Beauty Formulas and Pain

By: Loolwa Khazzoom, Founder, Dancing with Pain

June 26th, 2011 • Living with Chronic PainPrint Print

The summer I turned 19, I was hanging out on the balcony of the ground-floor family apartment in Israel, which overlooked a very busy street. Our apartment was right at the intersection, so cars often were stopped in front of our apartment, at a red light.

One afternoon, a carful of cute guys struck up a conversation with me while at the red light. This was back in the 1980s, when Israeli men were friendly and innocent, and it was safe to talk with strangers. Our conversation was light and fun, and as the boys drove off, I blew a playful “au revoir!” kiss. The guys loved that, and one of them blew a kiss back.

At the time, my hair was down; my contacts were in; and I was wearing a purple tank top, blue jeans, and purple belt.

That Saturday night, I was reading a book on the balcony. My hair was up; my glasses were on; and I was in sweats. Suddenly, a guy walked up to the balcony and said hello. I said hello back. He asked if I had a sister. I said yes. He asked if she had long hair. I said no. He continued asking questions about my sister, and I kept saying that was not my sister.

“Wait a minute,” the guy said, looking at me intently, an expression of amazement passing over his face. “Were you here the other day, when a carful of guys stopped at the red light and talked with you; and did you blow a kiss as we left?” “Yes,” I answered. “I’m the guy who blew a kiss back,” he said. I laughed.

Throughout my teens and 20s, I often experienced men having a completely different reaction to me, depending on how I was dressed. I came to understand that while beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, that eye is besieged with an onslaught of images of what is and is not attractive in a woman – to the extent that men are unable to recognize a beautiful woman unless and until she presents herself in a very specific way.

In college, I let my playful, creative spirit express itself through my dress. I had my punk rock look, my sexpot look, my athletic look, my urban look, and my totally unique look – an original boutique silk blouse on top, for example, black square dance skirt and black leggings on the bottom, and black lace-up boots on my feet. I seamlessly blended styles and textures, to fit whatever mood I was in at the time.

I loved wearing black turtlenecks with super short black skirts, fluorescent tights, and black pumps with three inch stiletto heels. It was bold and playful. And that’s exactly how I meant it – no less, no more. I was having fun. And I think that we need to be able to express ourselves in ways that are bold and playful without any assumptions being made about us or how we behave or how we want others behaving toward us. Case in point: I didn’t start dating until I was 18; I shared my first kiss at 19; and I didn’t have intercourse until well beyond my college years.

I couldn’t help but notice that when I dressed one way, men swarmed around me when I walked into a room; but when I dressed another way, I might as well have been invisible. Same woman, same body.

During my senior year in college, I like-liked a guy named Josh. I could tell he like-liked me too. I believe I told him that I liked him, which probably is what led to the part of the conversation I remember, where he indicated that, yes, we should date because we had this and that in common and because – get this — I was “a reasonably attractive woman.” I got my WTF face on and was like, “reasonably attractive”?! Then he kissed me. Then my bus arrived. I boarded it, weirded out.

Fast forward to an AIPAC conference a few weeks later. (I loved AIPAC conferences – tons of gorgeous Jewish college men! Oh yeah, and saving Israel, yada yada yada.) I was decked out in a totally original piece – tight black spaghetti-strap top and short black skirt, black pantyhose, black stiletto pumps, and a silver scarf thrown over the whole lot, down the frontside, belted at the waist. I remember being surrounded by 20 men as soon as I walked into a room. Josh was one of those men.

The next time we spoke, he called me a “drop-dead gorgeous” woman. Hm. What a difference an outfit makes. He also threw me on his bed the next time I visited his house, but I was no longer interested. If you can’t see me in sweats, you neither see me nor deserve me.

I’ve always been baffled by this assumption that if you are not dressed a certain way, it’s because you can’t dress that way, ie, you don’t have the goods to pull it off. I have come to realize that people see you exactly as they see you. Just as editors can’t see past the exact wording of the pitch you send; just as people assume that if you don’t have an MD or PhD or whatever other alphabet soup, it’s because you were too stupid or lazy to get it; just like anything else, most people see you exactly the way they see you in one snapshot moment, nothing more.

