Most of us walk around through our lives with our “selves” glued tight to our skin. No creases. No folds. No spots where it chafes or rubs spots raw to the bone. When we look into the mirror, we see the person we feel ourselves to be — for better or for worse. We can improve that image, impede time’s gradual defacement of it. But that image, the one that greets us every day in the mirror, is our only one. For others the mirror is not a simple matter. Their reflections are aliases. They operate under assumed identities.
THE BEAUTIFUL GIRL
NAME: Elizabeth Anne Fowler AGE: Twenty-six A.K.A.: The Beautiful Girl OCCUPATION: Office Manager OUTSTANDING FEATURES:blonde hair, a model’s face
When I was a little girl, I remember riding in the car with my mother and one of her friends, and this woman told my mother, ‘Your other daughter is certainly very pretty, but Elizabeth is and is going to be beautiful.’ And I remember being pleased by that. People liked me and noticed me because I was attractive. I was effortlessly the center of attention. It was in keeping with all of the fairy tales I read. They all had a main character who was a beautiful girl, and no matter what happened, no matter how difficult things became, everything turned out just fine in the end. These stories, I think, helped foster this idea that I was a heroine. I was taught from very early on that being beautiful was enough. That it would carry me. What I didn’t know and didn’t realize until recently was that this thing that I am — this beautiful woman — would someday cause me great pain.
"Because of my height — I’m six two — it was impossible for me to be inconspicuous. I stood out. I was taller than all of the girls in my junior high school and high school. People always looked at me. And I guess it’s something that happens naturally — a particularly pretty woman develops a sense that her physical presence is something that’s almost outside, apart from her self. For reasons of safety, though, actual physical safety, a young woman has to become aware that her beauty has an effect on others. When I was thirteen or fourteen, men would come up to me at the bus stop near my school and try to talk to me. One time when I was walking through Las Colinas park, on my way to school, a man jumped out of the bushes and grabbed me, to rape me, I assume. I fought him off and ran away. I was doing nothing to provoke him. I was just walking to school. Adults, when trying to explain the event to me, to relieve me of any feelings of guilt, said things like, ‘Well, he saw this pretty girl walking by.... It had nothing to do with you as a person.’ Do you see what I mean? It’s almost as though there was this pretty girl wandering around holding me — her personality, like a balloon on a string, sort of drifting above her.
"People do judge others by appearances. And that’s part of the strange contradiction. In school, one’s parents, literature, everything tells you that appearances are deceiving, that appearance isn’t everything, beauty is only skin deep, and yet all of those people who tell you these things defer to you, like you, because you are beautiful. So of course you learn to use it to your advantage. And psychologically it is very useful. If you fail at something, you can always think, ‘Well, at least I’m beautiful, and people appreciate that.’ And in the end, your beauty becomes insidious. I didn’t finish college. I went to UCSD. I can’t say that being lovely caused me to quit learning, but I am convinced that if I had been ugly, I would have felt considerable pressure to develop myself intellectually, to at least search for something that engaged my mind. But somehow, deep within me, as I said before, there was always this idea that being beautiful was enough. By thinking that way... no, by allowing myself to think that way, I have denied myself some measure of self-esteem.
“This sounds so theoretical, but it really is very practical in the way it affects one’s life. When I was in college, being attractive, there were many men who wanted to be involved with me. Even then, though, I started to realize in a clear way that I was wanted for something other than my self, I mean, the person I felt myself to be. Shortly after I started college, there was this one guy that I fell in love with. He was from Los Angeles, very handsome, very sweet, very smart. We were both nineteen. We went out together for a month or so, and it became obvious that he wasn't in love with me. On the last day that we were officially a couple, he took me outside the dorm and took pictures of me. We had just finished talking about breaking up, and he said he wanted to take pictures of me. So I’m standing there in front of this tree, not really understanding what he was doing, until I finally asked him why these pictures were so important. He told me, quite honestly, that he wanted to show his friends the beautiful girl that he had slept with. The beautiful girl. Not me, per se.
