I posted a picture of myself on Twitter yesterday and not thirty seconds later I received a text from a friend asking me if doing so had been intentional. His inquiry struck me as fair. The picture was of me in a bikini and that’s not the kind of image I usually toss up on social media so it can be consumed and then potentially criticized by the masses. Still, I found myself yesterday in a rather what-the-fuck kind of mood, one caused by what I’d guess was a fizzy concoction of the glorious dry heat, the festiveness of a holiday that’s all about freedom, and just how much I like my yellow bikini, all of which were mathematically even in an invisible equation that apparently yielded both joy and the briefest ability to feel brazen.
What I didn’t know was that my picture did not appear on his feed like it had on mine, where my smile was in the center of the frame and you could see just a hint of skin that eventually revealed itself to be cleavage. No, he sent me a picture of how I looked on his screen and the picture was a clear shot of my tits, barely covered by some thin yellow fabric that no longer struck me as so pretty. When I looked at his text, even my focus didn’t go to trying to decipher what exact shade of yellow it was that I was wearing. And when you find yourself staring stunned at a close-up image of your own tits – the ones you see each and every day at least three times and thereby become rather immune to the sight of them – you begin to wonder at just how bold you’re willing to be. Or at least I did. Sure, I knew full well when I posted it that my chest was on display in the picture, but all of a sudden – seeing it through somebody else’s line of vision – I got freaked out for real.
“Should I take it down?” I asked him after sending him a shot showing him how the picture had appeared on my phone, how it seemed just a cute selfie and not like an advertisement for my own anonymous online escort service.
His reply was to leave it up – and for a while I did. As for why that was his reply, well, my guess is that it’s because he’s a guy and he enjoys looking at boobs he’s never actually seen (“Where have you been hiding those?” he texted me. “Under clothing…it was winter,” I wrote back), but as the night wore on, I began to wonder if maybe his reaction and my reaction were about more than just base instincts.
For a guy in this world, I think there’s just less of an inherent need to worry about how you look and what the impact of your appearance will be. I could now take a moment to rail against the constructs of patriarchy for causing this enforced vanity and innate sense of self-loathing that seems to be passed down through the DNA of those born with the X-chromosome, but there’s also a part of me that believes that doing so would be like blaming my mother for warping me when I was five. Did she warp me? Of course she did! She’s a mother! But I decided more than a decade ago that if I allowed her issues to remain my issues, then all of it should be my own fault. God, the realization that you can’t forever blame other people for your own shit sucks, but I truly believe that you can’t achieve relative self-awareness without it fucking hurting more than just a little bit.
I remember meeting up with someone I used to go out with and, though he always looked nice, I would occasionally wonder if he put any real effort into his appearance before he would see me since the hour before our date might as well have been choreographed on my end. First I would get a manicure and a pedicure and then I would get my eyebrows threaded and then I would come home and try on seventeen different outfits, ninety-four pairs of shoes, and seven bras that – believe it or not – were chosen to play down my boobs because, while not at all humungous, feel a wee bit big for my taste. Then I would shower and flatiron my entire head and apply eyeliner and mascara and lip-gloss and then some more mascara and I would smooth some lotion on my legs and my stomach and apply a little perfume and check myself out in the mirror and change my shoes and only then would I be ready.
“Do you try on your outfits beforehand?” I asked him one night while his head was resting in my lap and my fingers combed through his hair.
“No,” he answered softly. “But I figure out what I’m going to wear while I’m in the shower.”
Holy hell, if my shower time could only be that free of stress…
A different guy arrived at my house with clothing to change into for the next day. He too always looks adorable as can be, but I can tell just by looking at him that he doesn’t spend more than fifteen seconds picking out what shirt he was going to bring. If I know him at all, my guess is that he picked it up, smelled it, and, satisfied that it was clean, shoved it into a bag. Meanwhile, I tried on the shorts I figured I would end up sleeping in just to make sure that my ass looked cute in them.
Something is wrong with one of us and I have no doubt that it is me.
If I leave the house not liking the way my skirt falls in the back or knowing that it’s too humid to leave my hair down and that it’s already beginning to frizz before the sun has even risen high in the pitch blue sky, my entire day is compromised. While I was teaching a class during the last week in May, I dropped a marker and I reached down to pick it up myself. (I have been known to occasionally say, “I can’t bend in this dress. Can you please grab that?” to one of my students, and they are always sweet and help me out.) On that May day, though, I could bend over in my dress, but when I touched the floor, I saw my pedicure had a chip and I contemplated leaving school immediately lest I expose myself to the world looking so literally unpolished.
It seems important that I clarify here that I am abundantly aware that my students have far greater concerns than what one of their teachers looks like or that her Bite the Dust nail polish is chipping on the third toe of her left foot. It’s a sad fact that the problem is not with them, it is with me, and it’s something I really wish I could outgrow in much the way that I finally learned to start enjoying brussel sprouts.