Which is why that whole “lady in red” song pisses me off. If you can’t see her beauty when she’s wearing polka dots, mister, leave her alone for someone more worthy to come along.

Anyhoo, in college, I was alternately anorexic, bulimic, and exercise bulemic. Then I had a few thoughts: Why do I only feel sexy when I dress a certain way, whereas men feel sexy even in sweats? And as a friend added many years later, “And why do we need to be sexy all the time?” I decided the system is fucked, the way women are viewed and responded to is fucked, and I was having none of it. I gained 30 pounds, began living in sweats, stopped shaving (again – I didn’t start until 18, and then it was pretty intermittent and with much internal conflict), and felt more beautiful than ever in my life.

During my 20s, I mostly stayed in sweats, by choice. But through a decade of chronic and debilitating pain from my late 20s and all of my 30s, I stayed in them by necessity. It’s not that I was rejecting wearing heels; it’s that I literally could not wear heels. Unless I put them on while sitting in a chair, and I did not get up from said chair until the heels were off. In fact, fuck heels. I couldn’t wear anything but well-cushioned running shoes, or I’d end up in awful pain and unable to walk.

Having a severely compromised life – on the beauty front as well as all other fronts – made me suddenly crave those little, stupid, formulaic indicators of beauty. I wanted to shave, to wear heels, to wear contacts. I felt so out of the world of romance and sexuality, that I suddenly didn’t have the energy to fight those stupid fembot things. I wanted the easy way in. Hair down, contacts on, armpits and legs shaved, heels on, even makeup on and eyebrows plucked. Check. Bring it on.

But this shit offends my sensibilities. And so beauty and self-image has been a see-saw throughout and since the years of chronic and debilitating pain. Here is what I have come to, or perhaps more accurately, come back around to:

Enough with these bullshit “Women Who Love Too Much” and “He’s Just Not that into You” books. Women need to stop catering ourselves around men’s needs, reading the latest issue of Cosmo to find out what men want. We need to start demanding what we want and backing it up with the fist if necessary.

I should be able to wear whatever the hell I want, where I want, when I want, without my safety or boundaries being compromised in the faintest shade. I wrote a book about this, Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape, in 1996. Wearing teeny-tiny minis with turquoise tights and stiletto heels and whatever the hell else is fun and playful and should be treated as such, no more, no less.

During my book tour for Consequence, which I did in conjunction with spoken word artists, self defense organizations, a filmmaker, and improv jazz groups across the country, one of the spoken word artists wore a plunging neckline with a pushup bra. “I feel safe wearing this here,” she revealed. We should be able to feel safe wearing that attire anywhere at any time.

And that attire needs to be just one form of attire that we wear as an expression of our playful and pretty sides. And men need to wake the fuck up and recognize that. We are beautiful and sexy with armpit hair and unplucked eyebrows, free of makeup, perfume, and hair products, fat or thin, wearing what-the-hell-ever.

It feels bold, scary, and a whole lot less surefire to walk out in the world wearing a swimsuit with hairy legs. But it feels a whole lot more authentic. So damn it, get used to it and start to see it as beautiful.

I honestly don’t know what part of me is socialized and what is not. I do enjoy the whole femmy thing, but not when it’s a prerequisite for getting noticed. Then it’s just fascist and fucked. And I don’t like the way men look at me when I’m wearing anything that’s not up to my damn neck.

Anyhow, I’m still trying to figure out who I am right now when it comes to self-expression through clothing. I don’t want to have to fight all the time. In other words, I don’t want to have to call men on their shit whenever I wear a blouse with a v-neck (which I love). I feel exhausted by all this bullshit. Why do we live in such a misogynistic world? Why is it so damn difficult to figure out what’s mine and what is society’s? Why are people such robots who see what they are told to see, nothing more, nothing less, missing out on raw, authentic life?

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