What makes one beautiful or attractive to another varies so much from person to person that it is impossible to ever come up with an ideal example that will please everyone. Those among us who are blessed to be able to say they were raised with this knowledge and are able to live their lives without fighting unstable self-confidence. However, when you are raised in an environment that forces you to live under constant intense scrutiny and criticism, you become a prisoner to your self-awareness and begin a lifelong chase to desperately do things not out of your own interests or desires but to oblige the expectation that others hold over your head. You learn the hard way that you can never meet their minimum requirements for approval. The second you finally think you have it right, that they are finally content with your accomplishment, they pull the rug out from under you and raise the bar even higher, fully expecting you to reach, stretch, jump, twist, and turn until you have mastered the next level. And the cycle begins again.
It would probably be far easier to dismiss these expectations as unrealistic when the demands being hurled at you come from the hand of an outsider. When it’s a parent doing this throughout the years of your life when you are most impressionable, it isn’t so cut and dry. Children want their parents to be proud of their every accomplishment, no matter how small, and when their achievement is met with enthusiasm, their little eyes glitter with pride and a smile overtakes their face. When the opposite happens, little by little a small part of them disappears, and they can spend the rest of their lives forever chasing after even the smallest note of acceptance and approval. Not an issue of ego but one of having the peace of knowing that you are loved the way you are, with all your flaws, strengths, imperfections, talents, and weaknesses taken into consideration. I am referring to unconditional love. My struggles with this were previously discussed in Spinning Tales.
In the beginning days, weeks, and months of Kevin and I, I didn’t want for attention. I wasn’t pressured to jump through hoops to appease, and dare I say, I was complimented. Not only this, it was done in front of people, almost in a manner which I found to be conspicuously public. Almost as though he was putting on a show, but I ignored it. The same way I was conditioned to ignore my parents’ public bragging of me as a child, because it was for their benefit not mine. Because as soon as the audience was gone, they would change and I would be a failure, compared to other children, and insulted and badgered about why I did do not the things they did. I was a tool for competition and one-upping. I was not their daughter. So when Kevin did these things publicly, when he all but shouted it across the expanse with a microphone, I tuned it out and waited for the switch to flip when we were alone. But in the beginning, it never did.
He held up his charades just long enough for me to start to alter my expectations. When, initially, he would compliment my appearance, he slowly began to say things that seemed positive at the time, but he was starting the manipulation phase. This is a phase that appears innocent enough, but “You look beautiful without makeup!” turns into a questioning “Why do you always hide yourself under that? I can’t see you under there…” which turns into “You really don’t need to wear all that for my benefit; I like you the way you are” and ends on “B**** get that off your face! Who you tryna please, cos it ain’t for me, you fat whore!” and a slam against the bathroom wall accompanied by two giant hands intent of smothering the life out of you for being enough of a fool to think how you feel about your appearance actually matters.
He used to comment on how strange he thought it was that my nails could be so well manicured for someone who worked with shipment and metal fixturing during regular floor moves in retail stores. “Is that a new color? It looks nice on you!” changed to “Isn’t today shipment day? Maybe you should do without; it’s only going to get messed up so wait until tomorrow.” which suddenly became “I know you ain’t putting that s*** on when you’re working with the guys. Must be going out to the parking lot to ************** during lunch, huh?” with a punch to the jaw for a nice touch.
As I mentioned in Skirts, Shoes, and Other Shenanigans, I initially had a fairly diverse wardrobe that I could play with at will. In the beginning, he liked this, too, and often complimented me on how I looked, especially in front of others. Like he was advertising almost, but I shrugged it off as I was too busy playing dress-up to care. This, too, changed. “That looks great on you!” turned into “Isn’t that a little inappropriate for what you’re doing today? You’ll ruin it!” which ended up being “Who the f*** you wearing that for? You look like a whore!” Inevitably, in addition to physical punishment, you are taken to a store that sells the cheapest clothes possible and he chooses the clothes for you. Androgynous. Masculine. Boring. Anything to make you blend in and fade away so no one will see you.
He was a master at examining me with his eyes, intently studying and searching the smallest thing to criticize and punish. I hated him looking at me. He had this uncanny ability to make me feel like I was committing the biggest of transgressions against him with one glance. One subtle twist and flinch of his brow in public. Cutting his teeth and squinting his eyes at me like I was pouring salt in an open wound.
I was already self-conscious enough to begin with, but he elevated it to a point where I was so unsure about everything I owned that I would ask him every time I got dressed if what I had on was okay, if it showed anything, if it was too tight across the back, or if it caught on my chest as I raised and lowered my arms. What I was really asking without being aware of it at the time was whether or not I looked like a female. Were my curves visible? Was my hair laying just so that someone would get a glimpse of a woman instead of the genderless being I was molded into? Did the clothing cling to my hips when I walked? What I was really searching for was whether or not I could be mistaken for someone who was attractive to the eye. I was supposed to be invisible.
