I read Evelyn Martinez’s essay, “Can Hot Women Get a Break, Please?” and immediately sympathized with her beautiful sister. Note I didn’t say empathized. I can understand how it must be insulting to constantly be underestimated and judged for being beautiful. Yet I can’t say I’ve experienced it.
I have never fit into a conventional standard of beauty. My eyes are too small, my nose too flat and wide, my lips too small, and my hair too limp (although there was a period in the 90s when heroin chic was in and flat limp hair was a thing). My body is also pretty average — not skinny but also not curvy. My best feature is my smile.
Growing up, I was one of the few girls in my family who was born with monolids. If you are not of Asian descent or don’t have Asian friends, you probably don’t know this term. In many Asian cultures, women have grown up talking about whether you have monolids or “double lids.” People will even comment on how lucky your baby is if she has double lids. If she has monolids, then they’ll say, “Don’t worry, she can get surgery when she’s older.”
If you have monolids, your eyelids don’t have that extra crease on the upper lid. This means when you open your eyes, your eyelids just sit on top of your eyelashes (often hiding more than half their length!) rather than pulling back with a crease. Some people have one eye with a monolid and one with a crease, so I can imagine how frustrating that is when doing eye makeup!
My mom and all my aunts (all of whom have double lids) regularly urged me to get “eyelid surgery” so that my small mono-lidded eyes would be artificially made bigger by a surgeon’s knife adding a crease to each eyelid. My mom even offered to pay for it as a high school graduation gift so new friends in college would not know that I had cosmetic surgery. I emphatically declined.
Many Asian American women have readily pursued this surgery. In fact, eyelid surgery is huge in Asia and I’ve heard of friends flying to South Korea to get their eyelid surgery done by expert surgeons who do nothing but these surgeries.
I have never had surgery, and hope to never have one, and certainly did not want to risk any complications for the benefit of slightly larger-looking eyes. I also was in my hard-core feminist phase at the time, “Love me as I am or don’t love me at all!”
I also didn’t want my future kids to feel embarrassed if they inherited my monolids. There’s a famous advertisement for a Taiwanese plastic surgery center that became a global meme. The “family photo” show the stunningly good-looking parents and their “ugly” kids who have monolids. It’s been noted the kids’ faces were photo-shopped to look worse. The tagline for the ad reads, “The only thing you’ll ever have to worry about is how to explain it to the kids.”
I think the fact that I’m a cheerful person who smiles a lot makes up for a lot. Yet I still remember how I felt when a guy said to me, “You’re not pretty but you’re attractive.”
“What?” I asked, out of genuine surprise. That was the bluntest thing anyone had ever said to me.
He quickly tried to explain and soften the blow. I can’t remember his exact words, but it had something to do with personality and how mine made up for my looks.
This was in college and I considered this guy a friend. Maybe he thought we were close enough that he could be entirely candid with me. Either way, it was a provocative statement.
We remained friends, but his words echoed in my mind for years. What does it mean to not be pretty, but to be attractive? Maybe it’s better because being attractive means your personality and your actions are drawing people to you?
I guess what I finally settled on is that we can all be attractive with some effort. We can develop our social skills to be interesting people who are charismatic. We can smile and put people at ease. We can invest time and money into our appearance (e.g., choosing flattering clothes, applying makeup to enhance what we have, etc.). We may have to “work” to be attractive but this also means we have an easier time blending into the background when we don’t want any attention.
All of which brings me back to Evelyn Martinez’s essay. I have genuine sympathy for her sister. No matter what she wore (e.g., a baggy sweater, leggings, and combat boots somehow became inappropriate because of her beauty), she couldn’t escape judgment for her natural beauty. It makes me grateful that I can avoid the male gaze far more easily. Plus, now that I’m middle-aged and living in leggings/jogger pants (elastic waistbands for the win!), I really don’t get unwanted male attention anymore. It’s refreshing.
The last time a stranger commented on my appearance, he actually did so respectfully. I was driving with the windows down, music at a reasonable volume (so not blasting it obnoxiously), and wearing sunglasses while I enjoyed a beautiful sunny day. The man in the car next to me called out, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you look sharp!”
I chuckled and replied, “Thanks!” and then drove off.