On Compliments

I won’t have been the first person to write this, nor will I likely be the last. I, like so many others, am just one of the many who – in shedding some of the (perhaps unintentional) burdens laid upon my psyche by the patriarchal system that dominates our society – has come to regard the “compliment” with unease.

More plain English?

Some compliments by some people make me feel uncomfortable.

Now, in a world unencumbered by the patriarchal system I’ve already alluded to, I wouldn’t need to say more than that. I should be able to say “X makes me feel Y” and “Y” should be accepted, respected, and boom.

And if, for example, someone were concerned about their “X” making me feel “Y” they might be driven to ask “but, why?”

And… you know what? That’s a valid question. It’s a question that does not dismiss my feeling of “Y”, but seeks to understand it. It may also be an attempt to validate it; but it certainly does not come from the position of denying its existence.

But that’s not what we get when we say things like “Your doing of X makes me feel Y,” where “Y” is not a positive thing.

What we get is “No, you’re wrong.” Or “Jeez, take a compliment.” Or “Fuckin’ feminists….”

What we get, frequently, is an invalidation of our feelings. So you know what we do?

We say nothing. A lot. We say nothing so many times.

We say plenty to the people who are willing to listen. We say plenty to the people who say “Oh, I know,” or even those who ask “But, why?” but until we know you’re one of those people, we just say nothing.

So, I’m going to publicly answer the ‘why’ for me. Why it sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable.

This is a society that has placed a high value on the way women look and act and behave, but predominantly it’s about how we look.

I can say “I feel like shit today, I’m so tired….” and someone’s response might easily be, “But you look beautiful.”

Like that’s going to make the shit-and-tired feeling go away, or make it feel less shitty or tired. Every time Erin Andrews, the host on Dancing With the Stars talks about how beautiful one of the female contestants looks I cringe. So often it was “Well, the judges didn’t score you very well, but you look HOT.”

When I was ten years old I started begging my mom to let me wear makeup. She told me I couldn’t – not until I was thirteen. On my thirteenth birthday, I asked if I could wear makeup. She said not until I’m sixteen. I said, “But wait! You said I could wear it when I’m thirteen!” She responded, “I didn’t think thirteen would come so soon!”

For years I wore makeup every day. All of it – the foundation and the powder and the gloss and mascara and the liner. And then, it was an uncle actually who asked me “why?” And I said it was so I could look pretty, and he said “you are beautiful without it. It doesn’t make you prettier. You don’t need it every day. Save it for the days you want people to say ‘wow!'”

It took me a little while, because at this point I was pretty darned pimpley and I really felt like I needed it.

But over time, I did lay off all the heavy makeup. I started really getting used to seeing my face without it. And you know what started to happen?

My mom started telling me to go put on some makeup.

Because it made me prettier.

And that was really important. Hell, just the other day she kept harping on how I had to do my makeup “really nice, like you used to do it – i know you know how” for my job interview. She even asked me for a photo as proof that I did it right.

Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot of work overcoming my addiction to validation. So many of us have this addiction – and it’s no wonder. We’re infused with doses of it from day one of our existence, and it only gets more prominent as we start to blossom. We crave that validation.

And it’s like, in order to wean ourselves off of it, we feel like we have to go in totally the opposite direction. Like, we purposely try to dress unsexy and let our armpit hair grow and behave in the most unladylike fashion we can. Quitting validation sometimes felt like quitting femininity.

But then something else happened. I realized that trying to hide my beauty in response to the patriarchy’s unwelcome valuation of it still gives my control over it to someone other than myself.

I started to see the power and in owning my own looks. Now, here’s the thing. I value them. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that being pretty isn’t something I am aware of or something I’m not appreciative of – but what I resent is that it makes a difference in how others perceive me. I like looking like me. I like that my partner likes the way I look.

But I hate that it has any bearing on whether I am qualified for a job or my family’s love or a stranger’s respect. I don’t look at other people and “rate” their looks or treat them differently to how I treat other people….

….unless I’m flirting with them.

Which brings me back to those compliments.

When someone who is not sexually interested in me (any gender) tells me that I am beautiful, it feels like a compliment.

