Sometimes you’ve just gotta trust the hand you’ve got.
Promotional tie-in alert! I’ve got an essay up today on Medium.com’s new mind and body channel. It’s a revisiting of something I wrote years ago, before The Beheld had much of a readership, about my own complicity in what some people might call beauty privilege, but what really amounts to sexism (and not only because I am far too modest to own up to “beauty privilege,” kittens). Specifically: By playing the part of a young-enough, pretty-enough woman and putting up with a certain amount of comments about being that part, I expected a certain amount of privilege. (Not universally; it’s specific to a former landlord whom I let make semi-lewd comments to me in hopes that my apartment would receive prompt attention when need be. Oh, just read the story.)
It’s been interesting to revisit this; the events in the piece happened three years ago, and I wasn’t yet as in the habit of looking at secondary themes when looks-related situations arise. When I look back on this situation now that it’s long over (my current landlord, Tanya, has never eyeballed me once), what stands out to me is my distrust. My distrust in my then-landlord, for starters, which in this case was earned. But really, it’s my distrust in myself that I’m noticing here. Or maybe not myself exactly, but more a lack of trust in the way things should work. When I relayed this story to a friend, she sympathized, but then pointed out that what I thought was a “weak hand” in the power balance between us actually wasn’t. That is: I am a good tenant. I pay rent on time; I’m quiet and courteous; I came to that particular apartment with excellent references; I’m housebroken. My former landlord had been looking for the right tenant for two months—this is unheard of in New York City—before I moved in. For in his own words, “I want someone who will treat the place right,” and his instincts (and my references) told him that I was that person. My hand was strong. And yes, he gave me attitude about making repairs that he wasn’t legally obliged to make, but the point here is that he gave me attitude even though I played the part of flirty, easygoing lady tenant. My real, actual, legal hand here of being a good tenant and knowing that that was valuable to him was just fine. Hell, in the end, he even made the repair I asked for. In fact, there’s a chance I made my hand weaker by playing the part I thought he wanted me to play. Had I approached every encounter with him in a wholly straightforward manner—just business, just the facts, no giggles—he may well have taken my complaint more seriously.
I can’t help but wonder how often I make the same mistake or assumption—that I’d better make the most of my looks, because that’s what’s really going to get me out of a jam when the time comes—out of distrust of my actual hand in life. I mean, yeah, it’s hard not to, when there are messages everywhere telling us that women’s accomplishments aren’t worth a damn unless they look good (and then they probably just slept with someone to go places, right?). But I also know that there are plenty of messages counter to that. Loads. (Including one that’s purposefully counter: Beauty Redefined’s “You Are Capable of Much More Than Being Looked At” sticky notes—promotional tie-in #2!—now available for purchase.) I mean, half the time I’m aware of people denigrating the appearance of women in the public eye, I’m only aware of it because someone has called bullshit on it. And believe you me, I did not grow up believing my looks would get me anything in life. (I remember justifying to myself as early as age 9 that it was okay that I wasn’t pretty, because I was smart, and lordy knows being both was impossible.) So when did I begin to subconsciously rely on my “girlish charm”? I wonder if this phenomenon could only exist in complicity with women’s inordinate distrust in our own appeal that we hear so much about. The flipside of not trusting your own appeal is that you overemphasize its importance. I don’t mean to make myself out to be a total sad sack, but honestly, this is sort of a lose-lose situation.
But back to the idea of not trusting others: When I was 24, I took a trip to Italy with my then-boyfriend. Being in Italy with a male companion was an experience entirely different from being in Italy alone, which I’d done the year before. I hear the culture has radically shifted since then (I haven’t been back since I was 24), but at the time, if you were alone and female, you were bait. This was charming at times (a shopkeeper in Florence ran to the music store next door to find a copy of “Autumn in New York” to put on when I told him where I lived), frightening at others. I remember at one point literally having a trail of three men walking behind me for several blocks, until I ducked into a polizia station, where the officers told me I had no need to worry—“When they stop looking, that’s when you worry”—but schooled me on a few choice phrases anyway. I’d told my boyfriend all about my earlier adventures, and had rather condescendingly pointed out that it was unfortunate that he wouldn’t receive as warm a reception from the Italians.
Which he didn’t. That is: He wasn’t followed down the street, nobody in the grocery line put down money for his goods, no bottles of wine mysteriously appeared at our table. People, men, were polite, but not…gregarious/overbearing. And still: One morning in Palermo, we went to the market, dazed by a rocky night’s sleep on an overnight train, and he stood in front of an olive vendor selling more varieties of olives than either of us knew existed. I’d been doing most of the communicating for us—doing my best with hand gestures, guidebooks, and college French—but I was too tired to figure out how to ask for olives, and I didn’t care for olives anyway, so we just stood there, staring. The man took a piece of paper from behind his cart, whipped it into a cone of sorts, spooned a heap of olives into it, and handed it to my boyfriend, whose eyes lit up like a six-year-old’s at Dairy Queen. When he dug out his wallet to offer some lira to the olive vendor, the man waved him away—prego, prego—with a smile. Waved him away with a smile: him, not me; the young freckled American who clearly wanted olives and would take utter delight in them, not the pretty-enough woman by his side.
I think of that sometimes, when I catch myself consciously thinking that being nominally attractive might curry some sort of favor. I mean, we all know it can, and you don’t need to be a traffic-stopper to reap the sort of benefits I’m talking about here. But when I’ve slipped into that worldview too deeply, I’ve robbed myself of the expectancy of human goodness. It’s a cynical mind-set, one that winds up reinforcing the idea that women are meant to be decorative objects—something I don’t believe of any woman, certainly not of myself. Perhaps I developed that cynicism as a defense mechanism against the smatterings of disappointments that can accompany womanhood if you approach it from a certain angle and squint. But fuck it: I know better now than to think my own offerings, and the offerings of others, are most abundant at the surface.