Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: attraction

Beautiful, The Bitch

When I was a teenage girl, I had very little in common with Beautiful.

I was sure of it.

Here is what Beautiful and I shared:

  • I was white.
  • I had long hair.
  • I had pretty good skin.

That was it.

I met Beautiful for the first time in the public library, where I spent Saturdays paging through crinkled copies of Teen. And if I was being really adventurous, it was Seventeen.

Beautiful was white, tall, and thin. She had straight, white teeth. Thin legs, small hips, flat stomach. A flat, flat stomach. I cannot overemphasize flat. She had boobs, although I had no idea what size they were. I just knew they were bigger than mine. She usually had long, straight hair, and it was usually light brown or blond. She could spin in place, her hair perfectly fanning against the wind. She wore short dresses and high heels. Her skin was flawless and her eyes were dark and drew you into her stare.

Seventeen_magazine_1994

It only took me 2 minutes to find a picture of Beautiful.

Real women were like Beautiful. Other women existed, yes, but you didn’t want to look like them because their lives were sad. They never really got what they wanted.

But not Beautiful.

Beautiful always got what she wanted. Simply because she was Beautiful. Beautiful could make a man forget everything that he valued. She could change his mind. She could consume him.

This unspoken narrative was parroted everywhere I looked.

Teen_magazine_1993

This is how I first learned that women achieve their goals through manipulating men. By using their bodies.

And let’s be clear about what the chief goal was: to be loved by a man. Being the recipient of a man’s love was the pinnacle of female existence.

My male readers (I know I have a few) might be thinking at this point, Who cares! Why are women so hell-bent on being like Beautiful? Can’t they recognize that these are advertisements? Don’t they realize that guys don’t really care about all of that?

Well, no, girls don’t really know that. Especially young girls.

Young girls gaze out at the world and see that the women who are happy in every known form of media look at least a little like Beautiful. And the ones that don’t look like Beautiful are constantly cut down to size, derided, and Internet-shamed (see Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, etc.) to remind them that they are breaking the rules.

***

I was 10 years old when I first started gazing out at the world and noticing what made women happy and how. It was all so clear to me–the women who were happy and had great lives were Beautiful. They were married and had great jobs.

This was also when I first realized how different I was from Beautiful.

I tried a lot of horrifyingly awkward ways of shaping and changing my hair and my body so that I resembled Beautiful. I put my faith in Cover Girl and Pantene and Gillette.

Being like Beautiful required that I stop being free and start learning the rules.

It’s when I started caring about leg hair and body odor and matching my clothes. It’s when I learned where I should buy my clothes. And because I was too poor to buy my clothes from those stores, I quickly learned where I could buy cheap imitations, hoping that no one would notice.

I learned how to pee in a public bathroom without farting and if–God forbid–I had to actually poop, I learned how to do it as quietly and discreetly as possible, for fear that another girl would know that I was currently pooping.

I learned how to hide.

How to suck it in.

How to button it up.

Which clothes would cover my rolls.

Which ones would give me the appearance of boobs.

I learned which masks to put on. The aw-so-sweet-I’m-gonna-cry one. The I’m-so-surprised one. The I’m-so-angry-with-you-until-you-apologize one.

I learned all of these rules through shame–either directed at me or at another girl. I quickly learned the reasons that you could be worthy of teasing. And I made it my ultimate goal to never, ever be singled out.

It was the reason that I preferred to be silent much of the time at school. Most people never make fun of the girl who never talks. She’s not an obvious target. I tried to blend in as much as possible. I opened up only to my close friends, many of whom also shared the same fears.

Although I wanted desperately to look like Beautiful, I didn’t.

I was Overweight. Shy. Weak. Spineless. Powerless. Voiceless.

But I was also Pure. Good. Obedient. Trustworthy. Godly.

Over the course of my teenage years the pounds kept coming and coming until I was 50 pounds overweight in my junior year of high school.

I clung to the promise of the Ugly-Duckling narrative that was played out in countless teen movies like She’s All That. I told myself that someone, somewhere out there would someday see how beautiful I was on the inside. Because, ultimately, the world is a place of justice and fairness.

***

But when I was 17 years old, I starved my way from 195 pounds to 155 pounds in four months.

Yeah.

Why?

A boy, of course.

Even though we clicked on all other levels, he told me that he couldn’t be with someone that he didn’t find attractive.

