The other night, I was shooting the shit on the phone with my best dude friend when I mentioned "thinspiration."
"What is that?" he said.
"Oh, come on, you know what thinspo is. Pro-ana blogs? All that?"
"I don't..." he started, then stopped. "Anna who?"
"It's like, the whole thigh gap situation," I explained. When he was silent, I continued, "You know, photos of the thigh gap, sticky-out collarbones, that sort of thing? Tips for hiding your anorexia? They all kind of go hand-in-hand, I guess, though not always."
"Wait," he said. "People…post photos…of really skinny women on their blogs? But…but why?"
"I dunno," I said. "To remind them of what they're not?"
There was a silence. I could hear him frantically clicking around. "I can't believe you've never heard of this before," I said into the quiet.
"I'm not a girl, Kate," he said testily. "I wasn't raised in Internet girl culture."
"I guess not," I said, and we moved on to other topics.
Later, though, I kept thinking about it. It wasn't exactly that he didn't know what "thinspo" was -- I'm sure a lot of people don't, regardless of gender -- or that he'd been so genuinely disgusted by the prospect. It was his cavalier dismissal of the whole thing that stuck with me, like the idea that people could expend so much negative energy on body hatred was so foreign to him that it barely even registered.
I'm sure that, for him, the notion of this cutthroat aspirational beauty -- the specter of idealism that hangs around most women I know -- is an outlier. It's a blip on the radar.
Maybe he pokes at his belly once in a while, maybe he lifts a few extra reps after seeing photos of Chris Pine on the set of the new "Star Trek," but I've never known him to have to grit his teeth and remind himself that he has some good qualities to try to stave off the tiny voice inside his head that slurs that he'll never be good enough.
If this sounds melancholy, that's because it is, a little bit. I know this isn't true for all dudes, but it's honestly hard to imagine having the privilege to live almost completely insulated from the barrage of "not good enough" imagery that women get hammered with on a near-daily basis.
The problem (or, OK, one of them) is that hotness is, at its core, a subjective concept. My personal incarnation of hot-like-burning, for example, involves bony elbows, copious facial piercings and a fondness for puns, which I'm sure does not completely overlap with everyone else's drink special at Genital Happy Hour.
And realistically, I know that pizza-slice shaped fuckwads with round faces and a propensity for hermiting light somebody's fire out there, even when it's no one within a seven-mile vicinity of me.
But while I think most dudes get the message that someday, they'll ping that someone special's fuck-radar, women often get sucked into the same sexy-or-bust K-hole that is Every Single Network Television Show, Ever. Conventionally unattractive dudes finding true love is often the plot, while conventionally unattractive women finding it is usually the punch line.
I don't know if I'm weak-willed or mush-brained or what, but even chanting the phrase "unrealistic expectations" like a mantra often isn't enough for me to be able to look at a magazine cover and not think, "Ugh, her face is so much prettier than mine."
Logically, I know Photoshop and celebrity stylists work wonders, but my dark grumpy hindbrain is still perfectly content to add Scarlett Johansson's Cosmo cover to its Personal Failure Scrapbook.
So it's no wonder that half of women are supposedly unhappy with their looks -- we hold "hotness" to such a nebulous standard that the whole concept becomes transmuted into this vague idea of happiness and visible sternums. And ironically, "confidence" is apparently the number-one signifier of said hotness, which seems, to say the least, a little counterproductive.
To that, I offer the following proposal: maybe we should just stop trying to be hot. Instead, we should revert to "meh, good as it's gonna get."
Hear me out! For those of you who have mastered the art of being vain, please don't let me stop you. Consider me your biggest admirer. If there is a vest you put on or a lipstick shade you wear that makes you feel like the stoniest fox in the city, fucking do it. I am in awe of you people.
But for those of us who simply cannot look at a face-forest without seeing the pimple-trees, I offer an alternate solution: stop trying.
Wear jeans to a club! Stop wearing makeup! Start wearing makeup! Insist on not smiling at strangers! If your friends tell you they don't like your outfit because it's weird, find new friends! Dress up the huge cystic zit on your cheekbone with a tiny sunflower! Anything that turns down the tiny bad-feelings radio that lots of us constantly have tuned to our personal versions of the "Ugh, my thighs" station. You know how forcing a smile triggers a psychological response of happiness, even if we're feeling salty to begin with? I've found that appearing to not give a flying fuck eventually gives way to not giving a fuck, period. (It is even more effective, for some reason, to perform this in groups.)
When I was first learning how to swim, my mom used to stand in the deep part of the pool and tell me I only had to keep going until I got to her. I hate swimming, always have, but having her fold me, shuddering, into her warm arms was always a comfort that made the terror of flopping through the pool at least a little worthwhile.
After a few rounds of that, though, she'd push it: wait until my head was underwater, my eyes screwed shut against the chlorine, and then start inching backward, little by little. I'd be gasping and flailing and convinced I should be there already, but she was still so far away.
This sounds dramatic, but that's honestly how trying to be "hot" or "sexy" feels to me. I can put on flattering clothes and take cleavage-y selfies and run up and down the San Francisco hills, but I'm always going to pick out the tiny flaws in myself that ruin the overall picture. It feels safer to be ambivalent; to think, "It doesn't matter if I'm hot, really, because this is probably as good as it's gonna get."
I know it's not like this exercise actually subverts the conventional standards of beauty that continue to screw women over, but for me it's either this or sit in my room and chew on the insides of my cheeks until my brain turns inside out.
I think this might come off as a self-dig. And it's not, really. This is what allows me to access any semblance of that "confidence" that women allegedly pinpoint as being the most attractive part of themselves: knowing that this is what I bring to the table and trying to divert the energy that I would normally be tempted to spend methodically tallying all of my flaws into dancing or researching werewolf origin stories or doing anything, anything, besides sitting around and brooding about how I will probably never be good enough.
Maybe this wasn't a revelation to anybody but me, but the idea that you could still be interesting and insightful and adventurous without being attractive was kind of a fucking mind-blow.
This doesn't mean I don't enjoy getting dressed up to go out on the town or putting on eyeliner or bopping to Ke$ha on the street corner. I've just granted myself permission to stop constantly viewing "being hot" as my ultimate goal.
It's the same concept behind posting ugly photos of yourself all over the Internet: it's enormously freeing to give yourself an out from trying to be perfect all the damn time. Scary as fuck, don't get me wrong, but freeing all the same.
For me, "looking hot" has stopped being synonymous with "happy" or even "content," which, frankly, feels like a huge accomplishment. I don't love my body; I don't even particularly like it. But it's the meat-bag I got handed, and the fact that I can sometimes view it solely as a functional series of moving parts that get me to where I want to go feels like a privilege to me.
Kate is researching werewolf origin stories: @katchatters.