When someone who is sexually interested in me (any gender) tells me that I am beautiful, it feels like a down payment.

Maybe it’s not intended that way. Holy shit it probably isn’t intended that way! But that’s the system we live in. That’s how it works, and that’s how I interpret it.

I get that there are people with crushes out there on people who do not reciprocate those crushes. I get that it can feel awkward and weird to have a crush on someone who doesn’t crush back on you. I’m not saying don’t talk to them, or don’t compliment them…

…I’m saying that when it comes to me, anyway, understand that a compliment on my level of attractiveness to you can make me feel uncomfortable. I might say “thank you,” if I don’t think there’s any ulterior motive…but if I feel like a response might be leading you to think that I’ve accepted the down payment and we’re now negotiating terms?

I’ll probably just say nothing.

One final thought: If you think this is about you or something you’ve said to me in the past, don’t worry about trying to apologize or explain that your motives are not disingenuous. I’m not holding any grudges and I’m not angry with anybody. Just let this message percolate and keep it in mind the next time we have an interaction.

Professional confidence trumps mascara

I received an impromptu invitation this morning to attend a dinner hosted by a former colleague (from almost 20 years ago) who is now a CEO and mover and shaker in my industry. The location? A swanky Beverly Hills award-winning restaurant. We’ll be joined by two of his colleagues, one I’ve met before.

I was thrilled to accept the invitation. I haven’t seen him in over a decade at least. And he is very connected in my industry. His name is one of the ones that appears on my list of references, based on my being a receptionist at the nonprofit where he was, at the time, an executive assistant. We’ve kept in touch, and even back then, he has always encouraged me to believe in my abilities and what I bring to the table no matter what my position on the hierarchy.

The problem? I left for work this morning thinking that it wouldn’t matter who I saw today and dressed accordingly. There is no time to go home and change.

The good news is that, since I’ve started going to the gym, there have been a couple instances in which I’ve accumulated clothes in the trunk of my car that I’ve been too lazy to remove. I found a pair of dark wash skinny jeans and a relatively flattering top that didn’t require any ironing. I even had two pairs of shoes that would appropriately replace the flip flops I had worn out of the house this morning.

In my dungeon bag I found a pair of earrings and a necklace that I’d removed before a rope scene months ago.

All I needed was makeup.

I mean, I look tired.

But…I am tired. I’d considered heading over to a nearby department store and seeing if I could get someone at one of the makeup counters to just apply a little glow. In the end, I decided to see what just adding a little bit of red lip gloss would do…

Y’know what? I look fine. I look more than fine.

Without a stitch of mascara or blush or tinted moisturizer, and my hair air-dried with visible roots, I look fucking fantastic.

It has nothing to do with my face or my skin or my clothes or the lipstick.

It has everything to do with confidence. Tonight I’m having dinner with one of the first people that ever made me feel confident professionally. What I wear doesn’t matter.

What I bring to the table does.

The Photograph

It had arrived gift wrapped on her 29th birthday. A tarnished silver 5×7 frame holding the only remaining copy of a photograph taken years earlier.  Enclosed was a simple, unsigned note:  

Remember that once upon a time, you were cherished.

She’d thrown the framed photo back into the padded envelope it had arrived in and tossed it in a drawer. Days later, the note went out with the garbage.

They’d met the summer she’d run away from home to “see the world.”  At 17, she’d taken a Greyhound bus from a neighboring town with a large backpack she’d found at a rummage sale weeks earlier. Enough clothes to last a week, a journal and a pen, a can of almonds from the pantry, some toiletries, and all the money she could find.

Her father didn’t try too hard to find her. He probably hadn’t noticed she was gone until it he hit the bottom of the whisky bottle and was too drunk to go to the store to fetch more.

By the time she’d reached the big city, she’d run out of money and almonds.  He’d found her during his morning run; she was brushing her teeth in a drinking fountain in a public park.

“It must have been a lovely night for a camp-out,” he’d said, still jogging in place.

She spit onto the ground, and pushed the lock of dark hair out of her narrowed eyes. “It wasn’t so bad.”