Well, that’s it. I thought. I’m done believing that it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Fuck. That.

I’m not terribly proud of this. It shows how much I hated myself. It shows that I derived my own self-worth through the eyes of someone else. That I thought that I was so ugly and fat that I didn’t deserve food. That I thought that the only way I would ever be happy would be if a man loved me. And I couldn’t be loved unless I stopped looking like myself and started looking like Beautiful.

So I starved myself.

And what happened?

He started to like me.

And it wasn’t just him. One of the security guards during my night shift at Target started to blush whenever I talked to him. One of the stock guys said, “You losing weight? It looks nice.” (It. Not you.) I got hit on by male customers while cashiering. One guy even had the balls to ask for my phone number, his wingman digging his elbow into his ribs to urge him on.

Holy shit, I thought, completely flushed as I clumsily declined his offer and turned away. I have to learn how to turn guys down now.

It was the power that I dreamed of.

But it made me feel like everything that I had reassured myself–that true beauty was on the inside–was nothing but bullshit.

It made me feel like Beautiful had been right.

What a smug Bitch.

***

But being like Beautiful left me feeling empty.

Now that I was like Beautiful, now that I could turn heads, is that really wanted I wanted for myself? Did I really enjoy being objectified and positively judged simply because of how I looked? Is that really the way that I wanted to spend my life? Achieving what I wanted by using men?

And if my answer to these question was yes, what kind of a person was I? I would lead a self-centered, egotistical existence, caring nothing for the hearts that I would trample on along the way. And weren’t women supposed to be nurturing? Caring? Loving?

Can you see the conundrum that I faced?

Now that I had this power, I didn’t want it. I wanted the universe to take it back.

***

But perhaps the biggest problem of all was this: Beautiful was a Bitch.

I didn’t like the idea of becoming Beautiful the Bitch.

I wanted to be better than her. I wanted to be Beautiful + 1. I wanted to have the waist, the hips, and the boobs of Beautiful because it would give me power.

But I wouldn’t use that power.

I wanted to be Beautiful because it was an implicit, persuasive argument–even if it was irrational and unfair. I knew that Beautiful was powerful. And I had seen enough to know that everyone listened to Beautiful when she talked.

But I would be different. I would be like the right-handed knight that fights with his left hand for a challenge. Even though I could use my looks, I would use my wit instead. I would surprise people. They might not say it, but they would think, Damn, she’s smart. Not what I expected. Or maybe they would think, She could be so full of herself, but she’s really down-to-earth. Wow.

I would turn Beautiful on her head. I would make people rethink Beautiful to the point that it would kill her.

***

Of course, none of that happened.

Beautiful is still alive and well.

And while I am starting to see the last ten years creep into the corners of my face, Beautiful is still that ageless, flawless wonder.

My desire to be like Beautiful has become more lukewarm these days. I have thankfully moved past those days of extreme self-denial when I believed I was undeserving. It took a relationship built on discovering and celebrating what made each of us Amazing. We redefined Beautiful to include intelligence, drive, compassion, openness, and even forgiveness.

It has changed how I feel about Beautiful.

I realized that I wanted more than what Beautiful could get by herself. Beautiful got lust, but not love. Envy, but not friendship. Pride, but not acceptance.

When I see Beautiful now, I see that she is that smug, bitchy friend who was terrified of someone realizing that she was nothing special. She never bothered to explore who she could really be because being what everyone else wanted was enough. It made her one-dimensional. If you turned her to the side, she would completely disappear, leaving not even a trace.

And that is not how I want to live my life. I want to be remembered. I want to leave not just trace, but a trail.

***

When I look in the mirror today, I see a version of Beautiful.

Sharon_2015

But I also see that 17-year-old girl, who was desperate for someone to love her because she thought it was the only way she could ever be happy. I still feel her broken heart. I still hear her vicious thoughts, full of self-loathing and shame.

Ugly. Fat. Uncool. Poor. 

Sharon_1998

1998: Tenth grade

Ugly thoughts. Truly, ugly thoughts.

I wish I could go back in time and give her a hug. I wish I could tell her to open her eyes and her heart so that she can see that Beautiful is just another way to control women and mold them into being lifelong consumers of products that will never solve all of their “problems.” I wish I could tell her that Beautiful is a Bitch and that if a guy only wants Beautiful, let him go. Because Beautiful is a myth.

