At certain points in every girl’s life gender politics force choices between the male world and the female world. Between girlfriends and guy friends. Between the sometimes fickle loyalty of female friends and the weirdly nonchalant allegiance of male friends.
I long ago opted for the male world. Frankly, men are more fun. They have better adventures and cooler toys and they like pretty girls who are their friends in a simple, pleasant way.
Being the pretty girl in the room among a bunch of guys who are also your buddies is, no joke, one of the best feelings in the world. Coming into a room and knowing that you’re going to make people laugh and have a good time and be happy is a kick. Make no mistake, this dynamic is all about attention — the attention that a pretty girl can trade with most men and some women.
Over time I’d gotten to be fairly casual about the whole thing. I could be the pretty girl in the room whenever I wanted to be and that was just that. It’s not as if there weren’t occasions when I wasn’t the prettiest girl in the room. I was never the prettiest girl in the world, but even when there was a prettier girl in the room I was still the pretty girl. People paid me that kind of attention.
Then things began to change. At first there was just the occasional moment when I noticed that there were glances over my shoulder to a pretty girl who wasn’t me. Then it became more and more often that I wasn’t the one being looked at or listened to. That laughter was directed at some other girl.
Men that I know well, who have known me for years as the pretty girl in the room, still laugh at all of my jokes when I am the only girl in the room. But my privilege as pretty girl in their room exists by virtue of some ghostly self-presence and the kind habits of old friends. That only gets me so far. I’m no longer allowed to assume that I’m going to be the pretty girl in the room from the moment that I walk in. That seat is not automatically mine. Now I have to look around for it — and it often already has a pretty girl in it. A girl who’s not going to stand and give up that seat to her more experienced pretty girl. Because I am no longer the more experienced girl; I’m just older.
I miss being the pretty girl. I miss the high value of my trading goods on the attention market. I miss the jolt of electricity that I could get from making someone laugh in spite of themselves. I miss being sought out and flattered. I miss the singing wires of intimate connection. I miss being able to assume that the attention that I want will automatically come to me. I miss the effortlessness of it all.
I was the pretty girl in the room for some 20 years. That’s a hella long run. But at 50-something that’s over and it’s time to move on. I’ve seen what happens to women who can’t give up being the pretty girl. How they try too hard: smile too brightly, laugh too loudly, flatter too obviously, dress like 20-somethings and look the fools for it. It is not an attractive sight.
I have met some former pretty girls who hope to leave the visibility and attention of being pretty behind altogether, to find calm and a peaceful fulfillment in becoming invisible. Moving from watched to watcher. I’m not inclined that way.
Some people assert that it is a simple matter for a pretty girl to evolve into a beautiful woman. But pretty girls and beautiful women are different sorts of creatures. Beautiful women are much rarer than pretty girls and only a few pretty girls get the seat upgrade.
Lots of former pretty girls take a part of their former selves and go with being the smart one in the room, a few manage sexy (though this is a rare change of genre,) some choose the traditionally male role of raconteur and continue to make people laugh.
These strategies are too narrow to fit me. They don’t range widely enough to garner the kind of attention that I want to pay and be paid. It is time to find another way to engage in the attention economy. Something that will fly over the heads of the pretty girls in the room. Something that will take advantage of being a woman of certain years. Something that will look at the familiar choice between male and female and say — no, really, I no longer need to choose, thank you.
There was a woman who I recall meeting once or twice in my career as a pretty girl. She came into the room and no one cared about who was sitting in which seat anymore. She just stood in the middle of the room paying attention and everyone around her became smarter, funnier, and sexier. It wasn’t just that she was smart, or funny, or sexy. She was all of those things and something more. Something that transcended all of the categories that I was used to thinking in. I wanted to be her someday.
I’m too old for pretty girl. It’s time for someday.
One of my deepest fears these days is being seen as (as the Brits so delicately put it) ‘mutton dressed as lamb’.
It makes much of my decision-making about how I present myself to the world challenging.
This is so much on my mind these days… beautifully put. Yes. I’m in the same place… I want to be is “formidable,” pronounced the French way. Ignore me at your peril.
Evocative. I’m not (long list) enough to put into words all that this evokes. You. Are. Awesome!
It’s so interesting how the way we see ourselves impacts our experience. I was never known (to myself or others) as a “pretty girl.” But my daughter is one of the Beautiful People. Watching the world react to her from the sidelines was eye opening.
I was never, ever “the pretty girl”, though I did get some attention in the social world, to which I as mostly oblivious.
In my predominately male industry, I was pretty invisible even when young.
In my early fifties I have, however, discovered what it is like to be invisible in general.
Predaters, however, find no one invisible.
Beautifully written, and thought provoking. I remember, when IIRC I’d just turned 40, the first time I realized I’d become invisible to the pretty young girls I still found so attractive. Here’s guessing that men experience something very similar to what you wrote about, but aren’t paying attention, aren’t bothered by it, or lament it but don’t share the fact. I’ve always envied the easy way that women seem to have with sharing feelings. Most of my men friends simply don’t. Period.
Excellent writing, Lara. You have mad skillz..