So you see, in most of the relationships I have had, the unsuccessful ones, they were actually a sort of ménage à trois. There was the boyfriend and me — the person you now hear talking — and this third person — the beautiful girl. In fact, several years ago, someone put it even more bluntly. I met and fell in love with a Belgian guy. He was here in San Diego teaching French. We were introduced through mutual friends, and he was very lovely. He was brilliant. We slept together. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with him. One night we were on our way home from a party in La Jolla when he came right out and said, 'You’re in love with me, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He very patiently explained to me that he wasn’t in love with me and didn’t think that he would ever be in love with me. It was that simple. He liked me. Thought I was a nice person, et cetera, et cetera. I started to cry. I asked him why he had slept with me then, if he felt nothing for me. I mean, when we were together, he was certainly competent at making the sex appear as though it was the expression of love. I asked him what, after all, it had meant for him. He said, ‘For me it was nothing more than sleeping with a beautiful woman. I was curious and wanted to see what it was like.’
“Can you understand how confusing that could be? How much that hurt? For someone who is moderately attractive, he or she knows they are desired for the sum total of who they are — their personality and their physical presence. I had certainly felt as though I had been there in bed with him. For me sex had been an expression of love. I had thought that he was making love with me. Physically, he was. He was making love with the beautiful girl. But not with me. And in that regard, I'm fairly guilty. I’ve used her to get who I have wanted. I have to honestly say that I have never set out to seduce someone without ultimately succeeding.
“I've always sort of known she was there. I talk to her, in a way. When I wake up in the morning, I walk into the bathroom to get ready for work, and there she is. I think, This is the pretty girl. Here she is getting ready to go to work.’ And it’s when I’m getting ready to go to work that I often feel anxious. Work means being on display. I once worked at a movie theater selling tickets. I dreaded having to go outside and tell people to form lines. I’d walk out and literally feel them staring at me. Men would walk by the theater and stare at me. One night a young guy walked by three or four times. I noticed him but didn't really think about it. Later that night, one of the ushers came up to me and said, ’This guy came by and left you this note.’ It said, ‘I know that someone as beautiful as you would never, ever go out with someone like me. I’m a nice guy and would like to get to know you. If you’d like to get to know me, here’s my number.’ In one way, it was sweet. The note seemed innocent enough. After that night, however, I worried that he’d come back. I worried when I walked to my car. I always wondered if he wasn’t out there watching me.
“Because people are always looking at you, you become very conscious of how you dress. People are going to notice, in detail, what you’re wearing. I’m always worried that I’m going to make a ‘fashion error.’ It’s not quite an obsession, but it is something that I have to think about. Confronting my closet, my clothes, is sometimes almost overwhelming. Clothes are, I guess, the most overt symbol of the importance we place on appearances. Some mornings I’ll sit in front of my open closet and stare at what I have to wear. Then this horrible feeling of melancholy comes over me. I know it sounds silly. I think it’s silly. But the feeling is so strong that I wonder if I didn't have some sort of traumatic experience as a child that involved a closet. I just sit there naked and think of how hopeless everything is. How I’ve done nothing with my life. I’m a slave to this thing. And I wish.... This sounds strange, I wish that I could peel my flesh off, take it off like clothes, leave it somewhere, and not have to think about it. To not be conspicuous. To simply be. How I wouldn’t have involved myself in so many relationships if I hadn’t been attractive. How I probably would have used that time to do something more with my life. All these ideas race around inside my head.
"This is starting to change. I’m almost twenty-seven. When you’ve been made so minutely aware of your body as I have, you notice the smallest changes, and you know what they’re adding up to. Small lines around my mouth. The skin under my chin is not as firm as it used to be. The small wrinkles at the corners of my eyes. I look at my mother, and I see how I will someday be. Even now, though, it’s evident. For years, from about the time I was eighteen until last year, people would ask me, ‘Do you model?’ And now, I’ve noticed, they’ve started saying, ‘Have you ever modeled?’ Past tense.
"And so, here I am. Me and the beautiful girl. Everyone seems to feel that the best ticket is being beautiful and stupid. And they are probably right. But being beautiful and smart is, if you’ve been listening, a curse. Although I am pretty, I never doubted my intelligence. There was no chance that I would ever be able to escape from facing my own self-deception. I was aware of it, and I guess I thought that I could postpone it indefinitely. I was wrong. The beautiful girl. I’m going to have to kill her as gracefully as I can. Nobody wants to feel as if they are not a person.”
(Elizabeth Anne Fowler is a fictitious name.)