’t been trying). Now, when I am alone, I will lift up my shirt in front of a mirror and observe my slightly flatter stomach and more defined waist. Then I smooth my shirt back down and observe myself from different angles: front, profile, at the perfect angle in-between the two I recall my dance teacher saying years ago was the way to look the slimmest. I always end up sucking in my breath, squeezing in my abdomen a little bit more than is natural. I realize I could be so much thinner. So much better. No matter what, it will never be enough.
* * *
When I’m sitting in class, sitting at dinner, walking across campus, anywhere I see them, I compare girls I don’t know to myself. I have been doing it for years, making silent judgments about who I’m thinner than and who I’m prettier than. It makes me feel better until I see these girls who I have deemed fatter/uglier than me walking around with some guy arm-in-arm. That is sort of like the punch to the gut. Because I’m not as awkward or heavy as I was, so I have to wonder what these fatter/uglier girls have that I don’t. Maybe they really do have great personalities. Or maybe there is something wrong with me. Something that pushes guys away more than bad looks. When I am shy, do I seem standoffish? When I try to be outgoing, is it annoying? Is there something deeper and nastier about me that I cannot see?
I try to staunch these types of questions as they start to flow through my head. I remind myself that I have good friends who wouldn’t be hanging around me if I was a miserable human being. Because if there is something ugly with me as a person, that is harder to hide and even harder to fix.
Through all of this, it’s not lost on me that I should feel guilty about picking on other girls’ appearances like I would hate (have hated) people doing to me, but I don’t.
* * *
I tried to look online to find statistics for how much we spend on beauty products and procedures every year, but I could find no conclusive answers. One study said US women spend $13,000 to $15,000 a year on cosmetics and at salons. Some women reacted to this by actually calculating out their spending, and found it to be the still large but much more manageable $3,000 a year. Another study said the average American, male or female, spends $588 a year on beauty products and procedures, only 1.2% of the average American’s annual paycheck. Even on this lowest end of the scale, we spend only slightly more for education than beauty each year with 1.9% of our income. Beauty products and services beat out the worse vices of alcohol (0.9%) and tobacco (0.7%). It topples, to our great shame, how much we spend on reading per year, which is 0.2% of one’s annual income, a measly $188 per year.
Even if it’s impossible to find numbers that agree, it still gets me thinking about the forty dollars I lay down three times a year for a salon haircut. I stay on the fairly cheap and generic side for my basics: shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothpaste, etc. But I look through my makeup drawers and see I have foundation I need to replace at least once a semester, black, brown, and blue mascara, one stick of brown eyeliner and two sticks of the exact same brand and type of black eyeliner, two tubes of concealer, three different sets of eye shadow, an eyelash curler that looks something akin to a torture device, and that is not even close to all of it. That doesn’t count the prescription acne medicine, the blow dryer, the hair straightener, or all the different bottles of nail polish. It doesn’t include the three tubes of lip gloss and one tube of lipstick that I have in my purse at this moment. I’m not even that bad comparatively. I buy drugstore makeup and borrow my mom’s coupons to save as much as possible. I don’t spend money on hair dye or manicures or waxing. I can defend it all as normal. Blame the media for making me (and all women) think this is the way it has to be– that we have to have all these products just to even compare to celebrities and models on TV. Blame guys for expecting too much of us (even if it’s not true and just a big generalization, even if they are just a scapegoat). I can do all that, but the only one I really have to blame is me.
* * *
I got flirted at a lot (everyday) when I worked as a cashier over the summer breaks between college semesters. Flirted at, not with, because it was hardly reciprocated. The first summer I had the job, after my freshman year, I found all the attention flattering. Even if it was from skeevy middle-aged men who were married or old guys who ranged from being sweet like a grandfather to really pervy. To say I was extremely unfamiliar with such treatment would be accurate. I had gone through four years of high school being completely ignored by the male population and a year at the university without a college boy for my own.
The second summer I worked as a cashier, it started to bother me. I was feeling invaded. Especially when the same guy came through my line three or four times over a few months when I worked late on Sunday nights. I was fast at scanning items, it came from wanting to get done and out of the hell that was working in a warehouse store when closing time was looming, but he would tell me to take my time and start conversations with me. The woman who worked at the door checking receipts told me in a way that was a warning that he had asked about me. Halfway through the summer, I had an unspoken loudspeaker announcement ready in my head for the day it became too much: ‘Attention BJ’s Wholesale Store customers, I was not put here for your viewing pleasure. Back the fuck off.’ I knew what it was like to feel like a piece of meat, as the expression goes, for the first time, even though all I used to want was for people to pay attention to me for my looks.
* * *
I don’t even call myself beautiful in my own head. Even just a pretty used to seem an impossible adjective to apply to myself. I have grown up a lot since high school, and most days I can get ready in the morning, check myself out in the bathroom mirror, and decide that I’m good-looking. If I’m wearing slimming jeans and a shirt that cuts me just right, my bangs are cooperating, and I spent a little extra time on my makeup, I might use an overly-confident hot. But even halfway through the day when I catch the next reflection of myself during a bathroom break, that confidence sometimes tumbles as I finger through my hair to make it decent again and cringe at how my pink acne stands out against the skin of my cheeks and chin.
