Friday, June 1, 2012

Wrapping up week 10 of pregnancy, and asking "Am I obligated to be pretty?"

On the pregnancy front, I'm less queasy--hooray!--but I don't sleep well anymore at all.  I used to be one of those people that could sleep 8-10 hours straight.  Totally solid sleep.  Now I toss and turn, my back hurts, I get up to pee all the time.  I ordered a body pillow from Amazon that I hope will help with back and abdominal support.  I also ordered a prenatal yoga DVD and a prenatal strength training DVD, and I'm looking for a pair of swim shorts to wear over my old one piece so I can start swimming again.  I get horrific razor burn around my bikini line and rather than let my embarrassment keep me away from the pool, I'm ready to slap on some shorts and get on with it.  Summer is here!

And speaking of my skin, my appearance...I realized the other day that I feel obligated as a woman to a.) either be pretty and pleasant to look at, or b.) cover my flaws as much as possible "out of consideration for others", even if it means being physically uncomfortable or missing out on enjoyable things.  As if the retinas of innocent bystanders will actually catch fire if they are subjected to my ugliness.

I know this is a really old topic, and some of the older feminists out there might be rolling their eyes.  But it's one of those things that feels fresh and confusing nonetheless, for each person and each generation that grapples with it.

I thought I wanted to be attractive (or hide my numerous flaws) for all sorts of reasons: to avoid ridicule and expressions of disgust from others in order to protect myself from humiliation.  On the flip side, to make me likeable to others and for the other social advantages that come from attractiveness.  For innate biological reasons of wanting to attract and keep a mate.  Etc etc.

But more and more, I'm realizing I feel it's somehow my DUTY to be pleasant to look at, as though being pretty is the decent, considerate thing to do.  The other day I was catching some sun on my reclining deck chair in a swimsuit.  My middle-aged, overweight, male neighbor came outside and started doing something in his yard, just off to my right. I immediately felt tense and self-conscious and started wondering if I looked disgusting to him.  I didn't feel he was staring at me or anything, but I pondered whether I was unpleasant for this man to look at anyway.

It's silly.  Not only am I not obligated to serve as eye candy for random men (or women), but I don't find this particular neighbor of mine attractive--I don't view him as a potential sexual partner--I don't think much about him, period.  So why did I react this way?  Why do I ALWAYS feel almost apologetic about my appearance?  It might be a smart move to make oneself as attractive as possible; it may be advantageous on many levels.  But is anyone obligated to be hot?  Is anyone obligated to attempt to be hot?  I don't think so.

I know that these feelings of obligation come from socialization, including aggressive marketing aimed at girls and women.  But understanding the origins of it all doesn't really help me reprogram my thinking, it seems.  My mom and older sister hated their bodily flaws and would express disgust when some other person lacked the "decency" to cover up bad skin, legs with severe cellulite, back fat, whatever.  Over the years, I have found myself thinking similar things: "why doesn't this person simply cover that up?  Wear a looser fitting top?  Aren't they embarrassed?"

Well, no.  Maybe they aren't embarrassed.  Maybe they have higher priorities than masking their physical flaws.  Maybe they don't even consider themselves flawed!  And moreover, they don't owe anyone anything, and they aren't hurting anyone.

Even today, while shopping for swim shorts, I was reading reviews online and saw comments like "these shorts provide good coverage.  No woman my age should be walking around in a regular suit. No one needs to see that."  Or "I don't want to subject others to my fat thighs so I got these."  One person actually said something like "I don't want to see anything old and saggy at the beach, including myself.  These shorts do the trick."

So I guess if you can't fit the mainstream definition of attractiveness, you should at least have the decency to hide what makes you ugly?  I don't know what else to say or do about this.  After all, I'm ordering swim shorts to hide my razor burn (oh, and upper thigh cellulite and any stray hairs I might miss when shaving, because I am rather hairy and...)

Have any readers out there successfully gotten over feelings of obligation/duty/decency in regards to their appearance? 


