An experiment in swallowing some knee-jerk animosity
Like Amy Benfer, my initial reaction to this piece about the trials and tribulations of being beautiful by Elizabeth Wurtzel was to be annoyed and to write Wurtzel off as a self-centered mess who would do well to learn a little humility. But then I read the comments underneath and was even more repulsed by the way many of them reflect the belief that good-looking women should be seen and not heard, and that there’s nothing interesting a beautiful woman could ever have to say about being beautiful. Shit like this:
This article is pathetic. I’m sorry I can’t really feel for the “beautiful” girl who let it all pass her by. I have no decorations for a 41 year-old’s pity party.
Well, that’s utter bullshit. Wurtzel might be fucked up in 15 different ways, but the notion that her good looks preclude any pity for her bothered me. I felt extremely sorry for Wurtzel, who is obviously in a lot of pain, and who has been fucked over tremendously by the smoke that gets blown up your ass when you’re the good-looking golden girl that every guy wants to nab for a trophy. Amy Benfer is more sophisticated, but she has a similar reaction:
There’s a certain type of woman who may start off as a funny-looking kid, lurking on the margins of beauty, and thus learn a thing or two about its dangers, developing a few character traits as compensation before blossoming into a great-looking woman. Not our Elizabeth.
This strikes me as a problematic statement, but I sympathize with it. My natural reaction is that someone who has never been considered anything less than a beauty has so much privilege that she needs to shut the fuck up about it and let the rest of womankind glory in the moral superiority of having once had braces or frizzy hair or a big ass or whatever. And certainly, Wurtzel’s inability to let go is grating—even though she’s ostensibly writing about fading in her middle age (though I guess your 40s isn’t even middle age anymore), she insists that she’s even better-looking in certain ways, namely that she’s gained a couple of womanly curves, curing the “problem” of being too skinny, which you really can only be in America if you’re gawky, which she never was, so that comes off as disingenuous. But irritating as some of her statements are, I actually found the essay to be interesting, because it does address a taboo subject, which is how being beautiful in a society where that’s the number one measure of a woman can really fuck you up. I don’t think Wurtzel’s wrong to trace a lot of her problems back to the beauty myth being drilled into her head. And while she doesn’t seem to pick up on it, I also think that her long, miserable history with men might have a little something to do with the kind of guy that extreme beauty can attract. It’s unpleasant to say it, but if your looks turn you into a status symbol, you’re going to attract the guys who want that very badly, who are probably going to be patriarchal in other ways—jealous, controlling, mean-spirited. Add to that Wurtzel’s own admitted attraction to drama, and you have an explosive combination, and her history is littered with abusive men who seem to have put her in a great deal of physical danger at times.
And while Wurtzel stubbornly insists that her looks haven’t really faded (I’m sure she’s right—outside of the world of Hollywood and porn, it’s widely understood that you don’t turn into a troll when you turn 30), her essay is an interesting examination, albeit one that the author doesn’t completely grasp, of how the beauty myth can completely fuck with your mind. We believe it’s precious because it’s fleeting. And when a woman feels wholly defined by it like this, she can therefore feel like she doesn’t really get many shots in life. Take, for instance, Wurtzel’s belief that she had The One, and he slipped out of her fingers, and that’s that. She had a great boyfriend who treated her right, and she cheated on him because she’s a drama queen.
Months later, when Gregg found out for sure what I was doing, when he went through files on my Mac and found letters never sent to this lover or that one, he didn’t want to make me feel better anymore. He threw a two-thirds-empty bottle of Stolichnaya at my head when I finally found him at a friend’s house. He told me, I was your only chance at happiness—now it’s over for you.