Speaking of my students, they usually like me and I usually like them. Such an easy dynamic makes lecturing about 1940s censorship in cinema or giving them exams or watching in unrelenting horror while they raise their hands like they’re doing the fucking wave when I ask, “Which of you has never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off before?” feel just a bit more pleasant. Even the ones who are resistant to liking me for whatever reason (I’m a teacher; I’m a woman; They hate all adults) usually break eventually and realize that I’m fair and I’m kind and I’m a damn good teacher so they can go ahead and devote their hatred to somebody else. In turn, I allow myself to discover something appealing about each one of them that makes the time we must be rammed into a room together even more tolerable. With some, it’s a biting sense of humor. With others, it is seeing the flash of pain that lives inside of them and recognizing that their existences are complicated and I need to harness my compassion because it doesn’t matter if they learn why Paramount refused to fund Psycho; they only need to know that mine is a room they can feel safe in for thirty-eight minutes five times a week. With more than one, I’ve dug deep and have excavated no intellect, no craving for an intellect, and zero personality. In those rare and terrifying cases, I pray that I like the kid’s handwriting because, so help me, I will focus on that for a semester just so I can get through it without ramming my head into a wall. But this year, I had a student I just couldn’t break through to, a girl who clearly took one look at me and decided she hated everything about me. I saw it settle onto her face on literally the first day of class and, though she eventually thawed slightly, she left my classroom in June still somewhat hating me.
Now, I don’t usually care what people think about me if I don’t care about them for real, but this girl’s seething nature threw me a bit because it legitimately stemmed from nothing. I’d never met her before. We’d never had a run-in in the hallway where I’d told her to take off a hat or put away a phone. I didn’t teach any of her older siblings. She clearly didn’t hate every teacher in the building because I saw her smile at several at them. I also saw her smile at me a few times before she caught herself and reminded the hallucination living inside of her brain that I was the devil. I saw the internal struggle she had with liking me, and it ironically would rear its rather confused head in the moments when I would reveal who I really am as a person, not a teacher. I would include a personal anecdote into, say, a lecture about formulas in slasher films and I’d talk about how the killer’s destructive nature flares up on a day that’s about the commemoration of a death, and don’t think I didn’t notice how she nodded slightly when I made a personal parallel and talked about how powerful the anniversary of a loss can be on those left behind. Don’t think I didn’t see her lips curl in a smile when I told a story about how much I hated my mother’s former husband and how I used to glare at him over dinner and complain about the way that he breathed but – compared to Norman Bates – I went easy on the guy. Don’t think I wasn’t aware that she’d raise her hand by the middle of the semester to answer or to ask a question or that she passed the final exam, indicating that she’d paid just a little bit of attention to what I had said.
But I was also in the hallway one day with a good friend who used to be her teacher and the girl walked by and said hello to my friend and then entered my classroom without saying a word to me and my friend looked at me, shocked. “Apparently I murdered her entire family and the experience was so horrible, I’ve blocked it out,” I said with a laugh. And then I shrugged and, so fucking help me, I meant that shrug because I really didn’t care to concern myself with someone else’s blind and misguided hatred. A week or so later, I had to take a personal day because a family member had to have surgery and my friend ended up seeing this girl in the hallway and asked her about her lack of connection with me. The kid’s response? It was something along the lines that I was too pretty and I know that I’m pretty and everything I do is shrouded by my prettiness. In other words, her response was idiotic at worst, confused at best, and every bit of her was patently unaware at just how frequently I second, third, and fourth-guess myself when I look into the mirror.
(I’d never reveal that kind of self-consciousness to the regular world, though. I’m way braver through a computer screen. My exact response to my friend on the day she gave me the news was to roll my eyes and say, “Good thing she didn’t know me when I was twenty.”)
I was confused by this kid’s reaction and her assessment of me, but I never approached her about it. I’ve taught a lot of kids over a lot of years and this was the first time I’ve had such a bizarre manifestation of fury directed my way by a girl who – frankly – is quite pretty in her own right. And I know this for sure: the years will slide by and I will not think of her. In less than two years, I will not remember her name. Her staunch disavowal of my very existence will not haunt me in the slightest. But I guess there’s just a small part of me that wishes that she knew that I wrestle with the very thing she oddly mistook as my armor.
I bought a new matte lip-gloss two days ago that promises to never come off – not even during a kiss or a blowjob – and a serum that can be combed through my towel-dried hair to ward away the power of humidity. I knew, even when I bought it, that the serum doesn’t really stand a chance against the thickness of my hair or the weight of a July dusk in New York, but I plunked down some money anyway and felt a brief surge of hope move through me and I embraced the optimism for as long as I could. Yesterday I ate a chicken burger on some lettuce and easily waved away the bun made out of white bread, but then I had a gloriously vivid dream last night about potato chips that were saturated in salt and I could taste them still right before I opened my eyes this morning. I went to the supermarket early today and I bought watermelon and cherries. I only shopped the perimeter of the place and I left there feeling good, feeling proud, feeling strong – and then I came home and deleted the picture of me wearing the bikini from Twitter because, like dreams and other peoples’ hatred, my boldness comes and it also goes.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.