  1. I think it's not about obligation, but about recognizing reality. I can tell myself everyday that beauty doesn't matter and that concerns about appearances are shallow and pointless, but it doesn't change the fact that we cannot separate our lives from that of the rest of society. Unless you become a hermit or recluse, you will always face consequences for choices. You don't deserve them and people have no right to treat you poorly because of appearance-related concerns, but you don't have the power to operate in this world without regard for how you look. You can say you don't care and you can not care, but that will not change the fact that you will be paid less, treated less well, and generally be disadvantaged in society if you are indifferent to appearance.

    In a spiritually advanced society, this would not be an issue, but we don't live in such a world. We can act toward others without regard for their appearances because we can be the sort of people we would like others to be, but we can't push them to be the way we want them to be. So, we aren't obliged to be pretty, but we are rewarded for it. Each of us has to decide if the rewards are worth it or not. And, no, I don't like it, but I'm also not going to charge at windmills thinking it will effectively change things.

    1. Oh yes, how we are rewarded for it. And I do all sorts of things (that I actually sorta resent) to reap those rewards. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself pretty, and I definitely don't "fix myself up" to the extent that other women do (I will never spend a day in stilettos, for example) but I do put in the extra effort it takes for me to look normal and blend in...for the most part. Letting myself get as big as I have clearly doesn't support that statement very well. My weight is the thing that makes me stand out the most right now, and I do wish to change it.

      I still think there's something of an obligation component to my thinking, though. There's lots of other qualities that are advantageous and lead to better treatment in society, such as being very social or being a super high earner, that I feel no obligation to cultivate. Failing to socialize with others or make enough money definitely has consequences, just like appearing unattractive to others has consequences. But I have to concede that appearance is in a category all its own, and therefore, maybe those analogies are weak. Our looks are so immediately apparent to others, for starters. That's never gonna change. In the end, whether it boils down to obligation or making smart choices in the face of reality or both, I'll very likely keep doing what I'm already doing.

      Okay, I really need to read "Don Quixote" now. I had to google "charge at windmills" to confirm my suspicion that the phrase came from there! :D

      Thanks for continuing the conversation, SFG.

  2. I feel weird about being in public too, not that I have a duty to make myself attractive so much as to not repulse those around me which is dumb. I don't know why I feel like that as I've never really gotten any negative comments in public and logically it is the other person's problem to deal with and not mine.

    For me it even goes so far as the fact that while I'd like to get a massage I don't for fear of grossing out the masseuse.

    1. Arwenn, thanks for this. That is EXACTLY why I have never gotten a massage, even though I'd really like one. And you know, I've never received any negative comments from strangers either! I have had some critical comments from family members, though, so maybe I'm thinking that those close to me are saying what "everyone else" is actually thinking.

      Although--I doubt the average stranger is as superficial as the female family members I'm talking about here.

  3. Wow. All I can say is that this is tragic.

    Yes, it's perfectly true that good looking people make more money and get a lot more perks than ordinary folk, but it's really tragic that you're walking around with such a sh*t load of self-loathing. That goes far beyond not feeling as "pretty" as you would like to be.

    I'm like everyone else. I've been programmed to feel uncomfortable with my supposed flaws. I'm way shorter than average and definitely on the chubby side. But maybe because I was a teenager during that short but wonderful time in the 70s when being a feminist was a fabulous, exciting, empowering thing to be has helped me to not sombre into such debilitating self-hate.

    I really feel for you. There have to be some sort of self-esteem workshops offered where you live, at the "Y" for example. You need to get your head above water and learn to accept--and more importantly--feel love and respect for who you are right now. Do not give up! If you do, then "they" will definitely have won.

    1. It does suck, but I am skeptical workshops can help me. I've read lots of books meant to target self-esteem, perfectionism, and the like, and I've been in therapy for years also, revisiting this topic as needed. It would have to be a pretty magical workshop to change my outlook...

      The times in my life where this whole thing has bothered me less have been when I'm very busy accomplishing something that is meaningful to me. So there's that. Right now, my life is considerably slower and more ambiguous than it used to be. Who knows how I will feel once a baby is here. Raising him or her is sure to be meaningful and demanding; though children are never a ticket to solving our personal problems, I'm open to the possibility that having a child will change my outlook on all sorts of different things in life.

      I will have to figure out how to pass the right attitudes on to them, regardless of how I might feel inside about myself. My mom just didn't have a filter, and I internalized much of what she said about bodies and appearance. I have a filter.