Saturday, August 18, 2012

Preoccupied with "beauty"

As anyone who has been following this blog knows, I didn't lose weight to attain beauty. I'm 47 years old, soon to be 48, and I know that the best I could hope for physically was to escape the stigmatizing and physical pain that come along with being nearly 400 pounds. Nonetheless, the idea of "beauty" has been on my mind a lot lately, and I want to explore why.

One of the things that makes me think about beauty in this way is the manner in which some of my friends talk about how men interact with them. These women are contemporaries of mine, a few years older than me. One of them lost 40 lbs., but is still a little chubby and decidedly looks like your average middle-age lady from a physical characteristics point of view. Even at her lightest weight ever, she has had a flabby neck and double chin (much to her chagrin).

There's nothing wrong at all with her appearance, but she's also not some hot mama who you could see strange men walking up to and hitting on her. She has been married, happily from all external appearances, for a very long time. She mentioned on Facebook that a guy hit on her in the supermarket while she was buying a deli salad.

Another one of my friends is very, very short (4' 11", I think) and somewhat apple shaped with disproportionately large breasts and possesses a classic middle-aged Italian lady look (if you're thinking Sophia Loren, think again). Again, there's nothing wrong with her appearance, but she's no Roman beauty. She's just an average woman in her early 50's. She has mentioned that a friend of her ex-boyfriend has always wanted her and started hitting on her after her former relationship ended. I believe that, from time to time, she has talked about other men wanting her, but her having no interest in them. She is unmarried (never has been) and is actually one my my husband's former girlfriends (though he chose her, like he chose me, for personality, not appearances).

After losing so much weight, I feel as if something must be very "wrong" with my appearance when I hear about contemporaries getting hit on despite the fact that they don't appear to possess any special beauty. I realize that this is unproductive for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I'm pretty sure I'd be creeped out if a man tried to pick me up and I am utterly devoted to my  husband. However, a part of me wants this sort of validation, and I'm not happy about it.

I've been pondering why I want this because my husband is the only person whose opinion matters, or at least it should be the only one that does. He adores me and tells me he feels I'm beautiful. I adore him and think he is the sexiest creature on the planet. I have never wanted another man after committing to a life with him, and the truth is that, if something horrible were to happen and I lost him, I don't think I'd ever want another man in my life again.

I should also note that I don't like being touched by people other than my husband, but I absolutely love to be touched by him (as much as possible). We are incredibly physically affectionate, sometimes to an extent which makes other people a little uncomfortable. We always hold hands when we walk together, kiss or hug intermittently when walking around, put our arms around each other, and sit in contact with each other if it is at all possible and not socially inappropriate. I am not one of those people who just doesn't want to be "pawed". I love it, as long as it is coming from him.

Despite my high level of comfort with being physical with him, it's sometimes an effort for me to engage in social hugging because I really don't want to have such contact with others. This probably stems from a certain amount of distrust of others as well as deeply ingrained fear that they secretly are repulsed by touching me, a remnant of being so overweight for most of my life and knowing people were repulsed by touching a morbidly obese person. I mention all of this because I want it to be clear that I'm not sitting around desiring other men in any way.

Though I've been picking at this psychological knot for awhile, I haven't quite untangled it. I think that there are a variety of insecurities at play in this. One is that, when I was much younger and lost weight, no men expressed any interest in me. I look back on pictures of myself from that time (age 21-22, around 170 lbs.), a time when I thought I looked pretty good "for my weight" and wonder what was wrong with me. At that time, I believed it was because I was still fat and any fatness at all was a huge turn-off to men. There was a man who was far fatter than me (about 75 lbs. overweight) who I was interested in who did not return that interest. There was a man who I had a crush on for over a decade who was not particularly attractive who turned me down even after I'd lost weight. In both of the cases I'm citing here, it's important to note that I knew both of them well, socialized with them a lot, and made my interest clear. I didn't hint, I directly asked, and was nicely told I wasn't seen that way by them.

I never got any validation that I was physically appealing even when I was younger and had a greater potential to be seen as such. Since my picture is not on this blog, you'll have to trust me when I say that I do not have any unappealing facial features. I don't think anyone would look at me and say I was "ugly". In Asia, where I was considered "exotic", I was often told I was "beautiful" by the natives. Their standards are different and some of them were almost certainly just flattering me, but I think that if I was actually strongly physically unappealing, they wouldn't have said that.

Looking back at some women who had boyfriends at the same age as me (in my early 20's), frankly, I think they were not very visually appealing at all and many of them were as dull as dishwater to boot. In retrospect, this continues to baffle me. Not only did young women get more attention than me then, but middle-aged women I know get more than I do now.

So, I wonder, what was/is wrong with me? Well, the answer is that I still am seeking external validation for my worth based on my appearance. This is not a good thing for two reasons. First of all, even if I got it, it would never be enough. In fact, getting it would very likely make me want to seek more of it and start to hang more of my esteem on a continuation of such validation. Second, it's more of placing control of my sense of worth outside of myself.