In this essay, his pronouncement functions like a curse in a dark fairy tale. She broke the rules, he cursed her, and now it’s stuck to her. She hasn’t had a real relationship full of love and contentment since then, and she seems to sincerely believe it’s because she ruined the one good chance she had. Why? It’s hard to say, but I think her belief is that her only card that she could play was her beauty, which was at its height in her early 20s, and since she cashed that in on a relationship she ruined, she’ll never have a chance like that again. This belief bundles an assumption about men, which is that all they could want you for is your looks, and that all the best men are absorbed by the greatest beauties, and so if you’re not a 10, you can’t get a great guy. When you spell it out like that, it’s laughable, but then again, that’s in intrinsic argument to all those scare campaigns about women who put off marriage into their 30s, isn’t it? In this, Wurtzel’s greatest crime is not being cynical enough about the cultural messages we all absorb, coupled with a willingness to be honest about how those message can affect even intelligent women.
Even more depressing is how thoroughly being a lifelong beauty has defined Wurtzel’s sense of self, to the degree that she literally has trouble imagining what life must be like if you fall outside the age and beauty range to get cast as the hot chick in some college sex comedy.
I don’t want to look back at what was, tell stories of once upon a long time ago, of what I used to do, of the men I once knew way back when, of 1,001 rapturous nights that were and are no more—I don’t want my life to be the trashy and tragic remains of a really great party, lipstick traces on a burned-out cigarette at the bottom of a near-empty champagne goblet. Sex and sexuality, at least for me, are not some segment of life; they are the force majeure, the flood and storm and act of God that overtakes the rest. Without that part of me, I’d rather be dead. And I know all I can do right now is hold on tight to the little bit of life that’s left, cling to the edge of the skyscraper I’m slipping off of, feel my fingers slowly giving way, knowing I’m going to free-fall to a sorrowful demise.
She also declares that still dating at 41 is ridiculous, which made me wonder if she realizes that despite jokes about women’s “sell-by date”, the truth is a lot of people actually slip on and off the market, and there are tons of people dating in their 40s, and not because they were never taken off the shelf, but because they’ve been married and divorced already. But I digress. This passage could and will uncharitably be read as self-absorbed, and therefore abandoned. It is self-absorbed, but I found the honesty of it fascinating. Being a stunner her whole life has concealed from Wurtzel the basic fact that everyone fucks, including those of us who aren’t eligible to be fashion models. Okay, that’s a little unfair—she does seem to also allow that if you lure a man into commitment with your beauty, he’ll hang around and keep on pronging you into your middle age, I guess silently suffering your fading looks. Though I honestly fail to see why said man would stick around. Truth is, many people stay sexually active well into their 80s. That’s a lot of fucking over a lifetime, and I’m more shocked that people don’t get bored and move onto new hobbies more than I am that they can still find each other attractive and exciting into their old age.
I found the passage interesting, though, because you rarely see anyone struggle so openly with very real anger at how mortality is a long, drawn-out process. You spend a great deal more of your life getting old and moving towards the grave than you do growing up and into your youthful peak—or at least you do if you’re lucky. The tradition is to take this fact with humor and grace, instead of exploding in irrational anger like Wurtzel does here, and that’s true no matter how you feel about it. The reasoning, I suppose, is because you can’t change it, and every day of relative health that you get is a good day because it’s one more day than you get when you’re dead, and so really there’s no point in getting worked up about it. But maybe that message is easier for the majority of us, the non-beautiful (which does include those who just clean up well, but aren’t stunners), to absorb, because we’re not really losing that much. And frankly, a lot of awkward teenagers tend to find their best looking selves in their 30s, after the peak and on the first few steps of the march to the grave, so that tends to muddy the whole narrative about how it’s all decline. That, and you have other things to define yourself by, things that age can definitely improve, with the experience it brings.
So, while conceding that Wurtzel is irritatingly self-absorbed, I still found her essay interesting. I kind of admire her willingness to present her fucked up mind without censoring it to make it seem like she’s mentally pulled together more than she is. It ends up presenting more of a challenging read in certain ways, as long as you abandon the pretense that you’re trying to glean some wisdom from her, instead of just bearing witness to her pain.