Beauty of a Woman BlogFest: The Beauty of Aggression

I offer buckets of thanks to blogger August McLaughlin and her wonderful idea for a blog festival. Inspired by Sam Levinson’s poem The Beauty of a Woman, which you can read on August’s blog here, we are talking about beauty, feeling beautiful, aging gracefully, and lots of other girlie–and not so girlie–stuff. Check out her blog today and tomorrow for stories, prizes, and links to other great blogs!

Here’s my contribution. And may I just say, this blogging thing never really turns out how you expect, but something is always revealed…

I went to college in Los Angeles, which is a varsity league kind of place for people concerned about how they look. Especially young girls—young women. I hadn’t picked USC because of the preponderance of pretty people; I was more interested in the solid reputation of the International Relations department—I know, geeky of me, wasn’t it? I quickly realized (like in the first 10 minutes of checking into my dorm!) that my J. V. grooming skills were not up to the task of competing in this world where everyone was tan, blond, and fabulous, not to mention somehow connected with the film industry. I was thrown into a river of piranhas when I didn’t even know how to tread water.

My parents were native Californians but I was from Philadelphia by way of New Mexico, and I had the short haircut and pale skin to prove it. My mom, who had nurtured me all the way to this crossroads–her second child, her last child, her only daughter–looked around at the sudden influx of Barbie look-alikes (and maybe at my shell-shocked face) and promptly took me shopping. God bless her! Believe me, shopping was not, and is not to this day, anywhere on my mom’s list of favorite things to do. But a few hours at the Galleria, and several hundred dollars later, she left me sitting on my dorm room bed feeling a little better because now I had a few OP (remember those?) tops and some cute shorts to go with them. Who wears shorts in September in Philly? But I wasn’t in Philly anymore, I was in Southern California. Still, I cried when my mom walked out of the dorm and got in her car. Buckets.

I eventually found my niche at USC, academically and socially. I grew my hair out, enhanced the blond, had a boyfriend, and graduated with honors. One night near graduation, I was in a friend’s room primping for a party. A friend of hers was there too. This other woman was drop dead gorgeous, a standout in a land of standouts. She didn’t go to our school. In fact, she wasn’t in college at the time, but earning a living as a model. I was sitting on the bed sipping wine and watching my friend curl this knockout’s long, shiny blond hair. They were both in their underwear so as not to get hairspray and long strands of hair on the little black dresses they were going to wear. I have such a clear picture in my head of them laughing together in front of a floor length mirror. I didn’t feel part of their group of two, so I wasn’t talking, just sitting. Out of the blue, the beautiful girl turned to me, flames shooting out of her lovely eyes, and yelled, “Stop f*%ing STARING at me!”

I bobbled my wine glass. “I’m not staring,” I mumbled. Then I made some excuse and left the room, fighting tears. My friend later apologized to me for her friend’s outburst, but I had shrugged off the sharp needle of hurt by then. What kind of inner imbalance and pressure was such a woman under to react that way to me? I asked myself snottily.

Maybe I should have asked, What kind of vibe was I giving off to cause that reaction? I was so envious, after all. And I had been thinking (even though I knew better), Look how beautiful she is, it must be so easy for her…

What I really WANTED to say back to her (later, when I thought of it) was, “I’m NOT staring at YOU. Get over yourself, bitch.”

Maybe what I should have said was a much more honest, “Oh, wow. Didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I was just thinking how amazing you look. And envying you. What products do you use in your hair to make it shine like that, or is that just God-given luck-of-the-draw?”

Here’s the thing. We women compete for men and resources and position. We vie with our looks, our brains, and our bodies. We judge, we evaluate, we make improvements, we collude with each other at the expense of others, and we send out little darts that draw blood. But I have always thought (and it’s not a terribly original thought, just a true one): What if we used all that energy we spend competing on collaboration? We could rule the world, maybe. And wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?

In my late twenties and thirties, I plunged into all the feminist and post-feminist manifestos: Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, the classics of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, Ms. magazine. One book stuck with me though, and I have it prominently on my bookshelf even now. Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography spoke to me with her truth and her language. Here she is on why we struggle to conflate the aggression that wells up inside us with the image of ourselves that our culture hands us:

“The problem with ignoring female aggression is that we who are aggressive, we girls and women and obligate primates, feel confused, as though something is missing in the equation, the interpretation of self and impulse. We’re left to wander through the thickets of our profound ferocity, our roaring hungers and drives, and we’re tossed in the playground to thrash it out among ourselves, girl to girl, knowing that we must prove ourselves and negotiate and strut and calibrate but seeing scant evidence of the struggle onscreen or in books or on biology’s docket. We are left feeling like “error variants,” in the words of one female scientist, wondering why we aren’t nicer than we are, and why we want so much, and why we can’t sit still.”

So for our celebration today of The Beauty of a Woman, I offer a toast to women: Here’s to roaring hungers and profound ferocity. Beautiful, dangerous, and strong. May we feel the envy, but reach out a hand anyway.

What about you, my readers? Were you ever in a place and time you felt out of your league? Was it the people around you, or was it really YOU causing your discomfort? Can women work together, collaborate, share? What makes you feel beautiful?

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