Training For War And Other Body Image Goals

The other day I was walking down 6th Ave towards Bryant Park and there were two men in very sleek suits behind me. I'd glanced at them while we paused to wait for a light to change.

One of them appeared to be in his fifties or so, with thick silver hair and a muscular build. The other guy was younger, and looked less in shape and distinct, with brown hair and a forgettable face. The older guy was telling the younger guy about this bar he and a bunch of other guys (their co-workers?) frequent.

"The girls there are unbelievable," he was saying. "We just walk in and there are all these girls from (indistinct word that could be foreign country, fashion brand, modeling agency, or local high school),like everywhere." His voice was full of bragging virility.

The younger man said something like, "Uh huh." He sounded like he was tolerating the other guy, who might've been his superior at work.

The older guy kept talking, and I walked faster until I couldn't hear what he was saying. They caught up to me at another light. I glanced back. He was definitely wearing a wedding band.

He said, "I'm telling you, it's like a meat market. Like a fuckin' meat market in there. Love it."

I turned around in the second before the light changed, and waited until he saw me staring at him. Then I gave him the most disgusted look I could muster and shook my head at him. I mouthed the word, "Ew." He froze, looked at the younger man, then back at me, and didn't know what to say. I walked away. Victory!

But I walked faster than I needed to, because I knew he was about to try to save his pride by saying something about me. He did. I could tell by the indignant tone of his voice, and by the way he raised it so I could hear. But I was too far away. Perfectly executed. I felt like a master of guerilla warfare. The streets of New York City are not a safe place. But I'm tough. I'm cool. I got it.

Um. Kidding? The truth is, I almost never do something like that. Not because I don't have plenty of opinions. Not even because I'm afraid to talk to strangers. I talk to strangers all the time. I'm annoyingly friendly. I learn the life story of the woman at the checkout counter in the Duane Reade. But I'm afraid to confront people, because I know how much power they have over me. I'm terrified of what they might say back to me. I've written about this before (getting shot and arrogantly beautiful), but Gena made me think about it even more with her recent post about someone at the gym making a comment about her legs, and how she responded. Spoiler alert: She barely paused before sticking up for herself and telling the person that that sort of talk wasn't ok. Well done.

It made me think about how much I would like to be able to rely on myself to be my own protector. My own defender. My own champion. Not to the point where I'm like, "You guys don't even know what you're talking about, I'M ALWAYS RIGHT! ME ME ME ME!!" Because that, well, it's bad. And then even your own parents stop inviting you over. But in a quieter way. In a way that allows me to believe that I am essentially someone worth defending on every front. So that when a situation arises in which I need defense, I'm there, to say, "Hey, that's not cool. Don't say things like that." In a way that, beyond that, allows me to draw attention to myself in situations in which I make myself vulnerable to some sort of verbal attack, just because it's worth it to make a point. There have been many times in my life when I wouldn't have been able to turn around and give that well-dressed man that furious look, because I'd have been too afraid of how much HE could hurt ME.

And I'm tired of being afraid.

Once, when I was seventeen or so, I worked in a photographer's studio for a day, answering the phone and cleaning up. It was painfully boring. They were photographing dogs the entire day, and the dog owners were very demanding and kept asking for iced drinks in between brushing Oliver and Duchess for the fifth time. They were wearing pearls and high heels. Not the dogs. The owners. Probably the dogs, too.

The next week, the photographer had still neglected to pay me. He swore he had. I never received it. I wrote to him, asking what was going on. He wrote back, telling me that, frankly, I was lazy and belligerent, and I didn't deserve the money anyway. I was incredibly angry, but I wasn't hurt. I mean, I saw no evidence to support that claim at all! I was definitely hard-working, and prided myself on being polite. He was absurd, obnoxious, and pathetic. He seemed to be grasping at straws, flailing around for a way to get at me.

And isn't that how it always works? Any insults that people fling at you are just a desperate attempt to hurt you, not a valid critique of something about you. They're just picking stuff up from in front of them, whatever's there, and throwing it. It's a tantrum. It's laughable. But I have always known that if that same ridiculous photographer of dogs had told me I was unattractive, well, then it would be a different story. I would sort of, on some level, in some not-so-hidden part of my mind, believe him. Just enough. Just enough to get hurt.

I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday about male/female dynamics. She's a gorgeous transwoman who literally turns head everywhere she goes. When we walk together, everyone says hi to her. Almost like they can't resist having some sort of communication with her. She said the following, and I asked her if I could quote her:

"When men tell me I'm pretty, I say, ‘Thanks,' but it's like, ‘I have a mirror. And I looked in it this morning before I left the house. I already know.'"

I LOVE that quote. It's wonderful to get a compliment, but you shouldn't be dependent on compliments to build your self-respect. Because when your self-respect is constructed entirely of recycled positive comments, a single fresh negative one is often enough to poison the batch. And then you're left with nothing. But your understanding of your beauty should be much deeper than that. If you wash all of the comments away, there should be something underneath. There should be you, just looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking, "Pretty damn nice."

I'm working on it. And when I get there, I intend to stare down a lot more married jerks who think it's cool to talk boastfully to younger men about picking up models/hot Ukrainians/school girls in some bar. And someone should also stop making fake IDs for those school girls.

This post originally appeared on Eat the Damn Cake. Republished with permission.

Want to see your work here? Email us!

Image via iofoto/Shutterstock.com.

Contact the author of this post at kate@eatthedamncake.com.