“I mean, you are beautiful.”
My friend N lay her hand on my shoulder as we leaned against the kitchen counter, having just talked one another into opening a fourth bottle of beer.
As I looked back at her earnestly, our friend B–also the small, MFA party’s host–hustled in looking for wine, prompting all three of us to keel over in booze-addled giggles.
“I didn’t hear what you said,” B assured, laughing as she waved her hands and backed out of the room. “But I could tell you were having a moment. It’s cool!”
“No, stay!” I said. “We were just affirming each other! And talking about how we need to spend less time worrying about our bodies, and boys!”
“Oh,” B said, shaking her head as she leaned against the doorway and turned her face serious. “That’s really hard.”
Specifically, N and I had been trying to remind one another of our worth in tipsy effort to diminish our pesky preoccupations with being thin and finding someone to sleep with. And, more than that, to stop letting those preoccupations take up our time.
The paradox has always bewildered me: the persistent capacity of smart, capable, otherwise well-adjusted women to become uncertain, irrational crumples of insecurity when it comes to matters of their bodies and their relationships.
The body stuff is what angers me most. Lately, I’ve been struck by recent interviews with Lena Dunham in which she describes not being concerned about her shape.
“Hating my body has not been my cross to bear in this life,” she told New York Magazine. “And I feel very lucky about that.”
Lucky indeed. I admire, I envy her that freedom so much–but I don’t understand it. I grew up in the same city as Lena Dunham, around (ahem) the same time, and with parents who–like hers, I imagine–encouraged me to eat what I wanted and not worry about weight. I don’t know how or when it happened, but somewhere along the line societal influences penetrated: gripping me with a suffocating pressure I still feel to be thin. How could anyone have avoided that?
I’ve thought and talked and written about this subject a lot. But I hadn’t thought about it before in terms of how wasteful it is, in terms of how much time so many of us spend worrying about the way we look and whether we are loved, and how much of that time we could be dedicating, instead, to ourselves.
In other words, how much more productive we might be if we were all more like Lena Dunham: I doubt it’s a coincidence that Dunham’s been so successful at such a young age, and that she doesn’t waste energy worrying about her body.
Not that she’s any more immune than the rest of us when it comes to anxiety about men. If not for that, after all, she’d be a lot less long on material. (As B, a poet, put it last night: “If I didn’t think about guys, what would I write about?” “Look who you’re talking to,” I replied.)
We’ll never not worry about guys–or girls, or whoever. It isn’t avoidable, or even desirable. But just imagine what a relief it would be if we thought about them less.
The other night I spent time with a friend who is ten years older than me, and who I tend to think of–in part for that reason, but for others, too–as substantially wiser and more secure. In most ways, she is.
But when it comes to relationships, her struggle is similar. She recently got burned by a guy who, despite his advanced age, wound up pulling the same predictable pathologies I associate with men in their twenties: jumping in too fast and then freaking out; wanting an unstable woman he can “fix” to avoid intimacy. (Seriously: can someone find me a dude with some fresh set of issues? I’m not even thirty and I’m already bored.)
My friend knew this guy wasn’t her equal. And even so, she let herself spend an entire month feeling crushed by him.
“I hardly got any writing done that whole time,” she told me over wine and lemonade. “I was too busy trying to figure him out.”
Her words resonated powerfully: there is something singularly sharp in the recognition that all the energy I expend agonizing about flaky dudes could be used writing essays.
“We’re artists!” I exclaimed to B and N, standing between them in the kitchen, placing my hands on their shoulders. “We can’t be spending our time thinking about stupid boys, and whether or not we’re thin! We have to focus on ourselves! We have to do our art!” I was trying to convince myself as much as them.
“I think it’s biological,” B said, laughing. “At least, it makes me feel better to think about it that way!”
N and I nodded. “It’s just so frustrating,” N said, tossing her thick mane of hair behind her head. “Cause the boys we date who are artists don’t think about us, ever.”
“Nope,” B concurred. “Never. If they’re doing their thing, that’s what they’re thinking about. If you’re there, great.”
To illustrate I made a show of glancing at my phone: the screen of which, I informed them, still didn’t feature a text response from a certain artist I’m seeing.
“He’s in the studio,” I explained, bitterly. They shook their heads in sympathy.
“I’m just trying to catch myself,” I announced, relaying the advice my older friend had offered. “You know, when I like, pass a woman on campus and start to compare myself, or get too hung up waiting for a text, I’m just gonna try to catch it“–I snapped my fingers–”and make myself think about something else.”
“That’s good!” they agreed, as we began to talk about how much distance there is between recognizing a pattern and being able to break it.
Eventually, our banter leavened: we started to debate about a guy in our program and whether he would be a better kisser (N) or a better fuck (B).
“But don’t you think he’d be so tender?” B pleaded sweetly.
“Ugh,” I replied. “Can’t imagine either one. I’m sure he jackrabbits like a teenager.”
At that moment a different guy walked past, innocently seeking beer, and all of us looked at him and buckled over laughing, again.
Because among all the things that make us expend energy on our bodies and our boys, one is certainly each other. And certainly, sometimes, thank god for that.