October 16, 2012

My Wasted Years as Princess of Nothing.

I’m embarrassed to tell you about my “aha” moment last weekend.

My dear friend and soul mate, Tali—whom we call my “Gay Husband”—came over for a long afternoon visit that stretched into dinner with my actual husband, Anders.

My actual husband never had the opportunity to meet my grandparents, which is a real shame. I know they would have loved him. And he would have felt right at home with them.

I took the opportunity to have Tali tell Anders about who they were as people from his perspective.

Tali spoke about how loving my grandparents were—with us and with each other. My dad’s parents were married for nearly 65 years. They are my only real example of what a good marriage can look like over time.

Something came out that was rather enlightening for me. Tali said my grandpa always saw me as his very little girl, no matter how old I got. When he said that, it clicked for me in a way that made me realize it was true.

To both my grandparents, I was always their “Princess.”

My eagerness for that title prompted me to be the good little girl who always did what was expected of me.

Tali went on to say that gorgeous women always have the same problem. We’re primped to be beautiful at the expense of all else and then agonize over why the man of the moment does not love us. “It has to go both ways honey!” he laughed.

I realized then what my problem had been my entire life.

When we grow up believing in the princess fallacy, we actually believe that if we play by all the good princess rules, that life will work out for us as we want it to. Thus, we’re baffled when men don’t respond to us. How could they not?

Everyone tells me I am so beautiful. Everyone tells me how perfect I am all day long. Aren’t I everything he could ever want?

Few men actually want a caricature. At least not long-term.

Being a princess means that you don’t ever dare go outside the princess box. Princesses don’t have their periods. They don’t talk about any sort of discomfort, let alone the bloody messes. They don’t get raped, they don’t get molested, and they don’t get depressed. They certainly don’t throw temper tantrums. In short, princesses always have to appear perfect. They don’t go out without being dressed properly with their makeup-mask on and hair done just so. If our lives look perfect, we must be, right?

Being a princess meant that I was never really fully myself around my family. We didn’t talk about my highest aspirations or very lowest moments. We didn’t talk about theirs either. Princesses cannot be bothered with all of that. It was only on the day my grandmother died that I found out she had been married briefly before she met my grandfather. She had been ashamed, also.

Two years later, I still mourn that distance between us. I was finalizing my second divorce when she died. Learning more about her “failures” in life would have helped me tremendously. Hearing about that part of her life allowed me to imagine her off her pedestal. It made me feel closer to my grandma.

Being a princess separates you from other women. Other women are always the competition, because one princess is always prettier than the other. Women who are princesses don’t often have women friends—at least close ones. It’s just a perpetual beauty contest, where money, “charm” and nice clothes count for something too.

It’s a contest that no one can win and that all women will fail at sooner or later.

I remember being told I was “too pretty to work.” So on some level, I always held on to that and resented working when I had to. I resented it every time a man did not pick up the check. It was not part of the unspoken agreement of how a princess should be treated.

It also meant that any man who would treat me as an equal was off the table for most of my life.

Being a princess meant I didn’t know how to live without an enormous household budget or a huge diamond ring. Wasn’t that the ultimate goal? Did it matter that my husband was an alcoholic and didn’t come home at all when he wasn’t so inclined?

When I look back at the years of my life when I was playing this role, they were completely non-productive. Perhaps, I made a good income; perhaps I was a good mother. Perhaps I was at my most beautiful. But in terms of creativity and personal fulfillment, there was zilch.

I was only living the life I was supposed to be living, not examining what I wanted for myself.

Several years ago, I saw this transformative poem performed on YouTube. These lines stuck in my head for years:

This is about the self-mutilating circus we have painted ourselves clowns in. About women who will prowl 30 stores in six malls to find the right cocktail dress, but haven’t a clue where to find fulfillment or how wear joy, wandering through life shackled to a shopping bag, beneath those two pretty syllables.

Being “gorgeous” has more to do with dolling yourself up than actually being pretty.

At least in how other people perceive you. I am the same woman I have always been, but I noticed when I stopped wearing much makeup or spending time on my hair, people started responding to me differently. I don’t get the same over-the-top compliments I used to get, although I must say, I don’t need to anymore.

My “beauty” has depended a lot on how much time I was spending on primping. Therefore, my theory is we punish women verbally for not “taking care of themselves.”

This process robs women of actually doing the things they love. How many times have you seen a woman not get into a swimming pool because a) she didn’t want to ruin her hair or b) she was uncomfortable with her body?

How many times does this happen to a man?            

When I look back at pictures of myself wearing a lot of makeup, I feel angry. I know those wasted hours could have been better spent. I was hiding behind something: a mask that kept me from achieving my full potential.

That seemed okay for a time because all the compliments made up for it. I was pretty. But I cannot make up those lost hours now. The pictures that were once proof of my worth are now painful to look at.

It has been more than 20 years since I read The Beauty Myth, and many feminist books that followed, but what has changed?

The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us… [D]uring the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty… [P]ornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal…More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.

~Naomi Wolf (1991)

It seems that our daughters are under even more pressure to conform that we were.

What will it take for women to reject the beauty standards that are holding us back?

Over the last three to four years, my values have changed drastically. It started with having a daughter, and then divorcing her father. I had to cut back—drastically. I now live on less than 10 percent of what I used to. In doing that, I have more time for creativity. I went back to my habit of reading several books a week and writing. Eventually I felt ready to publish a few things. I had always wanted to, but I never felt comfortable. I was never good enough.

As my marriage halted, I started volunteering and was soon consumed by that. I realize now that giving all my time away had less to do with my actual belief in those organizations and more to do with my inability to value my-self.

However, volunteering had benefit. I realized the world was bigger than my problems. I gained confidence in knowing I was capable and could extract change.

With that my passion came back. I cared less and less about how I looked and more about my commitment to the projects I was creating.

I stopped worrying about looking right when I left the house. I realized that habit robbed me of multiple hours every week, which translated into lost weeks every year.

I remember talking with a retired high school teacher when I was still spending a considerable amount of energy on how I looked. He asked me quite bluntly about how it was to be “beautiful.”

He recounted that when his wife was pregnant with his daughter, he hoped that she would not be pretty. He had observed how hard it was for most of the beautiful girls to overcome what was expected of them and be who they are. He said he was relieved when his daughter was average-looking.

I get that.

For a long time I have avoided writing this article.

It seemed like we have already been talking about these same issues for so long—perhaps it wasn’t necessary. However, I still observe the same behavior in girls no matter which school we’re at, or how old the girls are. And, after nearly 20 years as a feminist, I still note the same behavior occasionally in myself.

I know that my grandparents loved my sisters and me more than anything in the world. The feeling was mutual.  One of my fondest memories of them was in what I considered my greatest moment of shame. At 27, I was an unwed mother. In my conservative family, this was nothing I ever imagined for myself. I remember going to their home to break the news, feeling like I had betrayed them somehow. But when I told them, they both just smiled and said, “These things happen.”

There was no judgment, only love and excitement about having a great-grandchild.

Perhaps, I was the one who decided to play the princess role. Perhaps it was me who put all the pressure on all those years. Perhaps I was the one who wanted to think that staying small all those years would protect me.

Perhaps it is our culture at large that needs to have a collective make-over.

Being a princess caused me to waste nearly 20 years of my life. My hope for young women is that they reject this role sooner rather than later. My fear is we are not doing enough to induce change.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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