“How are the stars at night?” he asked, still jogging.

“Brighter than I’ve ever seen,” she couldn’t help but smile as she recalled the vision of tiny lights glittering the darkened sky above the trees.

“Aah, well….they’d have to, to compete with that smile.”  

She leaned down to drink water from the fountain to conceal the blush in her cheeks.

He’d come back around at the end of his run and invited her out for a meal.  The meal led to an invitation to use the shower at his flat.  Which led to the shared warmth of his double bed. Which led to their shared summer, culminating in the day at the park with the rose.

That was the day he frightened her.

He’d just purchased a high-end used camera at a resale shop he’d passed on his morning run.  “It’s a Canon T-90!” he’d said, excitedly while she was heating up some leftover pizza in the oven.  

“I don’t know what that means,” she responded, unimpressed.

“It’s state-of-the art. Best technology there is right now,” he held the viewfinder to his eye and focused in on her.

She shrugged in response, and turned to look through the oven glass.  “What are you going to take pictures of?”  She asked, focusing her thoughts on the bubbling cheese as it browned.

“Beautiful things,” he responded as the flash went off

Later that day, they’d gone to the park.  She’d wanted to go to a bar, but he’d insisted on taking the camera out for a spin. She hated posing. He kept trying to position her this way and that, in front of trees, sitting on benches, leaning back over the grass.  She felt stiff and exposed.

He sat beside her on the bench, for the first time that day setting the camera down, and kissed her.  The kiss felt nice.  Sweet. “Can’t we go get a drink now?” she asked him.

“I just want one more shot,” he said.

She sighed.  “Okay.  What do you want me to do?”

He picked a rose off a nearby tree.  It was a deep, bright pink color that faded the closer it got to the base. “Hold this up to your face,” he said.

She pressed the bud to her nose and inhaled.  The smell was sweet and soft and reminded her of her mother’s garden growing up a million years ago.  She used to love the days when her mother would hand her the shears and say, “Let’s make tonight’s table special.  Go out to the garden and pick the six prettiest blooms for mum.”

She flashed on the memory of the night that those roses wound up on floor covered with shards of glass, beneath the bare wall streaked with water. Her father had sent her to her room. Hours later, her mother had come in quietly, setting the six roses on her bedside table.  “I love you, my darling,” she whispered.  She was gone six months later.

“I want you to look at me,” he said.

She raised her eyes up. He looked through the viewfinder and focused.  “You are so beautiful,” he said.  She smiled.  Sometimes he really made her feel that way.

He pulled the camera down and looked into her eyes.  “No, really.  You are so beautiful.”  He paused for a moment, taking in the contrast of her pale skin with the jet black short hair, and the bright rose against her cheek.

“I love you, my darling.”

*click*

 


 

She’d packed her backpack the night before while he slept and left during his morning run.  She left a note on a page torn from her unused journal.  “I’m sorry.  Thank you.  Goodbye.”  

She kissed the page, leaving behind the imprint of her red lips and left the key to the flat beside the note on the counter.


 

It was a great time to be a young adult without responsibility. The club scene made it easy for her to find a string of warm beds to sleep on, and most of the men and women who took her home would offer her at least a meal or some money before sending her on her way.

She was 21, three years past the rose in the park, when she met the people who would become her “family” for the next two years.  They offered her stability, room and board, in exchange for her services.  They called it “training.”

They hit her.  

But it wasn’t like with mum, she thought.  It wasn’t out of anger.  Afterwards, there was always some form of tenderness. A hug, soft words, hot cocoa.  She learned to enjoy the pain and anticipate the affection.. She learned to crave it.  She looked forward the nights when her training would continue. She wore a collar and she called them “Master” and “Mistress” and she called his friends “Sir.”

There were many, many “Sirs” during that time.

Then one evening, the man who looked too much like her father appeared at her bedroom door. They’d been properly introduced earlier.  She’d serviced him under the table during dinner at her Master’s behest, but without having to look at his face, he was just another cock to please.  She’d been far more reserved the rest of the evening as she fetched drinks and washed dishes.  He’d been leering at her from the sofa while she knelt at her Master’s feet during the game.