* * *
One time, a stranger told me I was beautiful. He said it so earnestly and was staring at me with such an enraptured look it seemed to belong in fairy tales or courtly love stories, not in real life. I blushed, ducked my head, muttered a surprised ‘Oh, thank you.’ He must have heard something in my tone, the surprise and doubt, and reiterated his point with a ‘you really are.’ And that was that. This was just some middle-aged guy with a slight accent I couldn’t place who had come through the express check-out lane. It was the first and last time I ever saw him. This wasn’t like the other flirting that came my way while at work, which was accompanied with a shrewd little smile and was fit expertly into a larger conversation. He had stopped everything to say it.
Needless to say, it made my day, at least for the next hour or two. But being a person who is much too contemplative to just accept a compliment for what it is and let myself be happy, I had to wonder why this thing I always wanted really mattered. I hadn’t been complimented for my personality, good character, or intelligence, all more important things. These had always felt like the pity compliments back when I felt I fit into the less-than-average category in the looks department. When I was younger, I was always told I was nice by my friends, although this was probably because I hated confrontation too much to be mean. Smarts never seemed that important to me. I graduated third in my, admittedly small, seventy-six student high school class. I was always good at school. It didn’t feel like an accomplishment. And who hasn’t heard the jokes about having a great personality? I hadn’t even been complimented for doing my job well. Even as much as I hated working as a cashier, standing on a cement floor all day, and having the same inane, three minute conversations about how bad the electronic signature pads were or why all the merchandise was being moved around due to renovations, I had a spark of pride in my job. I could pack an overflowing cart like an expert: fold up the kid seat, put the cereal boxes as a base, set the bread and chips aside until last, and slide the thin boxes of toothpaste and deodorant into the crevices in between… If that man had said anything endearing about those qualities with as much sincerity, would it have affected me the same?
No. I know it wouldn’t have. It would have just been another thing said to me, probably forgotten amongst all the other comments I heard during my six hour shifts. So my elation became mixed with a sick feeling in my gut. Beauty was the most important thing to me.
* * *
I sat at the reception of my brother’s wedding as he and my brand new sister swayed along to their first dance as husband and wife. I was so happy for my brother and for the bride, Linda, too.
At the head table, I watched from a folding chair, looking amazing in my strapless, cupcake style dress and curls. From everyone’s comments I could conclude that I was unrecognizably good-looking today. But I felt a prickle over the bottom rim of my eyes and a squeeze in my chest like my heart was literally being griped by a fist.
So what, I was beautiful now, or at least for this single day. I was still lonely. I am twenty and over halfway to the landmark twenty-one. I have never been kissed, never been asked on a date. I never danced with someone I loved, or even just liked. I have never been in love, or have mistaken myself for being in love. I want that. I want to get my heart broken, because at least then I would have something to feel bad about losing.
So what if I am beautiful, it only makes me feel a little bit better.
* * *
If you type ‘twenty and never’ into the search bar on Google, the automatic fill-in will finish it with ‘had a boyfriend.’ Yahoo! is similar, with its top two being ‘dated’ and ‘been kissed.’ The links listed on the webpage are mostly advice sites, where people type in their questions and anyone in the world can answer them. They want to know if it is normal, how they can change it, why they feel depressed about it, what is wrong with them. These are the things I wanted to know, when I searched this same inquiry three months ago. There are comforting answers, similar to the ones I would get from my sister or my friends who I confided my insecurities in before turning to the internet like it could give me better help or reassurance. Answers like: twenty is not that old because the first fifteen years don’t count, when you meet the right person you’ll know it, just wait, try to be more outgoing, being single isn’t that bad, better than being with someone just for the sake of being with someone.
I really can’t judge whether or not this is good company to be in, but at least I know now that I’m not singular in my distress over this issue. I guess it’s nice to not be alone. Maybe I am self-centered, but I always tend to think I’m the only one with my problems.
* * *
After the wedding, we had to break down and clean up the reception hall and set it up like the school cafeteria it was on the weekdays. Tulle and bows were torn off the windows, twinkle lights untwisted from the ceiling lights, and the remaining slices of the red-velvet wedding cake thrown away. May, the maid of honor, and I took upon ourselves the duty of going to collect the belongings that any of the girls had left in the nursery under the church, where we congregated before the ceremony when the guests were drifting in. She was Linda’s best friend and everyone else’s too, including my little brother. But I wasn’t friends with her. Hardly knew her.
But this weekend we had carefully made Linda’s bouquet, a floral first for both of us. We partied at the wedding together. We talked about books and college and boys and future plans. You can’t predict these moments or follow instructions to make them happen, but this was when a friendship started. A weekend of camaraderie and, suddenly, she wants me to tell her when I’m back in town from college so we can hang out sometime. Tells me that I am a cool person, that I am a good person.
I really wanted this to mean more to me than any of the other compliments I received that day.
Margery Bayne splits her time between her home in Baltimore, Maryland and her school, Susquehanna University, in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania where she is majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in Editing and Publishing. She has been previously published in LitSnack Magazine. During the 2010-2011 school year she was a co-editor of Variance, one of her school’s literary magazines.