I think what I'm experiencing here is a re-occurrence of a life-long pattern. People have always invalidated me based on appearance and I have accepted that that is their right. Now, I want them to validate me based on appearance because I think that is also their right. I'm so accustomed to my appearance being a critical factor in how my value is determined that I continue to look for cues that I am valuable (or value-less) in this area. Clearly, this is a point which I have to work on.


Human In Progress said...

I get that this is about you sorting through the issue of validation more so than figuring out why you haven't been approached more often by men--but I still wanted to share my hypothesis about the "getting hit on by strangers" part! I think most men (and women) do a quick (mostly sub-conscious?) assessment of a person's probable receptivity to advances, in addition to an assessment of their looks/desirability. Some people are VERY attractive, but they look unfriendly or otherwise closed off to the world around them. Some don't look unfriendly, but they do come off as serious and intimidating, perhaps through body language, manner of speech, or facial expression. My guess is that if a person feels they will be shot down for any reason, they will typically protect their ego and hang back. I'm not saying you look any of these ways--I have no idea!--I'm just saying that you can be quite attractive and still not draw pick up lines and flirtations your way. Clearly, you don't need to change a thing because you have an adoring husband and you don't actually want sexual attention from other men. :) Maybe the other men can sense that somehow? I'd be interested to hear what you think.

The other thing is that I sometimes wonder if people exaggerate their encounters with strangers. Or state things with certainty ("so and so has ALWAYS wanted me") when the claim is actually pretty weak or baseless. I've heard stories from girlfriends that left me pretty skeptical...

screaming fatgirl said...

I think you make excellent points, and the truth is that I absolutely considered the latter one. I did wonder if both of these women were making more of encounters because it provided an ego boost to believe such things, but I felt that sounded a bit like I was trying to soothe my ego by undermining their credibility. Nonetheless, I thought it, too.

I also think you have a point about not giving off an availability vibe. I think that I'm not giving off an unfriendly vibe, but there is clearly a "not interested" one. My husband and I have talked about this and we both think that, when I was younger, it was as much my strong character that put people off as anything physical. I can be quite intimidating with the way I come off and speak to people, not because I'm obnoxious, but because I'm forthright, and, unsurprisingly, intellectual. The thinking that attracted him to me was likely repelling other men when I was younger.

Thanks so much for your comment!

screaming fatgirl said...

LHA: Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment. I think you make very good points both about exaggerating and how we are conditioned to believe our value is reflected in admiration from others. It would amaze me that we live in a society that supposedly has embraced equality, yet we still live with the idea that a woman's value lies in her beauty. Of course, women embrace this as much as men.

I would like to re-condition myself in this regard though because it's bound to be the case that I will receive little or no such validation as I age. It's a destructive desire to have and it squarely places power outside of myself.

I'm glad that you said you were treated better at normal weight and when well-groomed. So many people deny that weight affects how you are treated, but I was definitely treated worse at higher weights (and utterly objectified when morbidly or super morbidly obese).

screaming fatgirl said...

Sorry, LHA, your comment vanished and my reply stayed so I'll repost it here:

LHA has left a new comment on your post "Preoccupied with "beauty"":

First, let me say I enjoy your blog enormously. Your detail in discussing issues always gives me something to think about and I appreciate the time you put into writing your posts.

I had the immediate response that Human in Progress had. I wondered if these women who related how men were hitting on them or wanted them were just exaggerating or even fantasizing. It is certainly a possibility.

Also, it has been my observation that some women do just give off a "vibe" that somehow signals to men that they are available, at least for flirtation. Maybe since you have such a satisfying relationship with your husband you don't send out such a signal. I would never begin to try to imagine what is going on in the minds of men, however.

I think we all want and desire validation that we are liked and desired by the opposite sex. I am a little older than you are, but I think that we were taught as young girls that our worth was directly proportional to the amount of admiration we got from others. I was raised to do everything possible to make myself attractive was an important thing. Experience taught me that was true. I have been fat, obese and normal size at various times in my life, and I am always treated with more respect and courtesy when I am normal size and well groomed. No matter how I try to not care what others think, I do notice it and I don't like being ignored or being treated rudely because of my appearance.

Thanks for making me consider my own feelings on these things. I'll be turning it over in my own mind and see what I come up with. It's worth thinking about.

Rita FP said...

Have you considered that perhaps this is what those women think is going on, when in reality it isn't? I mean, this is just them saying. Anyone who feels the need to share such info on facebook feels more like they're looking for validation. Not necessarily factual info. At the same time, because you have been used to believe that doesn't happen to you, you may have missed advances from men throughout your life. Sometimes we can't tell when someone is trying to show interest (and many men are not exactly known to be the best at expressing themselves). All I mean to say is that this perception you have may be based on inaccurate evidence :)