Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
This may be a very silly question, but: how do I make peace being unattractive?
A bit of context here: I'm a bisexual woman in my twenties. I've never been traditionally feminine, but nor am I butch in an interesting way. I am frumpy, flat-chested, perpetually five pounds overweight, and utterly without a sense of style.
Lately I've been experimenting the androgyny—sometimes because it's comfortable, sometimes because my girlfriend seems to like it. It's all good subversive fun, but then I see a pretty red dress in a shop window and want to cry because I'm not pretty enough or femme enough to wear it.
I've had my share of relationships, with partners from across the gender spectrum. But every time I've found a partner, I've been looking. When I dress up fancy and head out on the town, no one ever flirts with me, or tries to get my number, or even seems to notice I exist. Once a friend told me she couldn't imagine anyone ever being attracted to me, and while I'd already had a few flings at the time, the sentiment rang true.
Logically, I know this shouldn't matter. But I keep feeling like I'm less of a person because I'm unattractive. That I'm missing out on some fundamental part of being a woman (beauty! attention! sexual power!!), and it's all my own damn fault. I'd rather not spend 2016 beating myself up about all this, but I'm not sure where to start. So…help?
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
In general, it’s my practice to validate the feelings of letter writers while gently offering some new perspectives, etcetera. In this case, though, I kind of want to invalidate your feelings (and I also want to have a few stern words with the “friend” who said she couldn’t imagine anyone ever being attracted to you, because that’s some grade-A bullshit right there and you should have none of it). You say “I’m unattractive,” like that’s a real thing, and I cannot help but think,“No, you’re not.”
Wait, come back! This isn’t like when you’re Aunt Maureen says “Nonsense, honey, you’re lovely,” while taking a drag off her Pall Mall and exchanging a Significant Glance with your Aunt Mildred. Bear with me here.
Here’s my thing about this: There’s no such thing as an unattractive person, objectively. There are certainly people who more closely approximate the commercial beauty standards of North America (Thin! But Not Too Thin! White! But Not Too Pale! Tall! But Not Too Tall!). There are also people who aren’t especially close to those standards (um, me and most of everyone I like a lot). Trying to make you feel like you’re not cute enough is a multi-billion dollar industry, and when capitalism has invested that much in something, they want you to feel it every moment—even though it’s a giant, wholesale falsehood. Though, by the same token, don’t feel bad that it worked on you. There are some great minds spending literally all of every day trying to ensure that people—especially girls and women—feel like crap about how they look.
However, enough is enough. Here are two actual truths that none of those commercial endeavors want to reveal:
1) Humans have radically varying tastes about the embodiments of their romantic/sexual partners.
2) There are other reasons besides looks to get hot for someone.
Now, it may indeed be true that you are not commercially attractive. It may also be true that you have very little confidence in your clothes and that how you dress and carry yourself shows it. Those things happen in tandem sometimes, too—it can be hard to figure out how to style yourself if there’s no one to model yourself on, and it can be hard to feel attractive when you’re pretty sure your look isn’t great but don’t feel like you can pull off the clothes you like when you see them in shop windows.
So here’s my first piece of actual advice: Find some people (online or in person) who are shaped like you’re shaped and are wearing clothes you admire. For example, small-chested women generally look fantastic in halter dresses, funky/asymmetrical necklines, cowl necks or slouchy turtlenecks. You may never be able to work a strapless dress, but you can wear a backless dress if you can go without a bra. Go to a high-end department store with a friend and a camera, present yourself to a salesperson on a weekday afternoon, and ask to be shown some things for evening, for dinners out, for work, etcetera. Don’t buy it if you can’t afford it, but take note of what they bring and re-create the look yourself later.
Think of yourself as a gem who has not been displayed to your best advantage, Brave Correspondent—diamonds look great on black velvet, but weird and almost fake on pale blue. Put an emerald on pale blue, though, and it pops. When you find the kind of clothes that show you off to your best advantage, keep an eye out for them—and don’t let ANYONE tell you that you’re too fat/too short/too whatever for something you love. If you can work it, you can wear it.
My second piece of advice is to have some frank conversations with people about who they find hot and what really trips their trigger. Peoples’ answers will range widely. There are those of us who enjoy bigger bodies and those who like slightness (and some, like my husband, have somewhat gendered tastes—he likes small-framed women and big, fat men). Some people go nuts for gingers or dreadlocks or bristly shaved heads. Some folks love lots of ink and metal and some don’t care for them; same with body hair and freckles and braces and about a million other things. There are devotees of cleft chins, single dimples, small hands, long necks, and even— although I personally find it bewildering—guys with fat rolls on the backs of their heads, as I have. Whatever you look like, I can absolutely guarantee you that there are people in the world who are privately engaged in acts of fervent, sticky, erotic self-service as we speak over the idea of someone who looks just like you.
Corollary to this is the important note that while everyone has their eye candy, it may or may not be very important to them when choosing people to date or mate with. I never find my head turned on the street by people of slight frame; I tend to get giggly over bigger bodies and stocky frames (do you look like a junior-varsity wrestler in the unlimited weight class? Hello). That said, I have had very hot times and also long and loving relationships with people on the much slendererer end of humanity. However, I get absolutely sprung for varied and interesting sentence structure and I can’t get hot for anyone who’s not at least a fairly competent writer in casual communication. That part turns out to be totally non-negotiable (and I’ve tried!). So I would also like to suggest that whether you get picked up in bars may not be a good barometer of whether you’re attractive, it may just mean that you’re more of a slow burn than a quick hit.
Here, allow me to pause for a few words in praise of being the one who takes the initiative. It’s all very well and good to be noticed, but it’s totally possible that people are noticing and not acting—just as I imagine you have done on many previous occasions. Maybe it’s time to frock up and offer your number to some cutie-pies sometimes, when they strike your fancy. The idea that “being chosen” is the ideal situation is based on some fairly gross patriarchal ideas about women as objects. Is that really your jam?
It’s not that I don’t empathize, Brave Correspondent. I was a big-boned and slightly chubby girlchild who fit into exactly zero things that were trendy when I was a teenager, and spent my twenties rocking a fashion concept that could best be described as “usually dressed for the weather.” So my last piece of advice is: Don’t be me. Don’t let yourself wander around in ill-fitting clothes for two decades, feeling like shit and failing to notice the advances of people who are genuinely interested, because your self-concept is “I am too ugly to be appealing to anyone.” Let them display their affection for bodies like yours, or for your clever and effervescent self regardless of the package. Resolutely refuse to have any truck or trade with anyone who says they’re dating you or sleeping with you despite what you look like. But you have to—you have to—allow for the certainty that there are people in the world for whom the entire package of you is beyond entrancing, however much or little you might look like the people in underwear ads. There are people out there, more than a few, whose day you could make with the butter of your smile. Get out there and spread it around, Brave Correspondent.
Love and courage,