I am cute. I haven’t always believed it, but I’ve grown into that awareness. While I still say my cuteness peaked at two years old, when I was so adorable I should have been declared illegal, I am happy with the face I have now. (It is, actually, very much the same face, but it has shifted a bit with age.)
I’m not cute all the time, of course. Sometimes I’m grey and exhausted and look just as bad as that sounds. I don’t usually photograph well, and the left side of my face is most emphatically not my good side. Still, overall, I put myself solidly in the “cute” category.
When I say “cute,” I am not being coy because I don’t want to say “pretty” or won’t allow myself to say “beautiful.” There are days when I could cross-post myself under “pretty” – primarily on spectacular-hair-day days – but those are moments. Cute is my steady state. Beautiful is off the table. It was never on the table, not even back at my toddler-fabulous peak. Beautiful is out of the realm of the possible primarily because of my button of a nose, the cuteness of which used to be a cause of consternation, but with which I am now at peace.
I’m not hoping people will read this and respond with choruses of, “You’re so pretty!” or “I think you’re beautiful!” It’s entirely fine with me if people think these things, but I will not be persuaded. This is an I-know-my-lane situation, and I’ll be staying here.
I know what I look like, and I like what I see. That’s the first point. The second point is that my cuteness matters not in the slightest. I acknowledge that there is “pretty privilege” and that I occasionally benefit from it. In many cases in which I might expect to benefit from it, however, misogynoir and/or fatphobia erase the benefit. In things that matter to my life and happiness – am I capable at work, do I have a solid friend circle, can I walk pain-free, do I know all the lyrics to my favorite songs … – the cuteness or not of my face gives me nothing. The ROI on cuteness reveals itself most often in things I don’t much care about.
So, nothing particularly valuable gained from my looks. That’s the second point. And so we reach the third and ultimate point: being told that I am cute (or pretty or beautiful) does not mean I owe the teller a single damn thing. And this is hard for some people to fathom.
When I say “some people,” it will surprise no one to know I mean men, or to know that (some) men think the mere fact of them paying me what they assume is a compliment entitles them to my name, or my number, or my time, or anything at all. Maybe, possibly, it entitles them to a “Thanks,” but definitely nothing more. Those same men then get angry when their acknowledgment of my face yields nothing.
I need to say here that I’m obviously not talking about all men. If I know you, if you and I have been talking and you want to tell me how pretty I am in your eyes, I’m probably going to be just fine with that. If you and I are friends, and you decide to tell me you think I’m pretty, that’s okay, too. Because you’re my friend. Because you’re a man I’ve been spending time with. Because you aren’t expecting me to put out in exchange for a call-it-as-you-see-it compliment.
Not long ago, as I was headed home after a fun evening out, I heard a man on the train say, “Damn, you’re so pretty.” I was reading and didn’t look up. He moved from wherever he’d been sitting to sit beside me, poked my arm (poked. my. arm!) and said, “It’s you I’m talking to. I said you’re pretty.”
N.B. First: if you speak to someone, particularly a stranger, they aren’t required to respond. Second: if you speak to someone when they haven’t already engaged with you even as far as making eye contact, you have no reason to think they will know you’re speaking to them and respond. Third: while it might be acceptable to pat a stranger’s arm to get their attention so you can speak to them, it’s not okay to poke them really hard the way you’d poke a reluctant elevator button. Fourth: why the fuck are you talking to me at all?
I looked at that man. I was in a good mood. I was coming from a reading where I’d shared new work. I’d spent the evening with people I adore. So I gave him half a smile, said thank you and went back to reading.
He slapped my arm. (Slapped. My. Fucking. Arm.) and said, “That’s it? That’s all you can say?”
So much for my good mood. Please refer to the nota bene section above. If it’s not okay to poke strangers, you know it’s not okay to slap them. What in the all-encompassing, over-entitled fuck?
It was night. Not super late, but still nighttime. There were folks on the train, but no one was paying us any obvious attention. (Besides, I know full well not to expect anyone to step up for me if a situation gets ugly.) I didn’t want to set that fool man off. I was almost home. I just wanted to be home.
But I also couldn’t make myself give him my power, couldn’t smile sweetly in my fear of his anger and give him whatever he might want from me. Couldn’t do it. That’s not smart, but it’s real. It’s definitely not smart. There are too many stories of women beaten, women murdered because they didn’t give in to some man they didn’t know. I used to think my size might deter men from thinking they could take me, but I’ve learned that that isn’t true. So I know that to refuse to give in to this fool on the train wasn’t smart. I needed to balance my need to stay myself with my desire to get home.
I looked at him. “That’s all I can say.”
We looked at each other for a minute.
“I was wrong,” he said, sneering. “You’re ugly as fuck. And fat as anything. Should be glad anyone spoke to you.”
Because of course. We are supposed to set aside the fact that he is the one who proclaimed my beauty two minutes ago. Or, we are supposed to imagine that he did it so that a) ugly, fat me would feel a little better about myself and/or b) ugly, fat me would be so grateful for some male attention I’d be willing to give him the validation he wanted. Because, you know, fat women are desperate and easy to pull.
“Yes, exactly,” I said.
“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
“That I’m agreeing with you.”
We were close to my stop. I thought about riding further in the hope that he’d get off soon and I could circle back home. But what if he was headed to Coney Island? I didn’t want to take the chance that he’d be annoyed enough to ignore his own plans and follow me up to the platform, to the street. I also didn’t want to leave the train at an unfamiliar station. I thought about my long-ago decision to carry a smaller key chain, not the school custodian-style monstrosity I’d lugged around for years. My current chain has only two keys. So much easier to carry, but not an effective weapon. I thought about the fact that I hadn’t had any dinner and how that meant I couldn’t use the last-possible-scenario advice of a self defense instructor I’d worked with: vomiting on myself and him to gross him out and distract him.
He stood as we pulled into the next station. “Fucking nasty bitch,” he said as he moved to the door.
I am cute. I’m cute enough. I’ll go so far as to say I’m cute as a button. Even cute as fuck. And I don’t give a fuck. What I’d rather be is left alone. What I’d rather be is free from dealing with scumbag men. What I’d rather be is thinking about my own shit and not having to make safety plans on the fly. Acknowledgment of my face doesn’t entitle you to a damn thing.
The doors opened and my would-be suitor spat in my general direction as he exited the car. Not a single other passenger looked up, looked in my direction. I rode to my stop and walked myself home.
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.