But that night he came into her room, as so many others had.  Master and Mistress had always told their guests to help themselves to anything in the house.  “What is ours is yours,” they’d say. Everybody knew she was theirs.

He turned the lights on.  Maybe if he hadn’t done that she could have gotten through it.  His voice was different, but his face…

His face was much too similar.

“On your back, little girl,” he growled.  She could smell the whiskey on him from three feet away and her stomach turned.

“Yes, Sir,” she responded obediently.

“No.  I want you to call me daddy,” he said.

They dropped her off at the bus station the following morning.  She had her backpack and enough money to get back to the city.

 


 

She worked the streets for a while.  It kept her relatively clothed and fed.  She got a job as an exotic dancer next at a dive bar in the shady part of town.  “You’re a little old,” the manager had said, “but if you put out, they won’t notice.”

She was 26.

 


 

He’d found her on Myspace in 2006.  She was 28 years old and earning a living as a web cam girl.  She’d started a live-journal blog where she chronicled her exploits – some real, and some imaginary, and used the social networking site to promote her website.

She lived with the webmaster and spent most nights in his bed as compensation for his services. On nights he had other women, she slept on the couch.

“How have you been?” read the first message.

They agreed to meet.  She didn’t have a car and had spent the last of her spare change on a pack of cigarettes, so he offered to pick her up at the flat.

They had coffee.  He looked good. Her hair had grown out and she’d bleached it blonde.  There were dark circles under her eyes and her cheeks were gaunt.

She told him stories. As she listened to herself talk she knew she was exaggerating, bragging.  She was making it sound as if her life had been lived on her terms.

His eyes looked sad.

“If you ever need anything….”

“I’m fine.”

 


 

Eight months later, the package had arrived.

She shoved it in a drawer and went out to look for a date.  Her webmaster’s parents were coming for an extended stay and he’d told her to go find somewhere else to stay the weekend.

 


 

She was no longer earning an income from the website by the time she hit 35, and the webmaster kicked her out. She packed up the seventeen year old backpack, patched and worn as it was, with clothes, toiletries, a box of granola bars, and all the money she had left.

Before she left the flat she looked around to see if there was anything else she needed.  She saw the drawer by the entryway.

She took the padded envelope out of the drawer and tucked it into the front pocket.

 


 

She’s in her late 60s now. Eventually her life stabilized. She’d gotten a stable job in used bookstore with a small studio on the upper floor. She supplemented her income by proofreading articles for a local paper and occasionally selling short erotica that she self-published on the internet.

She was comfortable now.  For the last ten years she’d been seeing a nice younger man.  They never lived together, but he’d been kind to her. He enjoyed her and made her feel beautiful in her old age.  He would remind her at every opportunity that he appreciated all the things she would do that his wife would never consider.

The framed photo sits on her bedside table beside a simple glass vase in which she always displays six roses purchased each week from the flower market.  She doesn’t have a photo of him.  The last time she looked him up, he’d gotten married and had three children. She tried to reach out to him on facebook when she found him there, but he’d blocked her.

She lays in bed and looks over at the glossy photo of a beautiful girl with dark hair and pale skin and such a complex mix of love and hope and fear in her eyes.

Remember that once upon a time, you were cherished, she thinks to herself as she turns off the lamp and closes her eyes to dream of the life she could have had.

 

Hund’s Rule

They’d been skirting around it for well over a year. The sexual tension had been growing between them, but the timing (as timing often is) had just been off. When they met, he was just out of a relationship. Then when he was ready she was in one. Then when she was out of it his mother had taken ill. Then when that had passed it was something, then another thing.

Through it all, they’d remained close friends. He felt drawn to her as she did to him. She’d watch him at play and it would terrify and intrigue her.

She’d joke, “For someone who says he’s not a sadist, you sure do play the role well.”

He’d shrug. “That’s what they want.”

She knew that she wouldn’t be enough for him. She was too green, too inexperienced, too *tame* to satisfy his needs. And the carousel of women…he never seemed to really get attached to any of them. They’d come and go from his life like bees on flowers. Hovering around for a bit and moving on to the next one.

