Here I am at the Met. Here I am in my new dress. Yes, that is me. Look, look. The feminist and the philosopher in me are fretful, though, about me putting my own picture out, “posting” it is the verb, like soldiers are posted somewhere. Do people now know that I care about how I look, or, worse, do they know that I care that I care what they think of how I look? Look how I look when I like how I look! Look! Isn’t it embarrassing to be vain? Isn’t it even more vain to be embarrassed about being thought vain?
Perhaps this is all, as someone said to me, “Something you should get over.” (But then what would I write about if I got over things?)
Vanity I don’t fear out of some Puritanical sadomasochistic urge. Well, perhaps a little of that, as I am a good Episcopalian, but I also have found that humility is almost always the first step to happiness, and vanity threatens humility. Doesn’t it?
I remember this moment, reading some ladies’ magazine, when I thought, all this about being beautiful is wanting to be loved. All these magazines were about wanting one person to tell you you were beautiful because he was in love with you, and once someone is in love with you, you look different to him, of course. I felt, then, freed to enjoy the magazines, all of fashion and beauty, because I knew what it was.
My sometime bursts of wisdom, notwithstanding, I spent age twelve to sixteen hidden in my clothes, thinking that because of my breasts or my braces and glasses, no one would ever love me.
Although deeply humiliated to agree with a New York Post article, being a good feminist, I am pleased when strangers say anything positive about my appearance. I say thank you to polite men and completely ignore rude ones, and I am pleased.
This does not mean men should call out to strangers, as many women find it upsetting. Let us refrain.
I understand that there is a lot of pushback that has to happen, from so many years when women’s appearance, and others’ ideas of it, was the source of what little power they had. But let us also ask: why are women frightened by strangers talking about how they look? Why is the idea that your appearance is attractive, or arousing, threatening? Why does this empower the man, and not the woman? Isn’t saying no to a man a powerful thing? It feels very powerful to me.
There is power you have over someone when he wants to look at you, wants to touch you. You know. Someone has had that power over you.
Wanting to be noticed, wanting to be hidden, back and forth, back and forth.
Did I not make of myself a bit of visual art, dress choice, makeup, dyeing my hair– for that matter, standing as I stood?
The photos I’ve taken of myself, trying to look just as I want to, are secret. They would show that I am just as vain as everyone else, and I am both somewhat vain and somewhat ashamed of it.
Being single, perhaps my looks matter more? Perhaps I need them.
And how do you keep yourself seeing yourself as you are? Is the outside a part of that? Changing it, looking at it? The outsides-matching-insides adjustments.
When I go to the monastery, I don’t put in my contacts, or wear makeup. I don’t do anything but wash my face and comb my hair and put it back so it’s out of my face. I wear covered-up tops and the same skirt of pants every day. This feels good and normal there. I can’t imagine anyone there asking me to dress any particular way, this just feels right to me, the same way it felt right to cover my shoulders in Rome or Qatar. Right? Even exciting, that you are so lovely you must tone it down.
And when I put the other three minutes back in my toilette, the last morning at the monastery, I feel sparkling. There are my curls! My eyelashes!
Sometimes, perhaps, it is out of love for my dress I chose for the occasion, I do have many dresses, and I am happy they have gotten to go to that party, and the dress will help me remember that occasion, where I bought it, how it felt to wear it.
And I think, I will be old, I am only older and older (as They Might Be Giants would remind me), and I would like photos of when I was…young? Younger? To do what with?
Photos of in a swimsuit to prove to someone, someday, that I had a lovelier human body, not one that looked worn, as it will, if I am lucky. Photos to show something of my accomplishment as a woman, as still, part of being an accomplished woman is being as lovely as possible, as it is a pleasure to add to the loveliness of the world by dressing thoughtfully to go buy a newspaper. Photos to have on the door of my room at the nursing home so people will think, Oh, she was a pretty one, she was. Let us treat her like a pretty person.
Some families have photos of your parents or grandparents that people would use to remark, She was so pretty. In our family, what I remember is my dad calling my mom “a pretty girl,” and me “a pretty girl,” my mom saying, “You look beautiful,” and I knew what they meant was, “I love you.”