Lisa Hickey was beautiful twice, and she hated herself for it.
Here we go again, I think, as I impatiently wait for the hair straighter to warm up. I’ve washed my hair, deep conditioned it, shaved my legs, tweezed my eyebrows. I’ve blown dry my hair, but it’s still a wreck. It’s always a wreck. It’s thin, so thin that when I put it into a ponytail, a pencil is thicker. I plaster down the worst of the flyaways with a hair product that promises something it can’t deliver.
What I really want to be doing – instead of going through that same-same ritual – is learning to write code. Studying analytics. Taking with someone halfway ‘round the world about real oppression. Not the kind of oppression that I feel because of my addiction to beauty.
Sometimes I’ll look in the mirror, and I’ll catch the light just right. The sun will be setting, the image in the mirror gets dim, the wrinkles and age spots and flyaway hairs meld into the twilight. The angle of my chin clicks into place. And at those times I’ll look in the mirror and say to myself: Oh, I’m not as hideous as I thought.
There is nothing about that statement that is good, or healthy, or intelligent, or perhaps even logical. But it is 100% honest. And every day, that’s as good as it gets.
It’s weird, this thing called beauty. I used to be beautiful twice in my life. You just know. There’s simply a different look in people’s eyes. They actually look at you. They actually see you.
I was 22, and out on a date and I overheard a stranger talking to the guy I was dating. “Man, you don’t see that she’s the most beautiful girl in this place?” My boyfriend shook his head. “If you don’t, you’re crazy…here…” said the guy, giving my boyfriend his number. “Call me if you break up with her.”
Anti-aging skin care products are reported to be a $3.5 billion dollar industry. Products are designed to “remove 33% of fine lines and wrinkles.” But do you know what I look like with 33% less fine lines and wrinkles? I look like plain old ordinary almost-hideous me, just with 33% less fine lines and wrinkles. Except I’m standing there holding a $70 container of face cream that could have been a night out, or a textbook, or partial payment on a new laptop. It’s pretty laughable. And yet, I still walk into CVS and longingly stalk the skincare aisle, picking up containers. “Maybe this will be the one.”
I remember reading a book called The Condition. One of the main characters has Turners Syndrome, which causes her not to develop into puberty; to remain as small as a middle-schooler. And this woman feels marginalized most of her life, keeps to herself, doesn’t have relationships. Until she travels to a Caribbean island and a man there falls in love with her. And I remember this next sentence perfectly: He kept saying to her, over and over, “I love that you’re so small,” until gradually she learned to love that about herself, too. But who says, “I love that you’re so ugly?” Or, “I love that you’re so old?” Of course, I believe that love exists for the old and the ugly—as long as they were young and beautiful when you first met them.
A commenter on my last my post “Beauty, Obsession, Men, Women” said, “At 80 years old, everyone is marginalized,” in response to what I’ve found, in talking to other women and hearing them say that they don’t want to grow old because they are afraid they will lose their beauty and become marginalized. But…if people are marginalized at 80, isn’t that because of their LOOKS? Are you telling me that if an 80-year-old woman looked like a really hot 40-year-old that people wouldn’t pay attention to her?
At 42 years old, after four kids and a train-wreck of a self-image, I became obsessed with beauty again. It started like it always does; I went running. And running – I have to run a lot, 5 to 10 miles a day – but running does it for me. Eventually, my body started to look great. And then, even better, I added to my workout pilates, yoga, strength-training, and ballet. And more running. I got leaner and longer and stretched. My posture was perfect. My shoulders thrown back; emerging shoulder blades. I could feel my hip bones again. And then the facials, chemical peels, microdermabrasion’s, Botox. I was in some salon or another every week. Manicures. Pedicures. Hair colored on Boston’s ritzy Newbury Street, “chocolate and caramel swirl for your hair so you look delicious,” the stylist would laugh. New clothing. The perfect bra. A funky pair of shoes. Just the right earrings. A silk dress.
You don’t set out to spend money that should be going to your kids’ schooling, but instead is going to your beauty regime—at least I certainly didn’t. But a treatment of Botox is a tuition payment. A months worth of yoga classes is a textbook. A mani-pedi is an hour of tutoring. Not to mention the time not being with my kids. I’d get nervous if I couldn’t fit the three hours of exercise in. If a yoga class was at suppertime, yoga it was.
It was totally and completely and utterly selfish, of course. Addictions are always selfish. You justify them any way you can—“It’s important to have ‘me’ time”, “I work so hard, I deserve to relax,” “I need to look good to get ahead in work. I’ll earn more for my family.” “I’m healthier when I’m in shape. More relaxed. More confident. I’m a better person.” But an addiction is an addiction is an addiction, and you start feeding that addiction at the expense of connecting with the people you love.
