The Nagging Wonder About ‘Better Looking’

By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant.

You could say my lack of vanity makes me very proud. And then you could laugh.

It’s true that I clean up just fine for special occasions. I have six outfits I can wear doing anything, from giving the opening night lecture at the Women’s Campaign School at Yale to offering emotional support at a pet funeral.
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The signature pieces are long jackets and black pants, accompanied by a scarf that can be reversed or removed if I spill food or beverages on it. I can count on these clothes to get me through several hours without embarrassing myself or anyone else.

But as anybody who’s seen me in the produce aisle of my local supermarket can attest, I don’t spend a lot of time looking in mirrors, worrying about my body image or styling any part of myself (hair, wardrobe, capped teeth) for ordinary non-occasion days.

I’ll do a quick glance on the way out the door just to make sure my glasses are straight, my shoelaces are tied and my bra is hooked; we’re talking basic. I’m clean, I’m age-appropriate and, as far as I can tell, not in violation of any codes whether social, moral or zoning.

And yet I have a confession to make: There probably isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t wonder, even now, at age 58, what life would be like if I were “better looking.”

I put the phrase in quotation marks because I’m not sure what it means. “Better” than who, exactly, and who is it, in my imagination, that’s doing all this looking?

Let’s face it: I’m not interested in shimmying down the street and getting ogled. I hated that kind of attention as soon as I realized it had nothing to do with whether or not I was pretty and everything to do with whether I was in some guy’s line of sight.

Being catcalled is not like being flattered. It’s like being looted.

Having unfamiliar men suck their teeth at me while I’m stopped for a red light made me feel less like a pageant winner and more like a puppy treat.

I was relieved to inherit the cloak of invisibility that’s the superpower of women after a certain age.

I’m certainly not searching for a flirtation or extra-curricular hijinks. I have a better chance of showing up on a website linked to Laura Ashley than Ashley Madison.

Do I perhaps want other women to envy my looks? Here’s another point when you could laugh.

I have an esprit de corps with many, many women based on, well, our corps. We cheer each other on toward enjoying health, vigor and cake, not necessarily in that order. My tribe of women is the loud, funny and smart one.

I regard other women as my community, not my competition.

So am I looking for reassurance closer to home?

I wondered about this during a recent conversation. My husband of 24 years (that’s the age of the marriage, not the age of the husband; I might be neurotic but I haven’t lost my mind) and I were on a long trip. He was listening to the news and I was in the passenger seat looking in the visor’s mirror.

During a commercial break, Michael looked in my direction and asked, more out of curiosity than concern, “What are you doing?”

I said, “I’m trying to get rid of my chin.”

Michael said, “It’s not going to work.”

I then explained that the correct answer is “‘What chin?'” and not “‘It’s not going to work.'”
(Other fine answers would include “You couldn’t possibly look more wonderful!” or “Silly you! I’ve always been charmed by your chin and I always will be.” In fact, “It’s not going to work” would be precisely the wrong answer.)

When I pointed this out, Michael and I laughed for the next 15 miles.

The only person for whom I wish I were better looking, then, turns out to be my harshest inner critic: Vanity’s meaner sister. My entire life, she’s been telling me I’m not good enough.

But I’ve come to realize that maybe I am. And from now on I’m laughing her out of the room.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant

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