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Image isn’t everything
A letter to all the boys I’ve ever dated
Girls are taught, from very young ages, how to attract male attention. It gets particularly ferocious in our teen years, when social worth begins to be measured by who is coupled and who isn’t, who’s had experience and who hasn’t. As a lonely teenager, full of unrequited desire for various clueless dudes, I pored over magazines like Seventeen and Cosmo, sure that they held the secret to how I could be prettier, sexier. Thereby, I would get a boyfriend and join the cool club.
Women’s magazines, television ads and culture at large hold dozens of messages about how to lure boys. Be friendly, laugh at all his jokes. Be thin and have perky breasts and a round butt. Be soft-spoken, not argumentative. Wear nice underwear at all times. You’ll intimidate him if you’re too tall. Don’t wear short skirts if you have knobbly knees. Hide your cellulite. And so on and so forth. Don’t even get me started on Cosmo’s bizarre and convoluted sex tips.
So I want to thank all you boys I’ve dated, because you have taught me that those messages are crap. I want to thank you boys, in all your wonderful sizes and shapes–tall and lanky, short and stocky, clean shaven or scruffy, and everything in between–for taking a chance on the make and model that I come in.
I used to try really hard to fit myself into the mold I thought would get boys to like me, stressing about my weight and maintaining burdensome long hair and wearing itchy contacts. But in the freewheeling atmosphere of college, eventually I said to hell with it, wore what was comfortable and started going out on the town with my buddies, being as loud and gross as I felt like. (Along the way, I also shed any idea that my worth is tied up in being in a committed relationship.) Curiously, I started getting the much sought-after attention from boys I’d always wanted. It was perplexing. You boys, in the process of falling into bed, did not stop to critique what I was wearing or how I looked. You boys praised the parts you liked, and my, did you like them.
Cultural messages break our bodies down and separate us into concepts like puzzle pieces, the easier to make us buy products or services to try to counteract them. You know: thunder thighs. Cankles. Arm flab. Saggy boobs. Big noses. Enlarged pores. But the best sex with the best people has taught me that I am a whole person, and my attractive bits are inseparable from the ones I consider unattractive. And sex is so much more than how you look: It’s about how another person feels, about how well they communicate, about how giving and generous and sweet they are.
I can’t really say what boys see in me, nor can I explain quite what it is about certain guys who drive me to distraction. But I had a small revelation recently, while reading Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them, by Betsy Prioleau. She writes about the lives of famous ladies’ men known throughout history, like Casanova and Lord Byron. Many of these men weren’t devastating sex machines to look at; Prioleau describes some who were destitute, plagued by health problems and missing teeth. She deduces that what seductive men have in common, though, is a general respect and like for women, a lust for life and endless enthusiasm. I would argue that these traits are pretty hot in anyone, regardless of time, place, gender or orientation.
I’ve dealt with my share of weird, messy, screwed-up relationships, and nothing will ever completely erase my insecurities. But I count myself lucky that most of the men I’ve known have been safe, kind and consensual in bed. I’ve certainly met dudes who are not as awesome, dudes who buy in to the cultural narratives about gender roles and how our bodies should look, and to those dudes, I say: your loss.
So thanks, boys. You continue to delight, infuriate and mystify me. Human attraction is too strange and glorious a thing for any single person to ever really understand, but I’m happy to study it for the rest of my life. (Kate Whittle)