One day a few months after my new regime, I dashed straight from work to pick up my daughter at a birthday party. Parents that I had known for years didn’t recognize me. One eight-year-old eating ice cream said solemnly “Mrs. Hickey, did they turn you into a movie star?”
Most of my life I’ve been afraid of men. Part of that fear was—and still is, quite frankly—I’m afraid I’m not beautiful enough. I like to think I’m intelligent, and funny, and kind, and that those qualities will be enough for any interaction.
But intelligence doesn’t walk in the door the same way beauty does.
A few months later, I’m at a Boston Advertising Awards Show. The Hatch Awards, packed to the gills with people dressed to the nines and I know almost everyone. And 5 minutes after I walk in I hear a loud booming voice from across the room. “OMG, who’s the babe?”
I instinctively turn around to see who he was talking about. Then I realized I was “the babe.”
It happened all night. The variation on the theme was, “Who’s the baaaaaaaaaaabe?” Men who usually took care to conduct themselves with the utmost of professionalism seemed delirious. An old boss said, “I always wished you had looked this way back when we worked together. You know, for the clients.” One guy I had worked with for months years earlier turned around and dropped his drink on his shoe when he saw me. He didn’t lose a beat as he hugged me and whispered in my ear, “You look fucking gorgeous.”
You know what I hated most? I hated that I loved it. I hated that I couldn’t wait to see the look in guys’ eyes as they actually looked at me, as if they saw me for the first time. I couldn’t stand the way that for each of the previous 10 years, I had gone to that same awards show—and in all the other years I remembered the joy of hearing my name announced and getting an award, or being asked to interview for the perfect job, or making a hushed deal in the marble hallways of the Opera House. And I hated myself because this time, I didn’t want to hear any of those things. All I wanted to hear was “who’s the babe?” I hated that every accomplishment I had ever earned was replaced by the desire to hear guys tell me that I was once again beautiful.
Gradually, of course, as what happens with all addictions, my life became unmanageable. My kids started begging me to go for cheaper haircuts, so I could afford clothes for them. They’d want to spend time with me when I wanted to go for longer and longer runs. A pre-teen daughter stormed out of Staples when a guy started flirting with me—while we were buying her school supplies. (The only thing worse than a not-hot mom is a hot one.) I’d sneak off from work to go to a “client meeting”, but I’d really be going to a yoga class. Walking back in the office two hours later and trying to hide the yoga mat didn’t exactly inspire confidence in my managerial capabilities. I’d get caught with hundreds of dollars worth of bills for beauty services the way some people get caught with bills for phone sex.
And so, reluctantly, I gave up my addiction. But there are still some signs I’m not fully cured. There’s my daily battle with the mirror and the hair straightener. And I’ve joined the ranks of Jezebel readers, who are horrified of the constant photoshopping of pictures of women in the media, like this “Photoshop Shop of Horrors.” I hope Jezebel makes a dent in things. But until then, what to I do in response to my horror? I Photoshop pictures of myself before they go out in public.
On The Good Men Project Facebook page, one of our fans once wrote: “What is wrong with men liking women who are beautiful? Why can’t we just like what we like? Why must you make us feel guilty?”
The truth is, nothing is wrong with it. You can absolutely like whom you like. I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty. You own your own feelings, not me. And I am certainly not blaming you for my own screwed-up insecurities.
I am telling you my side of the story so you understand this—I am not a good a person when I am beautiful. I don’t want beauty to be so important — but I think it’s important to you, as guys, so it’s important to me. And this is my story, not every woman’s and I’m sure there are plenty of beautiful women who are not like me either. But when I’m beautiful—or close to beautiful—it’s all I think about. When I’m beautiful and I’m with you, I’m wondering if the guy across the room thinks I’m beautiful. I think beauty is going to connect us; but I’m not connecting with you, I’m connecting with a beautiful image of myself that I think you might like. It sucks. It sucks for both of us.
And my addiction to beauty hurts men because I don’t give you credit for being the guys you are—someone who likes the incredible complexity of women for who they are.
Giving up my addiction meant giving up being beautiful. Some people here will tell me I am “fishing for compliments” by writing this. That’s what I am usually told when I talk about beauty.
Even as I was writing this—even as I was remembering “the guy who dropped the glass on his foot”—I had a physical reaction. It was similar to a fight or flight response—I could either put these fighting words about beauty on a page, or I could go for a run. I was typing as I slid my feet into my sneakers. I was still thinking through sentences, and found I couldn’t get my headphones into my iPhone quick enough. It took an excruciatingly long time to untangle them. I had to run. I had to run through a beautiful day, and then later, at one in the morning, run again, run at a cost to a leg that doesn’t work anymore, run as hard and as fast as I could—chasing a beauty I know I can never catch up to.
I want beauty not to matter.
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photo: amyrod on Flickr