Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fair warning, people. This post is lengthy. I wrote it for selfish reason, but of course you're welcome to read it. Please know it's long and rambling and I absolutely will not resent you for stopping in the middle because you got bored. Just putting that out there before we start.

I really really wanted to go to bed early tonight and get a decent amount of sleep so I could be industrious and show up early for work so I could actually DO some work, but the fire alarm at the very top of my vaulted ceiling in my bedroom has a low battery and is CHIRPING once every minute as I am slowlyCHIRPtorturouslyCHIRPcompleCHIRP driven out of my mind. When I read the ad for my house in the paper, the idea of having vaulted ceilings was simply too posh to imagine. I've since come to the conclusion that the only thing a vaulted ceiling contributes to your life is the omnipresent dread at the thought of someday having to either buy or borrow a 12-foot ladder to change the battery on the smoke alarm that the moron mounted 10 feet above my head and which WILL NOT STOP CHIRPING. At least being jolted awake every 59 seconds gives me plenty of opportunity to write.

Remember tango? Remember how last week tango was this incredibly therapeutic, life changing event? Also, remember how last year at a tango thing my world was crushed by a moron in dance sneakers and I turned into a hermit for a month before I finally decided it was wasn't the greatest idea to avoid sun and human contact for the rest of my life? (I would link, but I'm typing this on Google docs and I can't, so if you want to read the detailed post about it, search for "tango" in my blogsearch bar)

Yeah, well.

I wish Yosemite Sam or someone Wild West affiliated would've drawn helpful warning signs on pieces of driftwood that said DANGER, TURN BACK NOW or EMOTIONAL BITCHSLAP AHEAD and posted them in regular intervals throughout the last three weeks so I would've at least thought about the possibility that dancing with strange men wasn't always going to be puppies and unicorns. Or I wish the high school me who diligently wrote down every profound quotation she encountered (So I could whip it out to impress a date? I seriously have no idea why) with a purple glitter pen in a spiral bound journal with a picture of a cat on it would've made a copy of the "Those who do not learned from the past are doomed to repeat it" page and stapled it to one of my hands so that every single time I put my hand on a man's shoulder to dance, or I gesticulated in my efforts to explain my addiction to tango and how just WONDERFUL it is and how FREEING and la la la...that the stapled paper would've reminded me not to put myself into the same position as I did last year, and to proceed with caution.

I guess I need to preface the rest of this post with this thought: if you have lived your life as a woman who, shall we say, is more prized for her cerebral qualities than her aesthetic ones, you also live your life through a series of little disappointments that change you in very small but profound ways as you grow up. At least that's how it happens for me. I mentioned in another post that I really believe there are three categories of women: beautiful women, tragic women
(not in the La Traviata sense, but in the pageboy haircut/inexplicable interest in raising guinea pigs and playing ragtime piano sense), and invisible women--those who aren't attractive, but they aren't unattractive either. I place myself in the third category because I've been invisible dozens and dozens of times in my life...at dances, at parties, as I walk into a restaurant with a gaggle of gorgeous girlfriends...and the knowledge and experiences of never quite being pretty enough to be worth notice kind of slowly chips away at you until the you that you could be in those situations is completely obscured because you're just the DUFF (www.urbandictionary.com if you don't know what that means).

And yeah, yeah...I will inevitably get an email from a Bona Fide Pretty Girl who will remind me that supermodels have problems too. In fact, it seems my friend Doctor Andy and I were writing at the exact same time about similar issues, and he published his own thoughts from a different perspective last night. I get that beautiful women have to deal with being objectified for their appearance, and always questioning whether opportunities or attention is coming because of her intelligence and accomplishments or the way her ass looks in a pair of Levis. I know that pretty girls suffer from the pressure of always maintaining their beauty, and that it's really hard and it can make them every bit as insecure as invisible women. But here's the thing, I'm pretty certain that 100% of women would rather be objectified for being attractive than unattractive. Even if the attention is negative, it comes from a positive place; beautiful women get stared at because their beauty is pleasant to behold. Invisible women get ignored because no one really knows what to do with them. Biologically, we are useless...thank God for brains and senses of humor or Darwin would've weeded us out in favor of Victoria's Secret models a century ago.

