Friday, March 21, 2014

The late-1990s Livejournal I never had

The great thing about getting older, all those it's-great-to-get-older protest-too-much articles always claim, is that you reach a certain age and no longer care how others see you. In my experience, this is largely true, if more for those of us for whom ancientness correlates with romantic settled-down-ness. (If you're single and dating, you're bound to care a bit more how attractive people you have yet to meet will find you.) I can remember, in early adolescence, having thoughts about, say, how my thighs looked when I was sitting vs. standing. I no longer ponder my appearance in this micro way, nor even in an especially macro one. I use a mirror when necessary, i.e. to not put eyeliner on random parts of my face, but I don't gaze into it in search of any more holistic information.

It's possible to go along feeling like one's vanity is done, only to have it return, if momentarily, just to remind you that it can. That you're not above such concerns after all. I was feeling maybe a tiny bit old attending a friend's 27th birthday party, but the real issue was that the bar it was at was otherwise populated by people who hovered around the legal drinking age. It was also karaoke night, and the songs it occurred to me to request were popular... before the millennium. I was drinking beer from a pitcher, out of a plastic cup, which somehow made it that much more salient that I'm no longer 21. We were all old. Not quite the-old-people-at-the-bar old (there were some definitively elderly people filling that role), but still.

That, and the book I'd suggested for the book club I'd suggested, "Lucky Jim," has a great many... comparative descriptions of two women, one (Christine) effortlessly gorgeous, the other (Margaret) always somewhat off. Jim at one point wishes Margaret were just a bit prettier. He dreads seeing her in one particular unflattering outfit. She's not horrible-looking, but sort of borderline - with the right sort of effort, or if she just happens to be dressed and made-up in a way that pleases Jim, she's attractive, but she's incapable of inspiring the sort of nervous, must-run-in-opposite-direction response that Christine summons just by existing.

While reading, I did think how probably all women have been in both roles to different people, on different occasions. Or the sensible part of me thought this. The less-sensible one thought, oh my God, I'm Margaret. (A follow-up title for Judy Blume?) Every time I dress up, it probably looks like a costume. There's probably lipstick on my teeth - or I should be better about checking this on the rare occasions I wear dark lipstick. I probably have some outfit that's the paisley dress and velvet shoes. Gah!

I suppose what it is is, it's just such a convincing-seeming description of the ways men see women. While a more enlightened approach would be to just identify with the protagonist - after all, women, too, divide men into Christine and Margaret categories, which is just as unfair, if not more so given how little control men have over their self-presentation - I both identified with Jim and took the relatively literal approach of identifying with the recipients of the male gaze. That the "male" in question, to whom I imagined possibly coming up short, is a fictional protagonist from 1950s England mattered less than it might have, because this is a very good novel and thus, alas, sort of timeless.

All of which is my longwinded way of explaining why I so appreciated Rachel Hills's positive spin on a certain French aristocratic model's previously-mentioned high self-esteem. Specifically, Rachel suggests we adapt said model's self-description as a template, putting in our own physical traits: "See, I’ve had this great chance in life of being born with good genes. I was born ________, with a pretty face (not to everyone’s taste, I concede), and ________." Rachel fills out one of her own, and I see that I'd be capable of doing so as well. After all, weren't we all born with a pretty face that not everyone finds pretty? And we can probably all come up with two more traits such that to mention them would be to boast.


Glove Slap said...

Lucky Jim is my favorite book! But only because it's the funniest book I know-- I've always been troubled by the protagonist's disdain for Margaret and his preference for Christine-- because Christine is so clearly a stereotypical physical ideal, and you can faintly sense that Kingsley Amis may even empathize with Margaret's bitterness at the knowledge that nothing she can do or be can make up, in a sense, for her failure to meet the standards Christine does. More importantly to me, Jim is not actually on Christine's level, yet he feels he deserves her. He's not good-looking, or rich, or classy, or particularly good at anything, or even ambitious or hard-working, but we're supposed to be happy when she winds up with him (as though that grody Bertrand is the only other man in the world). Christine could do better! And Margaret deserves better than she gets! But we're meant to identify with Jim. And I do, because I have impostor syndrome and believe that all my successes, too, come down to luck-- and because Jim is such a laff riot.

Phoebe said...

I second all of this 100%. Lucky Jim's probably tied with Portnoy's Complaint for me, which probably isn't healthy.

One other interpretation of the novel, though, might be that we're getting Jim's perspective. To him, Christine's vastly more attractive than Margaret. To him, everyone would agree. My impression is that men tend to be more interested than women, not so much in dating someone they find beautiful (nearly everyone wants to do this), but in dating someone all would agree is beautiful.

So either it's male entitlement (which it probably is, and which explains why he thinks he, though ordinary, deserves beautiful), or it's how he explains things to himself, honing in on whichever features of hers would convince the reader this woman is officially attractive.

Anonymous said...

" My impression is that men tend to be more interested than women, not so much in dating someone they find beautiful (nearly everyone wants to do this), but in dating someone all would agree is beautiful. "

Am I parsing this correctly when I take it to mean that men are more influenced than women by the opinions of their peers in their romantic pursuits rather than vice versa?

Phoebe said...


"Am I parsing this correctly when I take it to mean that men are more influenced than women by the opinions of their peers in their romantic pursuits rather than vice versa?"

No, I don't think so. Men - I think - are more influenced by how they think/know other men feel about a woman's looks, i.e. they care not just whether they're attracted to her, but also whether she'd be considered attractive generally. These things are bound to overlap somewhat, given that societal beauty ideals influence personal taste, but they don't line up exactly. (See my earlier blather on this topic here.)

But in other arenas, maybe women care more about what other women think. The really clichéd place to go with this would be status/profession - men and women alike probably want to be with someone whose interests/occupation they find intriguing, but women may be more concerned with whether whichever job/band/etc would generally impress.

I am, to be clear, speculating based on anecdotal evidence, some of which is from midcentury novels.