And you can never become a myth when you’re Real.

I wish I could undo all the damaging messages that Beautiful has whispered into her ears. I wish I could help her be as carefree and wholehearted as this little girl.

Sharon_1991

1991: Fourth grade

This girl cared more about learning about the planets and stars and her multiplication tables than matching her clothes. She loved a good book, especially Goosebumps and The Babysitter’s Club. She looked forward to reading all Saturday afternoon at the library. When she had a question, she asked and didn’t feel stupid.

She played on the playground like it was no one’s business. She ran and sweated and got dirty. She sang out loud with abandon. She never thought twice about saying exactly what she thought because she believed wholeheartedly that people would always be kind and accepting. Because God made people. And God is love.

This girl didn’t realize that she lived in a working class family–or even that this was something that people found shameful.

This girl made decisions based on what she thought was interesting and fun, not based on what she thought other people might not tease her about.

Like all mothers, I want a better world for my own daughter. A world of diversity and openness rather than selectivity and judgment. Where the goal is to seek to understand ourselves and each other better, rather than trying to reshape ourselves so that they fit into acceptable boxes that make it easier for us to determine whose voice should be valued and respected.

I wish that there were some magical way of doing this.

I wish the hands of a Just God would reach down into our nations and instill in our cultures an equal respect for both genders. Perhaps then, women would be more equally represented in the upper echelons of our government and corporations and institutions.

There’s a saying that I hear a lot in my church. I’m not sure if it’s a Lutheran thing or not, but I like it.

They say, God’s work. Our hands.

I know that this is how real social change happens. By each of us putting our hands into the messy work of change. And every day, I am doing that. Every day, I’m showing my daughter what it means to be a woman who loves herself.

Valentine_picure

The Bad Boy

The first time I met a man, I was twelve years old.

It was a Friday night in 1993 and I had just finished bowling with my friend, “Angela,” who lived just two houses down from me on Pepper Drive, a street firmly planted in the working class side of town. On our street, you could tell which houses were owned and which were rented simply by looking at the lawns. Gleaming green? Owned. Patchy and brown? Rented. (Our lawns were… meh.)

Angela slid a quarter into the pay phone and called her house. She exchanged a few mumbled words over the phone before she dropped the phone into its cradle. Then, she rolled her eyes.

“Tim’s coming,” she huffed as she sunk her hands into the pockets of her windbreaker.

“Oh,” I said.

Angela always complained about her stepdad. He was always telling her no and “being mean.” He even called her names like stupid and cow. But I knew it was more than that.

I saw behind her mother’s makeup, so thick it cracked at the corners of her eyes and lips when she managed to smile. I listened through Angela’s flimsy explanation for why the glass coffee table was cracked from end to end. But it was also terribly easy to tell when Angela was lying. Her eyes would dart upward and fixate on the center of your forehead.

And Angela lied a lot.

But they weren’t the kind of lies that would erode a friendship. Her lies never made me question whether or not she liked me. No, Angela gave pathetic, pitiful lies with the intention of covering her own shame. According to Angela, her shirts always came from The Limited and her Nikes were always from The Finish Line. She only earned bad grades in her classes because her teachers were terrible and unfair. She wasn’t really overweight…she was just so bloated because of her period.

But I knew better–because I had lies of my own.

When Tim pulled up in his brand new 1992 black Camaro, I could hear the music booming through the windows.

“Come on,” Angela said as she grabbed my arm and pulled me to the passenger side of the car.

I had never been in a two-door car before (courtesy of growing up in a family of seven), so I pretty much awkwardly fell into the back seat of the car since I had no idea of where to put my feet in order to slide in. I had just pulled myself upright and was searching for a seat belt when Tim took off.

He didn’t ask us about how bowling was. He didn’t even say hi. We were in his space now. And his space was dark, save the soft lights of the dashboard, and it reeked of a sickly sweet mixture of new car scent and Marlboros. He slouched into his reclined seat, his head lifted just enough to see over the steering wheel. From his fingers dangled his glowing cigarette.

But what defined Tim’s space the most was the booming bass notes of Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.

It seems no one can help me now

I’m in too deep, there’s no way out

This time I have really led myself astray

I had known the protective, authoritative side of masculinity. The side with advice, answers, and optimism. Ambition and plans. Smiles, hugs, and encouragement.

