I am lying in bed, sick, and watching Hulu. The holiday commercial for Victoria's Secret replays and replays. I can't look away. Supermodels with breasts like plastic fruit, so round, move in slow, calculated adjustments, their skinny flanks decorated with proud ribs -- a precise school of dolphins, surfacing suggestively.
"Love me," they murmur. "Desire me." They say it as though they already know that we do. Sometimes, a voice whispers but their mouths don't open, as though it's the lingerie talking. They smile wickedly, sweetly, smugly -- whichever way they're supposed to.
After all these years of living in this country, in this city, in this culture, for some reason, I am still faintly surprised that they are almost naked. I don't know why. It's a reaction that comes up from childhood, maybe, from somewhere deep and certain. I am indignant at their nakedness because I can't seem to avoid it. I don't have a choice except to keep shutting my eyes and turning away.
"It doesn't matter," I tell myself. "Why should it matter?"
When I was a kid, standing in line at the grocery store with my mom, I felt like I couldn't look away from the women on the covers of the magazines, with their glossy skin and upthrust breasts and pouting lips and sultry, shadowed cheekbones. They were always women, and they were always sexy. Occasionally, a man is on the cover of something, but often, he is wearing a sharp suit that covers everything. Often, a woman is completely naked, with strategically placed hands, or flowers, or something ironic and playful that references a recent role she's been cast in. Money, puppies, whatever.
But women who speak of the pressure they feel to look a certain way, who agonize, who fixate, who buckle under the pressure, who get cosmetic surgery, who complain, who mention our insecurity -- we are considered vain.
This, too, surprises me, in my innocent child brain, the one that resides secretly inside the irony, carelessness and dismissal I've accumulated over the years like a hard shell.
I was surprised the first time someone called me vain in the comments section of a piece I'd written. "Get over yourself, you're so vain."
Vain? I had thought that vanity was the evil queen in Snow White, gazing into her mirror, desperate to be the most beautiful in the land. Vanity, I knew, was always feminine. It was always about beauty. But I thought it had to do with starting out stunning and being obsessed with maintaining that stunningness. Vanity was not hating your nose and feeling worthless for feeling ugly. That was something sad. It was embarrassing, but for different reasons. It was embarrassing because of the failure both to have been born prettier and the failure to accept not being prettier, like a good little soldier.
It is possible that I don't actually understand what vanity is, what it means. But I understand how wrong it is to accuse a person who is struggling of being selfish.
"I used to read your stuff about body image as the concerns of vain, idle women without real problems," a reader wrote to me the other day. She went on to describe herself realizing that she hadn't let herself eat cake in a long time -- or bread, for that matter. A very long time. When she tasted a bite of cake recently, she almost cried. She apologized for judging my writing. She thanked me.
It was generous of her to apologize and I was touched, but the truth is, I haven't personally taken much offense to the accusation that I am vain. Instead of hurting me, it confuses and worries me.
I write about body image because I figure if I have struggled with hating my own face, and if I have believed at times that my face is the most important thing about me -- if I have been afraid of my own body and its fluctuations and transformations -- then other women have also fought against themselves this way, and gotten distracted and held down and mired in the muck of self-criticism. And I want to address it, because I believe that we are worth so much more than the measurements of our bodies and the details of our faces. We are entitled to our boldness and our individuality. We deserve our originality and our potential.
I write about body image and beauty not because all I want to think or talk about is the way I look (god, no!), but because I think there's so much more than we can think and talk about. Because we should claim all the rest of ourselves. But sometimes, at first, and for a long time, we can't. Because our faces and our bodies in the mirror are getting in the way.
And I am afraid for the women who are suffering and being called vain for suffering.
You are not vain. Worrying about the way you look doesn't mean you live in your own little, insulated world where you don't understand that there is also war and massive human rights violations and global warming and animal cruelty. Worrying about the way you look is a form of awareness and sensitivity to the world around you. You are influenced by your environment because you are paying attention.
Feeling bad about the way you look can be like a painful hangnail -- it nags at you constantly, even as you go through your serious, important day, handling big issues and trying to improve the world around you. Or a prominent pimple that makes you worry about going on a first date. Thinking about the way we look is probably almost never the only thing that anyone thinks about. Our brains are far too lively and complicated for that. But ignoring the hangnail doesn't make it go away. And being made to feel guilty for it is just ridiculous.
I wonder sometimes at the human urge to attack the vulnerable. It seems prevalent. We also like to decide who deserves their own pain. Who is owed their own suffering.
Not the people who are too freaky, like trans kids or flamboyant gay people or dwarves (because we laugh at the way they look).
Not the people who are too privileged, like those with too much money or even with the right skin color.
Not those who we hate for political reasons, like our enemies in war.
Not those whose problems are too common or too small-seeming.
But really, for the most part, we don't choose what will hurt or impede or disable us. And most of us will experience a whole host of struggles as we move through life. We will lose loved ones and face grave illness and be challenged in ways we can hardly imagine surviving beforehand. And some of us, across racial and socioeconomic and religious lines, will continue to hate our bodies during all of this, which will only make life harder. So let's not make it harder by accusing other and ourselves of being vain for feeling this way. Instead, let's acknowledge that it's a real issue and deal with it.
My mom used to scowl at the magazines in the checkout line at the supermarket. She'd try to distract me from them.
"Those are silly," she explained, trying to teach me that they didn't matter.
But it's impossible not to learn the lessons beauty teaches us every day.
Greasy and unshowered, disgustingly nauseous, I lie on my side in a heap and watch the supermodels languidly pose and smolder at the camera, doing their beautiful job. A woman commented on this blog that her boyfriend kept talking about one of them, how she is the most beautiful woman in the world. They are often talked of that way, and we've learned that the most beautiful woman in the world can mean the most successful woman in the world. The best.
My hair is matted and there are two pimples developing on my chin. My breasts, small but flopping, refuse to do cleavage, even when pressed together, there is always an extra, overenthusiastic crease, a flattening effect. My belly, which has refused food, sticks out anyway, unwilling to give up.
Bleary, exhausted, miserable, I watch the commercial.
This is what you should want to look like, the images declare. This is the ideal. That is why they can be almost naked, because they have nothing to hide, because their bodies are perfect.
I want to disagree. At the end of the commercial, when a blonde model saunters towards the camera, the quick-changing angles of her bony hips look uncomfortable to me, as though her skin might break. I don't want to look like her, despite everything. And maybe that is vanity. That seed of choice and personal preference. My quiet, tiny, stubborn personal preference for myself that gets a little stronger when I clear away the weeds of self-hatred and self-doubt that are trying to strangle it. If I am vain, I choose that kind of vanity. The kind that involves persistently, selfishly looking in the mirror until I can like what I see.
A version of this piece appeared originally on Eat the Damn Cake, where you can find more stuff like this, and other stuff about life in general.