My friend was flipping through a magazine, making appreciative sounds towards a series of photos of a model with a flower in her hair.
"These are so good! I love this!"
I looked over her shoulder. She paused on the next page, squinted, and tilted the magazine a little.
"Wait," she said, "Doesn't that look a little like..." and then she stopped.
"Like what?" I said. "Like who?"
"No, I don't know. I was gonna say, she looks a little bit like me." She looked immediately guilty. "I mean, not a lot, but just a little -- there's something about her face from that angle. Do you know what I mean?" She pushed the picture closer to me, still talking. "I'm not at all saying that I'm that pretty. Obviously she's really beautiful and I am not. But for a second she just reminded me--"
"No, no," I said quickly, "I can totally see it! It's the shape of her nose. Her features are sort of delicate like yours. I can definitely see it."
"Yeah, right? I mean, I'm much less--"
"You're beautiful," I said.
"Aw," she said, laughing and shaking her head no. "You don't have to say that."
She is. And I did have to say that.
I catch myself doing it, too. That thing you do when you suddenly realize you're complimenting your own appearance. When you've gone too far and implied that maybe you're pretty.
It's like a nervous reflex. I really think it's tinged with fear. What if someone corrects me, and tells me, alright now, honey, let's not get carried away...
I have a friend who never does this. She's Russian-American, and sometimes I wonder if it's a cultural difference. She says things like ,"Of course, everyone was checking me out," and "Obviously, he loved my dress," and "I know I look good right now." And she doesn't sound like she's bragging and obnoxious and conceited. She sounds like she owns a mirror and has looked in it before. She smiles playfully sometimes when she says these things, as if to acknowledge that people aren't really supposed to say them.
I laugh aloud in surprise. Did she just say that? I shake my head in fond disbelief.
But she's right.
I am not beautiful like her, I rationalize. Which is why I am still not allowed to talk the way she does. I am also not Russian, so no one will say, "She's a fiery Russian!" or whatever it is that people say. Even though once a guy yelled at me in the street "You Russian?" and I yelled back "a little!" because I definitely am a little Russian, somewhere back there in history. The point is, it doesn't count.
I don't really want to draw attention to my appearance because what if I look arrogant and misinformed and oblivious?
Even movie stars and supermodels are supposed to find, memorize and readily identify their own physical flaws to prove that they are real people we can get to know through magazine interviews with titles like "What she REALLY thinks about love, her hair and being the 'it' girl of the year."
Oh my god. It's shocking. She thinks her thighs are too fat! They're not fat at all! She thinks her eyes are too big! But that's her most famous characteristic! She thinks her boobs are too perky! She is eating a burger in this picture, as though she eats them all the time!
She is insecure like us. It's refreshing. I'm glad it hasn't gone to her head. I'm glad she doesn't think she's too pretty.
I'm not really sure why I'm worried. So what if someone thinks I'm arrogant? So what if someone thinks I'm not that gorgeous? Wouldn't it be better to go through life feeling gorgeous anyway? Or at least pretty. I'll take pretty.
It doesn't happen very often, but once in a while, I think I'm really lovely. Occasionally, I am content and pleased with this whole person that I happened to be.
And the rest of the time, I am apologizing.
I am backing away slowly, my hands up, waving placatingly. I am making sure no one gets the wrong impression. I'm not a threat!
Oh, I don't know if I'd look good in that... Maybe if my legs were longer.
I couldn't pull that off because of my arms.
Yes, she is gorgeous! And she is gorgeous, and of course, she is gorgeous. Oh, and her! I didn't even see her. Yup! I agree. There's just something about big boobs... I don't even really need to wear a bra -- ha! Ha! I'm basically twelve, developmentally! Except for my thighs. That's where all that pie I just ate went!
I know exactly why I'm always apologizing, but I want to stop.
It was true -- my friend looked like the model in the magazine. The only difference was their hair. Her hair is brown, the model's hair was red. But even if she had compared herself to another model who looked nothing like her, would it really have mattered? And if she had said, "I would look amazing in that dress she's wearing. I have the legs for it," would there be something wrong with that? What if she had stood up and yelled, "I am friggin' gorgeous!"
Well, sure, that would've been a little weird, and I would've worried about the neighbors, since this is a new apartment and I want to make a good impression and I get all anxious about the volume on the TV. But really -- whatever. It would be better for her to think that. It would be better for us all to think that.
But at the very least, it would be better for us to stop apologizing.
A version of this piece appeared on Eat the Damn Cake