The Downside to Looking Pretty
The other day, I was walking outside to eat my lunch. I prefer to eat outside as it gives me an opportunity to see the sun, get some fresh air, and get away from the noise that permeates an open work space. The path I take to the outside takes me through the cafeteria/eating hall area. I am used to getting some looks on my way through at this point. Most of the people at my place of work are older, and even fewer of them are slim. But the reaction I caused on this particular day especially sticks out in my mind.
Just to the right of the door outside was table with two older white men sitting at it. The one was facing me; the other was perpendicular. In the midst of his conversation, the one facing me stops talking and proceeds to stare. His companion noticing this sudden change turns to see what he is looking at and proceeds to stare as well. Their eyes and heads continued to follow me the full ten meters or so to the door.
Needless to say, the situation made me exceedingly uncomfortable. I am the sort of person who prefers to attract as little attention as possible. I want to run away anytime someone attempts to hit on me, and I find praise embarrassing. In graduate school, I never announced my achievements and told only those I cared about the most (they frequently told everyone, however, so I suppose this tactic did not do much good). Even announcing things on Facebook is hard for me, and I typically only do it as a way to ensure everyone that should know something does (since my family is scattered all over the world, I always inevitably forget someone) or because I feel a sense of obligation from a marketing perspective.
In addition, this particular incident at lunch especially annoyed me. I was dressed extremely conservatively. My pants were baggy through the legs, I was wearing ankle boots with low heals, and the only skin showing comprised of my face, neck, and hands. My shirt and wool cardigan were fitted, but hardly “indecent.” You add in the fact I was at WORK—a place supposedly consisting only of professionals—and at a non-profit that aims to improve the leadership abilities of youth, provide them with morals, and skills, and you have a truly contemptable situation.
As I was walking around after eating, I began to think about this scene, and it reminded me of a revelation I had several months ago. I have never been the sort of woman to put a lot of time into her appearance. In part, because I am lazy. I can read a chapter of my book or tweeze my eyebrows. I can shave my legs or simply decide to wear jeans. I can put on more makeup in the morning or pet my cats for a few extra minutes or squeeze in a few extra minutes of sleep. In these scenarios the time on my appearance almost always loses. But what I realized a few months ago was that it doesn’t always lose simply because I have so many other things I would rather do with my time. I also do not do them simply because the consequences are not worth it.
When I was in graduate school I loved to go for walks around campus. The campus was beautiful, and I find I do my best thinking while walking. Virtually my entire dissertation and general exam were composed while walking. Even this piece was largely composed in a walk at work. But without fail, almost everyday on my walk I would receive some form of uncomfortable annoyance from the opposite sex. A car would honk, someone would cat whistle, or come up and randomly hit on me. You may be thinking, well…college campus, horny young men…but is this really a valid excuse? If I make zero eye contact, you have zero reason to think I am interested. And not all of the offenders were young. One of the main roads through the city cut through campus so many of the cars driving by did not belong to students. I learned what clothes made life more uncomfortable and, when possible, would deliberately wear outfits that received less harassment. On days when I did decide to put some effort into my appearance (such as when I was teaching, simply wanted to feel pretty, or it was too hot to go on a walk and dress conservatively), I simply resigned myself to the annoyance or would skip the walk altogether.
My revelation a few months ago was that I make an unconscious choice almost every day to avoid unwanted attention by downplaying my appearance. I don’t buy the cute dress or skirt because I know it will lead to unwanted interactions and, therefore, I will hardly ever wear it. I choose to only wear my heels when I am with my husband or male friends. I don’t wear the lowcut or see-through clothes unless I am fairly certain I will not be annoyed or am in a mindset appropriate to handle it.
And the most annoying thing of all? Is that even after coming to this realization, I still continue to subconsciously play down my appearances in an attempt to avoid harassment. I am trying to get better, but it is still a slow process. I can only hope the day will come when a woman can wear whatever she wants without having to deal with the unwanted attentions of men.
Danielle Lutfi-Proctor is a cognitive psychologist, lover of writing, and amateur photographer. Born in Jordan, she spent her childhood in Australia, and moved to New Orleans for middle and high school. An avid reader and traveler, she has been published in academic journals and has taught courses at Wake Forest University and Louisiana State University. She currently lives in Dallas with her husband and two cats.