When others caught glimpses of this and commented on the fact that I looked nice that day, I cringed as Kevin would cut his eyes at me. I had violated a law and displeased him again, unintentionally awakening the beast that I did not want to be confronted with. If I acknowledged the compliment and it came from a woman, I was scolded for not being quicker to respond or told I sounded put-off when I answered. If a man complimented me, this was the ultimate sin. This was immediately interpreted as deliberate. Strangers were supposed to look through me, not at me. When they stopped and noticed me, they were violating his property. They were breaching his territory. They were a threat, and I was their play-thing.
After four years and three months of constant scrutiny, insult, threats, and physical punishment for emphasis, I have been left feeling off-center and afraid to be seen. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I haven’t re-collected a treasure trove of baubles, make-up, shoes, and clothing. This doesn’t mean that I walk around deliberately plain and unnoticeable, because it’s actually quite the opposite. I may feel comfortable at home, but once I get out around others, I feel myself wanting to shy away from view and fade away. Being noticed fills me with terror, and since I persist with putting care into how I look even if I am staying in to do laundry, each glance I get from others is a warning of impending doom. It is a transgression, for I have been seen.
Initially, I was still traumatized enough that I would go home from work and break down and cry, because the sudden changes I exhibited by going to work looking unexpectedly female was a shock to everyone in the building. They had known me when I was with Kevin, and they would walk past and barely acknowledge I was there. I liked this, because it felt safe. But when I began buying dressy, feminine clothes, jewelry, and make-up for work, instead of walking by as they greeted me, they would stop in the middle of the floor and gawk, just long enough that I would look down in fear of something that shouldn’t be showing on open display. Everything was in place, except for me. They couldn’t figure out what happened and how I could suddenly be determined to be feminine. And noticeably so.
Once they got used to the change, I began wearing skirts to work. Another ultimate sin. It had been years since I had attempted to do this, as the last time I did, Kevin gave me a lesson I wouldn’t forget. The first several weeks I did this, I would again go home and break down, because now everyone was not only stopping while walking by, they would walk past my cube, stop and turn around to tell me I looked nice. I thanked them even though I felt physically ill. The first time one of the men pointed out the fact I was in a skirt, I ran to the bathroom and hid in a stall for ten minutes, shaking violently. Panic attacks became common.
Then I went and did it. Acted like a real woman and got my hair done. People I never spoke to at work kept coming up to me asking me questions. Wanting to know what was going on. Why did I change so drastically? Those who knew why didn’t ask, but they never failed to throw it in my face that they loved it. That they were happy that I was so lively again and taking care of myself and free from him. They had no clue.
And then I found the straw that broke the camel’s back. The first few weeks of my diet, people didn’t notice the weight coming off. Suddenly when I reached thirty pounds, everyone was stopping me in the lunch room commenting on it. How nice I looked. How thin my face was getting. How energetic I was. How well my new wardrobe fit me. How some of the women told me that they wished they had curves like mine. And I wanted to disappear. Who were these people constantly watching me? Couldn’t they find something else to do besides shining the spotlight over my head? I was mortified. My nightmare was never-ending. And then one day I realized that with all these changes, the unthinkable had happened. I was a woman. Weird, right?
Of course it was! I spent four years plain and unassuming. Unremarkable. Then overnight, I subjected these people to change, but not just any change in general. Constant change, dynamic, and impossible to ignore. And the girl who spent four years feeling unattractive and manly had hips again. An hourglass shape. Soft, flattering hair. And overnight, she was walking around being noticed. Therefore, she was examined. Scrutinized and analyzed. And pointed at like a freak show at the summer carnival.
It’s hard for me to overlook and accept the fact that people are complimenting me on so much all at once. It isn’t just the fact that I am now seen and incapable of hanging back in the shadows. The worst is that constant examination I feel burning holes in me everywhere I go. Being overcome with an urge so strong to hide, because it makes me feel like I did when I was with him. I become overwhelmed with the fear that they will search until they find something, anything to pull apart and mete out appropriate retribution for my transgression of being a woman. Feeling torn between liking the way I present myself and hating it all at once. Fearing that my shape, the way I carry myself, and the quirky way I play with my jewelry will offend.
There is a light of hope in the middle of this momentary bout of neurosis: the power of one to make me melt inside at the sound of his voice calling me beautiful. How I smile in spite of myself and the self-awareness fades, and for a moment I feel like the most beautiful woman on the face of the earth. And that one word spoken in his loving voice makes fighting the off the fears in my head a little easier to bear.