So when she felt her lips go numb as he watched him with someone else, or when he pulled his shirt off over his head at the beach, or when he simply smiled that smile, her logic brain would kick in and shut it down.

It would never work.

He watched her more intently when she wasn’t paying attention. Her face in profile was already so beautiful, but when he’d catch sight of her looking directly at him with…those eyes…he couldn’t stand it. He’d drown himself in other distractions and convinced himself it was better for everyone.

He’d just broken up with Greta when they’d met. It took him so long to get over that betrayal that he’d built a wall around his heart – a wall of charm and wit and strength and absolutely no trace of vulnerability.

Except when she looked at him. He couldn’t hide it then, and though she never acknowledged it out loud, he thought for sure she could sense it. She was kind that way.

Too kind. Too good. Too pure.

He didn’t deserve her light. She didn’t deserve his darkness.

The night of her bad scene, she called him first. He dropped his date off at her car and made a beeline for her apartment, where he found her huddled on the floor by the sofa. The sight of her in such a state ignited a rage that burned to his very core.

“What happened? What did he do?”

“I …no, he didn’t,” suddenly she felt like she’d been overreacting.

He dropped down to his knees beside her and put his arm around her, pressing her face against his chest. “Please tell me what happened.” He closed his eyes, breathing deeply, trying to stay calm.

“I just…I wanted to be *more*….”, she sputtered through choked back sobs. “I wanted to be able to take more. So you could….” her voice trailed off as she realized how ridiculous it sounded.

He could feel his heartbeat echoing in his ears. So he could what? What was she talking about?

He pulled her into a tight hug and pulled her away so he could look at her tear stained face. Watery lashes and smeared mascara framed the deep hue of her eyes as she looked back. She was searching his face. For what?

He realized, he’d been searching hers.

For what?

He leaned in and kissed her. Softly. After over a year, he’d finally the courage to do what he’d thought about doing since the moment he saw her – timid and wide-eyed at the dungeon party so long ago.

She sniffled. He’d kissed her. She wasn’t wrong. He felt something. But no, he needed it. How many times had she seen him with others. He needed to give the pain and she had tried tonight. Tried to be strong enough, but she couldn’t take it.

She looked away again, and her skin jolted when he placed a finger under her chin to lift it back up toward him.

He was looking right at her. She’d seen flickers before, but he always masked them so well she thought them imagined. There it was. His passion. His desire. His vulnerability.

She wanted him, so badly. She’d been wanting him the whole time. Gathering all the courage she could muster, she looked up at him one last time.

“Can you do this without having to hurt me?”

The question struck him to his core. The wall had shown her only one facet of his ability to connect with people. She thought him a sadist. She couldn’t possibly understand how very deeply that affected him.

Or how very deeply she’d affected him. He stared at her lips, her eyes, her cheekbones. He took in the whole of her face and saw the beauty in her soul that she’d never tried to hide. He’d just been looking the other way.

Consciously he let down his guard. He’d risk it, for her. With tears welling up in his own dark eyes, he nodded gently, then asked, “Can you?”

Refraction

Her tears were real, as was his acceptance of them. There was no “there, there,” with him. Just an “I’m here.”

When the clouds parted, he made a silly comment and she smiled. A smile as genuine as the tears that had rained upon her cheeks only minutes prior.

He reached over and pulled her hair out of her eyes and looked intently into them.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Light shines from you when you smile,” he said. “I’m looking for the rainbow in your eyes.”

Harsh Light

The guest bathroom I’m using here doesn’t have any windows. The lighting in there isn’t the friendliest ever. Back home, I’m used to getting ready in ample natural light. Once the tinted moisturizer goes on, my face is all glowy; mascara applied and my eyes are all poppy, and a touch of some lip balm and I’m ready to go.

But in this bathroom, I put on the moisturizer and I could still see shadows and bags and …WTF, WRINKLES? I put on the mascara and I could see smudges and spots. I put on lip balm and all I can see is that I really should not have cancelled that waxing appointment.

I don’t have my hair products and my normally stick straight hair is a little dry and frizzy. My skin is dry, too, and I don’t know where the hell those bruises on my cleavage came from but I can blame one of three people (insert icy stare with raised eyebrow here).