I think if you're a woman who's spent a lifetime of always being invisible, of always being the girl about whom guys would say, "God, Erin would be the world's most perfect girlfriend if she just didn't look like...Erin." If you've spent your life as the sidekick or the Gal Friday or the girl who matchmakes your guy friends with your girl friends because you know there's no chance the guys will actually want to date YOU, then you also know that over time, the chipping away sort of stops because there's nothing left of your self-image to destroy. That's when the insecurity starts to become very comforting. You know you don't have to shave your legs when you go out to dinner with a male friend, because there's absolutely no chance that your male friend asked you out on a date because he doesn't think of you that way. You don't have to worry about staying late at a bar and having perfect makeup or saying the perfect thing or pretending to be flirtatious when you'd rather be at home watching a Will and Grace marathon on Oxygen because you know you're not going to go home with anyone that night. After awhile, you realize you have a pretty good thing going; you can relax and be yourself and as long as you don't suddenly develop an interest in rodent farming or maybe learning Bulgarian folk dances or something, then you're going to be pretty comfortable as an invisible woman.

I'm sure the three of you who've kept reading to this point will say, "But Erin...what about inner beauty and finding your true worth through who you are and not what you look like?"

Hold on, I'm getting there.

The peculiar thing that tends to happen when someone like me finally gives up trying to be aesthetically beautiful and just starts tinkering around with life is that those women usually find someTHING to give them confidence and beauty rather finding someONE to validate them that way. And we've all seen enough Tyra (Don't lie; you've at least been subjected to secondhand Tyra and you KNOW that you've been wanting to YouTube her "All About the Vagina" show for a week now) to know that gaining strength through an internal rather than external transformation is going to be a substantially more gratifying experience. Every single Jennifer Weiner book, every single Bridget Jones or inspirational strong woman movie with a Whitney Houston soundtrack and starring Angela Bassett is about this, and they've become fixtures in our canon of social tropes because that process happens in real life. People who are damaged, especially women, find something inside themselves that is stronger, more capable, more talented, and more beautiful than they ever knew, and the confidence that knowledge instills in them also makes them ultimately more attractive than the pretty girls they're friends with.

And I guess that's what was happening to me over the last month; the first two weeks of tango lessons was about me getting over my fear of touching men again, and of my fear of being rejected for my size and my looks. When my worries about resting my body weight against K, my teacher, finally faded by my third lesson, and my mind stopped shrieking in horror everytime I looked at my profile in the practice mirror he had installed in his living room, I started focusing on actually dancing and connecting and moving my body to the music. The third and fourth lessons were absolutely lovely...we walked and turned and swayed on the dance floor and at the end of our last dance of our last lesson, K stepped away and broadly grinned at me. He was very pleased with the way I was dancing, he told me; I was on cloud nine. My third lesson butted up against a little tango practice party he was holding at his house, so I stuck around and sipped wine and nibbled on apple slices while the dancers arrived. I wasn't intending to really dance, because everyone else there was pretty advanced or at least experienced and I didn't want to make a fool of myself in front of people I'd have to see at milongas or other workshops later. But K asked me to dance, and then later Rich, a honest to goodness Conventionally Attractive Male, asked me too. Rich, I found out, was 27 and a swing dance teacher who had recently developed a similar tango addiction. We danced, and it felt really nice...he was encouraging when I did well, and he was patient when I didn't know what to do next. He helped me breathe and relax, and we had a very musical, lovely dance together. When we were done he asked me how long I'd been dancing, and he was impressed when I said just three weeks.

I wish I could've written about those exchanges in more eloquent terms, but for now I'll just say that I hope everyone who's reading this knows what it's like to feel beautiful for something you do...how extraordinary it can be to trust yourself enough to let go and make art, even if it only lasts for the length of a three-minute tango song. For an entire week I walked around like Helen of Troy; my posture changed, I smiled at more people, I was vibrant and energetic and charming, and I was SO excited for the next time I got to dance, because I had a feeling it was going to be every bit as incredible as the past two weeks had been. I think, maybe, the way I was acting and the way I perceived life after feeling so good about something made me beautiful. I still have the world's greatest expanse of thigh, and my wrist and collarbones are not so much prominent as faint suggestions, but for the first time in a long time, I managed to step outside my physical appearance long enough to be actually beautiful.

I was having a fabulous day Sunday; I woke up late, puttered around the house a little, and later met Doctor Andy for dinner after watching an opera in which he played in the pit orchestra. After dinner I headed over to the old Presbyterian church that hosts the Sunday milongas (enter my mother's voice in your head saying "Social DANCING? On a SUNDAY? In a CHURCH? I guess it's none of my business what you people do up there.") and I was secretly pleased to find out that no one else assembled in the class had taken tango before. There was just NO WAY this could be disappointing, right?

(Notice what I did right there with the foreshadowing. Pulitzer Prize, here I come.)