But I knew that I was now seeing an entirely different side of masculinity, something that had been hidden beneath all the other roles that men had occupied for me: father, uncle, pastor, teacher. This new masculinity was divorced of anything paternal. It was… dark.

Runaway train, never going back

Wrong way on a one-way track

Seems like I should be getting somewhere

Somehow neither here nor there

The notes of this song screamed hopelessness and despair. I could almost see Tim in his endless line of dead-end jobs that barely paid enough to cover the rent. I could see that this car–however he managed to afford it–was an escape from the reality of his life. I could see his life playing out before him, a thousand different ways, but all of them ending in the same, lonely, frustrated death.

It felt like the first time that a man was ever being real with me. Like he was leveling with me and say, “Fuck it. I don’t have any advice for you. I’m just living for now.”

Suddenly, I could see all the walls that men had built around themselves. They were held up by these walls, brick by brick, assurance by assurance, plan by plan. But they were also trapped behind them. And if they lost their footing, it was a long way to fall.

But sitting in that car, I started to see through the bricks in these walls. I started to see that the only thing holding the walls together was pride.

No man had ever let me see his unguarded side.

And though I didn’t have the words for it when I was twelve years old, I realize now that I found this whole situation… incredibly sexy.

Soul_Asylum

Soul Asylum, 1993

***

Now, none of this changed the fact that Tim was an alcoholic with a violent temper.

But somehow, all of that was forgotten in this moment when I was able to see through these walls. I was so dazzled by the existence of this softer, more vulnerable side that I forgot all those horrible insults he had said to my good friend. Maybe, deep down, he really is sweet, I might have thought.

And because of that, I can understand the initial attraction that women often feel to the bad boys. And why many of them stay.

Admittedly, some of the boys that I had the biggest crushes on during middle school and high school were those quiet, introverted loners that listened to Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Live, and Soundgarden. I didn’t have the vocabulary and the self-awareness at the time to understand why I could picture myself with one of them rather than a popular, well-liked, or even a really smart guy.

But I realize now that the attraction came from my ability to see why a quiet, introverted loner would want to date me.

And the biggest reason that I thought one of those guys would want to date me?

Because he would need me.

What could I offer a popular or smart guy? I wondered.

I thought I was ugly, so why would a popular guy be seen with an ugly girl? And I wasn’t so sure that I was that smart (Algebra I was a real nightmare), so why would a smart guy want to talk to an average girl?

I just couldn’t imagine a scenario in which a guy wanted to be with me just because I was me.

I was not enough. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. Not cool enough. Not smart enough. Not interesting enough.

So if I wasn’t enough by myself, I needed to be able to offer something. By being able to see why someone would want me, I could finally re-imagine myself as desirable.

So in all of my daydreams, I had clearly defined what I had to offer a guy:

1) I could see him for who he really was when everyone else couldn’t

2) I could be the only one who wouldn’t leave.

Maybe I couldn’t be thin and pretty. Maybe I couldn’t be smart.

But, by God, I could be loyal.

***

For the life of me, I cannot remember what Tim looked like. I have no memory of this. But for me, the attraction to the bad boy isn’t about appearances. It’s about emotions and singularity. It’s about the allure of being the only person that the bad boy trusts, the only one to whom he reveals his vulnerability.

Being the only one makes you feel special, chosen, anointed.

It makes you feel desirable–and that is one hell of an aphrodisiac. It’s a strong cocktail of sex and power.

After all, isn’t that what attraction really is? A dance of power?

Wanting someone who is just out of reach. Or being just out of reach to someone else. Overpowering someone with your desirability. Or being overpowered by someone else’s desirability.

That’s attraction.

***

Personally, I’ve always found physical attraction much more fleeting than emotional attraction.

Allow me to digress for a moment.

I used to work with a rather attractive guy at the main library at Miami University while I was going to school there. He was super tall, a real broad guy, which I loved because I’m also pretty tall. He had a shy air about him, but he had such a great smile. I would tell him jokes just so I could see him smile.

We had a Friday night shift from 7:00 p.m. to midnight together one semester, so we ended up spending Friday after Friday sitting next to each other at the circulation desk. Most of our conversations were just friendly banter for the first six weeks. Then around the middle of the semester, we turned away from our books and started talking to each other late one night, probably around 10:30. We talked about where we grew up and what our childhoods were like.