When I look at my reflection in my parents’ house and I am not seeing the me I’m used to seeing reflected back at me.

And that’s how it goes, doesn’t it? I’m hiding who I really am when I’m here. I grew up wearing a mask, but now that I’ve been on my own for so long – putting the mask back on for three days on is uncomfortable.

I love my family. I’ve had a great life. I’m not trying to sound ungrateful for everything I’ve had – I am grateful.

I have to find a way to reconcile that this is a bathroom with no windows and harsh light, and once I step out into the natural light I’ll probably look just fine.

I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes you have to look at yourself in the harsh light and still find a way to like what you see.

Another blog on what it means to be “beautiful”

(Originally Posted on FetLife 4/2015)

Been seeing the word Beautiful come up a lot lately. There was that video with the doors and the women going through the average doors and not the beautiful ones. All the women interviewed looked beautiful to me.

Is it bad that I know I would have gone through the beautiful door?

I know I’m not perfect, but I don’t think perfect is necessarily beautiful.

I like who I am.

“They” say “Beauty is only skin deep.” I disagree. Beauty goes deeper.

There are attractive people. Hot people. People who you can look at and subjectively say “that person is physically attractive.”

But are they beautiful?

My friend and I talk about being part of the “former wallflowers club,” because neither one of us grew up thinking we were particularly attractive. Now, …well, both of us have had enough people tell us otherwise that we’re willing to accept that we’re not unattractive.

Was growing up a chubby, acne-ridden, braces-having, bad-perm-sporting, outsider part of what has formed my opinion on the meaning of beauty? Or was it that pantene commercial from the 80s that actually made me wonder if hating somebody because they were beautiful was A) actually a thing people do and B) at all fair?

Isn’t beauty a positive thing? Why would we hate someone for being beautiful. And, in fact, the commercial cements this by proving that before she used Pantene pro V her hair was gross – therefore she wasn’t beautiful, so we don’t have to hate her anymore.

Yesterday at the nail salon there were two women getting their nails done. They were … a type. The hot type. Thin, shapely, perky tits. One was a redhead. One was a blonde. On the blonde, everything was fake. I could see her extensions. She’d clearly spent time in tanning beds. Her lips were augmented. Her clothes were flashy. The redhead was a little more …original parts, but still clearly in the “I know i have a bangin’ body” camp.

Look, it’s not that I want to judge people by the way they look but let’s just say I’m pretty sure they were both strippers or escorts or worked in the adult industry. And that’s okay.

I overheard their conversation.

Redhead: Oh My God. Guess who just texted me?
Blonde: Who?
Redhead: Guess. Just guess.
Blonde: Matthew.
Redhead: I can’t believe it.
Blonde: What did he say?
Redhead: That he tried to call me over the weekend but his number was blocked.
Blonde: Asshole.

The point of this conversation is that I could have had it. I mean, i don’t know Matthew, but I have my girlfriends that I complain about men with. They are human (these two women, not the men we complain about).

And I bet that blonde was quite lovely with her original skin tone and hair and lips. Even though everything about her was fake, the fact is – she’s a real person. I would’t begrudge her going through the beautiful door, because all these things that she does to herself are to match up with what makes her feel beautiful.

Good for her.

I mean, I don’t agree with it but I’m not the boss of her.

I realized that before, I’d have automatically disliked them for nothing more than being the type of woman I’d never be.

And I came to the conclusion sitting in the chair across from them that it wasn’t a good enough reason not to like them.

When they got up to leave, I flashed them both a big smile. Their conversation had entertained me, their banter with each other was amusing. I just feel like they don’t get that from other women very often.

I’ve felt at times recently that there are people in the community who make assumptions about me based on the way I look. I see them scowl at me when I walk into the room or disregard my presence or just… I don’t know. Pretend they don’t know me even though we’ve met several times.

It makes me feel small in a bad way. I don’t know why they don’t like me. I’m a nice person.

I dunno, maybe it’s just me – but it’s that attitude that makes people ugly more than any physical attributes they may or may not possess.