So, remember when you started reading this at the beginning of this post and before the ten minutes of your life you wasted reading the rest of it and will subsequently never, ever get back...minutes you could've spent inspecting your belly button lint or texting inappropriate limericks about your boss to your cubicle partner? Okay, so back then at the beginning I mentioned last year I took some tango classes at the suggestion of a friend and ended up having kind of a major depression because one of the teachers there told me my body was too fat to tango properly. And of course, the moment I looked up from changing into my tango shoes, there he was again next to a woman who appeared to be in her early thirties, and who also appeared to be wearing a homemade Holly Hobby dress and pigtails and plastic flower barrettes. I'm sorry if I step on anyone's toes, but if I meet you and you are above the age of 11 and you are wearing any combination of the above outfit and you have not just come from a Britney Spears lookalike contest or your bedroom where you were busy playing Naughty Schoolgirl and Stern Headmaster with your lover, then I will judge you. No excuses.

Apparently, the girl was a coworker of the man who hates my body and she had taken a few classes with him in September and so they spent 40 minutes of our hour-long class demonstrating how to walk, how to embrace, how to do all the things I desperately wanted to do. And while the girl was not bad, per se, she was distracting, because she bounced and tittered and fell over a lot and I just wanted to scream because all I wanted to do was actually dance like I danced with Korey and not hold onto the arms of a diminutive Welsh woman who decided to try tango because she loved the guy who played J. Peterman when he won the Dancing with the Stars challenge during the first season. As the practica ended and the milonga began, the instructor who does not like me actually asked me to dance, which seemed to be a hopeful sign. We danced one song, inexplicably going round and round the room in a weird box step that no one has ever actually done in tango that I know of, and then he stepped back and said, "I can tell you're nervous. Thank you for the dance." And that was that. I guess nervous is better than fat.

To the man's credit, he was very congenial to me when we weren't dancing, but he also didn't ask me for another dance despite the lack of female partners there. Other men trickled in, and one by one we were eached asked to dance a set. I would inevitably start the dance with "I'm a beginner, so be gentle" and they would respond with, "I'm sure it's not as bad as you think" and then we'd dance and it WAS as bad as I thought and so we'd suffer through the eight minutes together and then we'd be done. No second dance. No more conversation.

And this is where the insecurity started seeping back in, because with Korey there was never any question of was I good enough or was I doing the right things...we just danced and he taught and I listened and it got better and better and better. But while I was dancing with these new men the prevailing thought in my head was that it was kind of like having really, really awful rebound sex after breaking up with a longterm partner. It felt disconnected and stressful and just kind of disappointing and I just wanted to go hide every time it was over because there was no connection, and the reason there was no connection was because I lost my confidence more and more as the night went on. I left early, because after a small group of Turkish ballerinas (not even kidding) wandered off the campus of the nearby university and into our milonga, I knew there was no chance of me getting dances with the men anymore. None of them had danced tango before, but they just looked so gorgeous at being bad that every single man in the room gravitated toward them. In contrast, I was sweaty, dishevelled, huge, and awkward trying to hide my bulk in one of the folding chairs in the corner of the room. I wasn't beautiful anymore.

So, this was Sunday, and I went through a 24-hour period of extreme self-pity and blubbering in my car and rewatching Bridget Jones for the 312th time while eating Indian takeout from my go-to restaurant for all things comfort food, and finally tonight I managed to get some perspective on the situation. Of course, I'm going to have to go back and not let this man discourage me from doing something that made me so happy. Of course I'm going to have to deal with my size and my looks on my own terms, because permanent, sustainable change is never going to happen unless I do it for myself. Of course I'm going to have to keep reading other tango blogs that say you're just going to have to act like a goddess because tango isn't about physical beauty so much as attitude and to talk to friends who all will reassure me that tango is a horrible struggle to overcome insecurities and learn about yourself and that's why it's so addictive and because it's a lot more than just dancing...it's figuring out how to live your life, too. I know all these things, and yet right now I'm really cringing from having to face them.

The saying "beauty is pain" keeps popping into my head as I write this entry, because I think it means something different based on the type of woman you are. The conventional interpretation of it is funny; we all have to go through waxings and haircuts and shaving and plucking and exercising in order to conform to the generally agreed upon definition of beauty. Maybe for the truly beautiful woman, like Doctor Andy wrote about, the saying means that your pulchritude will never give you the privacy you need or friendships that aren't also confused by attraction. What it means for me, is that if you don't have the luxury of looking like a woman every man wants to have, then you're going to have to fight for your beauty, even if you lose it over and over and over. It maybe means that you're going to have to accept your child bearing hips or your too-thin mouth or your mousy brown hair and find something else that makes you magnificent. Maybe it means that you're going to do something to change those things, but that you also have to realize that those things aren't the most important part of who you are. It means that other people, like Asshole Tango Man for me, may be able to squash your confidence in a single sentence, but it's your obligation to yourself to do the work to build it back up.

God, that's a scary, wonderful thought.