It was great. It had all the components of a date while in the safe context of “Well, we’re just talking at work.” If things got too uncomfortable, I could magically find something that I needed to do.

Then, we started talking about the future—what our plans were after college. By this point, our books were pushed to the side of the counter and we were leaning forward in our chairs, laughing. Then, he said this: “Yeah, I think your twenties are all about making the money. Then, your thirties are about doubling it.”

Womp-womp.

Never had I been so quickly and completely turned off.

***

We need attraction. In the beginning, it’s what holds our attention.

But attraction isn’t love.

Too often, we slap the word love onto the feeling of attraction. We confuse the dance of attraction and desirability with the holiness of love.

Love is a different animal. Love remains when attraction drops its arms. It lingers when the other person has become broken and messy. Love draws us wholeheartedly into the mess. Love compels us to give and give beyond what we thought possible. In the presence of love, fear and mistrust die. You cannot fully love someone whom you don’t trust.

And I think that this is where a lot of relationships with the bad boys fall apart. Inability to trust is almost always one of the main reasons that he became a bad boy in the first place.

Someone abandoned him or disappointed him. He loved someone–a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover–and that person betrayed him. And instead of moving through the pain, he built the walls higher. He climbed inside and toughened up. It made him feel safer, sure, but more importantly, it made him feel powerful.

And if he is powerful, he can’t be hurt.

***

When our middle school years were over, Angela and I drifted apart. We were on two entirely different academic tracks in our high school of 1,600 students. In my junior year of high school, I saw her in the cafeteria when we were all gathered together for some kind of assembly. I sat across from her at a lunch table while she propped her chin on her hand, looking so incredibly bored. She rolled her eyes lazily, only keeping them half-open as she asked me what kinds of classes I was taking.

It was incredibly awkward for me, but I’m certain that Angela was too stoned to remember anything that I had said. As I was talking, I could see her eyes looking through me, as if I had completely disappeared.

“You probably have, like… Lots of good, smart friends, huh?” she asked.

“Yeah, I know a lot of people in my classes,” I admitted.

“Good for you…” her eyes landed on my forehead. “I do too, really. You know Misty? Misty… what’s-her-name… You know who’m talkin’ bout?”

I shook my head.

“Anyway, we real tight. Yeah, we hang out a lot. Her and her dude. Oh and I got a man, too.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” she rolled her eyes. “He’s like real crazy for me and shit. Like, we have sex, like all the time,” she bragged. “He’s got a job already and we’re gonna get a place together as soon as I get out of this shithole,” she waved her free hand at the room.

“That’s great,” I lied. For a moment, I thought I should feel jealous. But I knew that what I was feeling for her was pity. It was awful. I swallowed hard and tried to climb out of this confusing mess of a conversation. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“Tommy,” she said, playing with the zipper on her backpack. She tossed her hair as she looked around the room. She had gained about forty pounds since I last saw her. Her eyes were slightly bloodshot and she had patches of acne on her forehead and chin.

“He’s like fuckin’ all over me, I can’t even stop him,” she added.

I nodded, too stunned to find any words.

“Totally loves me and shit.” She yawned deeply.

I imagined Angela in this new relationship. I knew that she kept everyone at arm’s length, even her close friends. I knew how she acted when she was confronted with her lies. I knew her shame and how she coped with it. I knew the example of love that had been lived out before her through the tumultuous relationship of her mother and stepfather.

At that moment, I couldn’t articulate why I knew her new relationship was already doomed. All I knew was that she was used to staring at the walls that men built around themselves, her eyes looking up, always up, landing on the center of their foreheads. I knew that what she classified as love was unstable and dramatic. It played out in an exhausting script of pleading, ultimatums, and second chances.

I knew that all the pieces of herself that she had to offer were jagged and uneven and they would cut anyone who touched her. Deeply.

But I know Angela couldn’t have seen this. Not yet.

As she sat at that table across from me, her eyes lit up. “Hey, maybe we should hang out some time,” she said.

“Yeah, maybe…” I smiled, my heart growing tight in my chest.

“Pshh…” she rolled her eyes. “Nah, you’re too good for me now, aren’t you?” she joked. “You’re all hanging with the smart kids and stuff.”

“No, really, we’ll hang out,” I lied.

“Yeah,” she smiled. “Okay.”

That was the last time I ever saw Angela.

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