Remember we said we were going to have some exciting guest posters? Well, meet the first one! Medbh of the excellent Dante and the Lobster is not impressed by Elizabeth ‘Whiny’ Wurztel’s lament for her supposedly lost looks…
Amy Benfer’s post over at Broadsheet brought my attention to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s article in the latest issue of Elle. Sady and Amanda had a conversation about it at Tiger Beatdown [Editor’s note: I am in love with Tiger Beatdown. It’s my new favourite feminist lady site and you should all read it]. I figured I’d offer my perspective and share it with the lovely ladies here at The Anti Room who had asked me for a post earlier and until now I had nothing topical.
I have to admit that I don’t know much about Wurtzel’s work directly, not having read her books. When she hit her zenith in the media as the darling drama queen, I was busting my ass in university and waiting tables full time. If I remember correctly, I was married the year Prozac Nation was released. The crux of Wurtzel’s essay is that she used to be beautiful, but now that she’s 41, she’s lost her looks and she worries how she will locate her identity when men no lose interest. Oh, and yet she’s still really hot for her age and now she has curves, which in popular parlance means that she has T&A but is otherwise thin. Wurtzel’s summary of her romantic relationships casts a grim trajectory of browbeating and abusive behaviour:
“The men have piled up in my past, have fallen trenchantly through my life, like an avalanche that doesn’t mean to kill but is going to bury me alive just the same. There’s really no point, this late in the day, in picking through all the boys in order—alphabetical, chronological, epistemological—but looking back, I have been in far too many scenes that could have happened in a John Cassavetes movie or an Edward Albee play, if only they rose to that literary level. I attract (and seek) bottle throwing, foot stomping, door slamming, pot clanging, hair pulling, and, above all, a lot of loud screaming and walking out in a huff—usually leaving me crying, wondering what just happened, or, more often, too astonished to cry.”
In short, it’s a narrative where she’s inevitably in peril by random dudes. If this is what beauty gets you then why does she consider herself gifted, blessed or on the guest list for the winners of the genetic crapshoot? Wurtzel wants it both ways in her Janus-faced confessional. She wants to say that beauty was an impediment to her emotional maturity but now it’s gone:
“Now that I am a woman whom some man might actually like to be with, might actually not want to punch in the face—or, at least, now that I don’t like guys who want to do that to me—I am sadly 41. I am past my perfect years.”
How much more clearly could you internalize the social mandate that women’s expiration date arrives sometime shortly after 30? After that, you cease to exist. Pardon me, rational folks know that this is not at all the case. Then she turns around and declares that she’s in her even more perfect years:
“I am much sexier now than I used to be—I suddenly have this voluptuous body where I used to just be skinny and lithe. Really oddly, a couple of years ago I got serious breasts, to the point where people think I’ve had them surgically enhanced, which I certainly have not. Still, I think, the honest truth is that I’m just not as pretty as I used to be.”
Oh, so there’s a second breast growth-spurt at 40? That’s news to me. Seriously how shallow and self-absorbed does she sound? Make up your mind how you feel already. It’s as though she’s still trying to see herself as 25.
The reason Wurtzel’s piece struck a note is that she’s only one year older than me and my understanding of beauty bears no resemblance to the former limelighter’s.
Mr. M said to me not long ago when I was moaning about turning 40 that when we met, I was incredibly beautiful, and now, I’m just beautiful. Sure, he’s sweet to butter me up. No, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be 40 yet there it is: you cope and move on. It strikes me that there was no clear cognizance on my part when I was younger about being pretty, only the quick recognition that men wanted to pursue me. Now I look at pictures of myself and think why didn’t I regard myself as really pretty? In my youth, I carried flawless skin; thick, indestructible hair; chocolate doe eyes; and except for a brief period, I’ve always been slim. Yes, I have been privileged in the looks department. Men oftentimes let their gaze settle long on my appearance and I saw their wheels turning.
I was 14 when I started to pick up on the fact that men wanted my attention. I’m not talking boys my age, I mean men. Four years earlier walking with a friend, a dude called us to his car for directions and was rigorously wanking it as Michelle told him what road to take. I laughed uproariously and pointed her head down so she could catch the crotch gymnastics. We were taken to the police station to look at mug shots but since there were no peen pics in there the exercise in public safety was pointless. So I was not entirely naïve to inappropriate sexuality and dudes who would mess around with little girls. Then within one month at 14, when I was babysitting for two different married couples, the husbands each cornered, kissed and propositioned me. No shit. One did it in the car on the ride to my house and the other dude in his house with his wife upstairs checking on the kids. So I stopped babysitting and worked my first job (still 14) in a restaurant. A married dude endlessly pestered me to go out with him. Two co-worker dudes in their twenties asked and I did go out once with each. Men’s’ attention set this pattern up so that it seemed natural for me to value it. Their scrutiny and subsequent approval served as a confirmation of my own worth.
My relationships with men have not had the pronounced abuse and trauma that Ms. Wurtzel experienced. Only one boyfriend was full of static and drama. Maybe because I’ve made a point of choosing men who I thought had something to teach me and plus my taste has never run towards the pantomime macho masculinity that gets touted as the ideal. Yet the danger for young hetero women at large is that everything in culture contrives to tell them that it’s beyond aspirational; there is nothing else for women but to anticipate and acquiesce to male consideration.
Just like far too many women, I was enculturated in patriarchy to aspire to be desirable and to mistakenly believe that it was I who had the power over seduction. People frequently cite this ridiculous gender myth, intoning that beautiful women have all the power in the world because they make men weak at the knees. It took me years to understand that it’s more accurate to say that beautiful women, while they do have privilege, they really possess a unique opaque state of invisibility. You fully register in the male gaze but you’re also rendered wraithlike. Perception halts for one reason or another at the corporeal self. Beauty compartmentalizes you as arm candy, trophy, target, a fuck toy with no intellectual acumen. The reason why I fell so hard and so quickly for Mr. M all those years ago, was that for the first time in my life, I felt as though a man finally saw me.
There are various forms of privilege; the automatic advantages people receive which are not merit-based: race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class and yes, also the privilege that accompanies beauty. The point about having been born with privilege is that you consciously try to not simply coast along in ignorance and that you set your moral compass to counteract the unearned benefits you enjoy, so that you’re not shitting on other people or walking around like you deserve special treatment or are better than anyone else. Recognize that privilege is an ethical trap leading to all kinds of douchebaggery. Any degree of calculation on your appearance to get ahead is a huge fucking mistake, not simply because it’s shallow and lazy to take that route, but really, you ultimately lose your identity to the beauty trap. And what’s at the end of the line there resembles Marlene Dietrich sticking needles in her head in a make-shift facelift. The more power you invest and inflate your beauty with, the more likely you’ll be a bottomed-out parody. So get over yourself, Ms. Wurtzel. Reading a beautiful woman moan about losing her beauty compares with the multitude of white dudes online who pine for the good old days when they were unquestionably in charge and everyone else knew their place. It’s insufferable.