Vickie said...

I did make it all the way to the end - twice in fact.

I am not sure that I know a helpful thing to say - but when I was that no one else had a chance to comment (yet) I didn't want that "0 comments" to stay there.

The whole first time through - I kept thinking about the ONE step class that I tried - and how I cried all the way through it.

The second time I read it - I thought you were VERY brave to try something that you have to do WITH others - as in touching other people, being in sync with other people, being in sync with the music, breathing other people's air.

All of those things scare me.

I also thought you were very brave to work through something that you love.

Nory Roth said...

Fantastic post! I wept with recognition at the D.U.F.F. comment. It is so hard and so hurtful to have to live with the realization that THAT is who you are to some people. Sometimes I think that it is just easier to be ALONE than to attach oneself to people who would demoralize another human being in that way. And make no mistake -- it is demoralizing.

I could also relate to your euphoria at having felt the rush of feeling beautiful, and graceful, and artistic. I, too, have felt that from time to time. All too infrequently and all too fleetingly. I have always secretly believed that conventionally "beautiful" women live with at least some portion of that euphoria most of the time. I am probably wrong. But I also secretly believe that they have NEVER felt the soul crushing shame of realizing that they are not valued for themselves, but a gauge for comparison with their companion (read D.U.F.F.).

I would encourage you to follow your muse. Life is much too short to allow ass-hats like that twee dance instructor to tread on your self-esteem. Wouldn't it be great if one day the euphoria you felt for that 24 hour period could seep into your everyday life? Accentuate the positive -- minimize the negative -- and it will all work out in the end.

kitmouse said...

Oh, Erin. I totally saw myself in this post (and not just because my name is Erin, too, and I've sid similar things to myself). I read the whole post, and it made me ache.

I too am...nothing special to look at. Heavy industrial bones except for my cheekbones which basically aren't there, bland hair that is nothing special, eyes that are a little small, nose that is a little big...nothing horrendous but nothing special. Entirely forgettable. I gave up long ago trying to deny that reality.

I was the "best female friend". My best guy friend in high school became my friend because he had just broken up with his girlfriend (my best friend) and he wanted to talk about her. A later best friend stole every single guy I ever was interested in--including my first kiss and longtime crush. I have male friends how whose wifes aren't threatened by our friendship--"because it's just you". Ugh.

The same thing that happened to you, though, happened to me: I started taking dance lessons. Ballroom&Latin: wlatz foxtrot tango rumba chacha. At some point--I think midway through level 3 the first time--I began to feel beautiful. I began to be aware of how my body was moving and the rythm that was beating in me. As my partners moved with me and we learned the steps, I blossomed into a whole new me.

This new me is precious to me, and I am protective. I hold her close. No one is allowed to criticize her, get close to her, or judge her. I nurture her in ways I have never nurtured my old self. I bought her a dancing dress! I bought her dancing shoes! I clear the schedule so she can go dancing every week! As she grows I feel new. I feel beautiful as I never have before.

This got really long and "poetic", but I just wanted to say that I related to every word.

PS--If you want, you can add Improbable Truth to the AFG blogroll. :)

Anonymous said...

Hey there, Miss Minx,

I am a fan of your writing. I also identify with the DUFF (god, you should delete that dictionary-it is full of hurtful, useless stuff!). I don't want to come across as your obsessed fan but I think you're gorgeous. You remind me of Sophie Dahl. You are gorgeous right now, at wahtever you weigh, with what ever baggage you have in your head: you are just beautiful.

I relate to what you wrote. Wehn I feel desperate about my physical appearance I try and take better care of myself (even tho my head tells me otherwise). I nurtured myself by buying a beautiful bike, and biking gear, and I ride it. When I cannot stand my self, I try and take pleasure in the fact that my legs will support me for hundreds of km. That my lungs can pump oxygen in and out, and that I am alive to enjoy the whole experience. Sounds like your dancing has a similar effect on you. Keep at it, for sure, and I hope things calm down for you!

Have I mentioned I think you are gorgeous ?


Anonymous said...

i made it through the end! but you already know i think you are a fabulous writer and that i envy you greatly.

and for what it's worth, based on your progress pics, i would absolutely not call you a D.U.F.F.

nath said...

Hey, i read your entry to the end and it was a great one!! I love your writing and think you're so right that invisible woman have to fight for their beautifulness (god that sounds confusing :))

Lori said...

I think you're beautiful too. I don't see you as a DUFF and I'm the most awkward person alive. You have your tango and writing and you're such a vibrant, aware person.

Anonymous said...

I just don't have the words to tell you how this blog entry was so familiar and close to my heart. Thank you for writing it, and I will keep it bookmarked.

Another Invisible Girl