I didn’t grow up being the ‘pretty girl’. My awkward phase lasted quite well into my late/teens early 20’s, and when I did finally throw off the shackles of thick rimmed glasses and badly done natural hair, and stepped into the glorious freedom of decent skin, contacts and natural hair youtube, it took me a while to get used to the compliments. I still don’t think of ‘pretty’ as one of my primary identifiers, even when I get random people approaching me at to compliment me. I’m actually quite thankful that I didn’t think of myself as attractive as a teenager – it meant that I always relied on my wit, smarts and generally trying to be a good person as my main selling point.
In fact, as I’ve grown into my looks, I’ve actually developed a weirder complex – I’m scared that being pretty and well dressed will mean that people will assume I’m not as intelligent. At work, I get uncomfortable when my consultant calls me the ‘pretty junior doctor’ – not because I don’t want to be seen as pretty, but because I’m worried that if I don’t work hard enough it will translate as ‘ditzy and superficial’.
Despite now being very comfortable with the way I look, it took me a while to shed the insecurities of my younger days.
One of the most negative things that growing up thinking of yourself as unattractive can lead to as a young women, is an unhealthy investment in men’s opinions on your appearance. Before I saw myself as attractive I would almost be surprised when men took an interest in me – I knew it wasn’t my looks that attracted him, so it had to be my personality. I would make sure to be as funny and sweet and smart as possible, how else would he still like me? I was very aware of what men found attractive in the opposite sex, and I knew I wasn’t it. Bushy afros and baggy jeans weren’t really the biggest 14 year old boy magnet in the early 2000’s. My rebellious streak meant that I had long determined that I would dress however I wanted to, but I was torn between what I knew in my head to be right – that I should dress and behave in a way that was true to myself and my beliefs – and the lurking desire to be what men wanted. There was always the temptation to don straight hair and a much shorter skirt, but God, my parents, and my natural independent streak usually won out in the end.
Fast forward a few years, and though my natural hair is more in fashion now, and 28 year old men are slightly more sensible than my 14 year old friends, I still sometimes feel a temptation to dress in a way that is uncomfortable to me, to attract men.
The belief that most women dress for the approval of men is not completely true. Of course women are aware of what men like, and mass media definitely promotes the idea that the way women present themselves should be ‘male approved’. On the other hand, most men would argue that a lot of female fashion is completely over their heads, let alone attractive. I doubt women are wearing ombre hair or 70’s style gypsy dresses because men like them. It’s a more complex situation – women dress for themselves, for other women and for men depending on a variety of circumstances, and all three can happen at the same time for the same woman.
Essentially, there’s nothing wrong with being aware of what the opposite sex likes and dressing in a way that they will find attractive. In fact, I think it would be strange if heterosexual women didn’t want any kind of male approval of their appearance.
Additionally, I’m not one to believe that in a relationship, your partner’s opinion shouldn’t have any bearing on how you dress, style your hair, or shine your shoes. I think there are two extremes – allowing someone else to completely dictate what you do with your body, and being inconsiderate of your partners desires. For example, if you’ve worn a short back and sides Afro for 10 years and suddenly decide that it’s time for your Beyonce alter ego to emerge in all her be-weaved glory, I would advise at least giving your dude a heads up, if not a 10 minute consultation. Likewise if you’re a man who has decided he wants to grow a head full of locs. It’s only fair. And it’s only normal to want your partner to find you attractive.
What worries me is the part of me that 10 years older than 14, is still tempted to wear something a little tighter, a little shorter, hair a little straighter, to be more attractive to ‘men’. Never mind that the type of men who I’m attracted to wouldn’t be attracted to that anyway. The cognitive dissonance is obvious, but nonetheless still there.
It’s something I’m still working on.
Have you ever been tempted to change your appearance in a way that made you feel uncomfortable to attract the opposite sex?