The Power Illusion – or other side of being an attractive woman

As it happens, I recently stumbled across two different projects where men posed as attractive women online just to see what happened. You can probably imagine the results: an avalanche of smut that appeared to surprise and dismay them.

In the first, one man tried posing as a woman on a dating site so that he could possibly pick up tips on how to be more successful as a man on a dating site. What did he learn? Be normal. Most guys on dating sites put in little effort or go for the crudest approach as their opening gambit.

In the second, a blogger put up a fake female profile on Facebook and started befriending strangers just to see what happened. He at least had some psychological (and apparently moral) guidance through his experiment. What did he learn? It’s very easy for attractive women to gain male attention and get men to buy them things.

Truthfully, I’m not even sure he learned that much. He even included an exchange where a man with little grasp of English “tried” to have sex with him… and apparently from the text, achieved orgasm. I’d like to quantify that this man didn’t “try” anything. He succeeded. True the interaction was about as mutual as some stranger dry-humping you on a crowded bus, but I’d say the blogger just had cyber-sex with his strange friend whether he liked it or not.

What struck me with both of these experiments was how apparently flushed with success both men felt. I guess as a society we condition men to expect to be the active pursuer in a sexual dynamic, so it’s a big ego boost when you feel like you’re being pursued. What they both missed completely out of the interactions (possibly because it didn’t occur to them to feel it) was fear.

Now it’s hard for women to write about “What it means to be an attractive woman” without looking like we’re narcissists, but I don’t think either of these guys really got the full experience of walking in someone else’s high heels for a bit. They found amusement and novelty. Most young women (attractive or not) initially find the same, but along with it comes confusion and shame and sometimes terror. Men are weird creatures, and some of them are about as emotionally stable as big, hairy toddlers. (Some women are too, for that matter.)

Case in point: I thought I’d share a story I’ve never written about before. It’s the story of a teenage boy I’ll call Josh.

I met Josh when I was 18 and he was 16. We were both in the same theatre troupe. There were a lot of teenagers in that group, and the whole crowd of us used to hang out together both at the theatre and socially outside of shows. Josh was the eldest boy in a big, religious family. A bit awkward, but he had the look and demeanour of one of those smoldering, brooding young men who write poetry and who most teenage girls fancy for a bit. One of the other girls in our group (I’ll call her Kate) had a passionate, secret love for him, and used to share her fantasies with us girls when he wasn’t around.

I’ve shared this picture before (which was taken when I was 17) but I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that I wasn’t bad looking when I was younger:

Tragic

Of course, I just didn’t see it at the time. What I saw was an ugly girl with thick legs, and badly-shaped boobs, who was too short and had awful hair. I saw all of this because for years I’d had all of these messages drilled into me by other girls. I was never going to be a model (not that I wanted to be anyway). I was convinced that I was enormously fat. I had gone through my entire stretch of high school without ever having a boyfriend – without ever so much as being asked on a date. Prom? Never went. I was hideous.

However, all of that started to change when I reached my late teens. One particular day (and I remember the day) people went from throwing things at me out of car windows to suddenly whistling at me out of car windows. My initial reaction was to feel sorry for them. They’d obviously mistaken me for somebody who was pretty, and I was sure their friends would give them hell when they looked in the rear-view and saw my face.

It was for all of these reasons that Josh shocked the crap out of me.

You see, one day, about a year after he’d joined our theatre group, a bunch of us arrived at the theatre to find a note from him. In it, he described how he’d left home (and school) to go live in Wellington with his cousin… and that he was doing so because he loved me and I’d rejected him…

I was floored. More than floored. I wanted to be sucked into the earth.

You see, Josh had never once proclaimed his feelings to me. He’d never asked me out. He’d never so much as broached the subject of love. So far as I knew, he was a friend – just one among many. I was completely oblivious to any ardour growing inside him… but not because I disliked him. Simply because it had never occurred to me that anyone would ever feel that way about me. And certainly if they did, I’d have expected them to say so.

His letter was the first time any boy ever said outright that they found me attractive.

Included with his note was a page of song lyrics he’d written to me (of course)… mostly describing how I was beautiful and amazing and how I thought he was nothing. I DIDN’T THINK HE WAS NOTHING! But he had assumed rejection in me simply because he was looking for it… I guess in much the same way that I’d assumed rejection in everybody around me. We were teenagers. It’s an awkward time.

Kate never ever forgave me for “driving” Josh away. I like to think that I’ve never been callous with anyone’s affection. I’ve never manipulated men into buying me things (I don’t think I’d even know how to do that). As time progressed, I’ve always tried to let men down gently when the attraction was not mutual. Sometimes gently needs to become firmly, but at least I’m straight up with people. Yet I felt horrible about the whole situation with Josh. For years afterward.

However, as time went on, I came to realise that that was Josh’s intention all along. There had been plenty of men that I’d fancied before him and never had the guts to pursue, but I didn’t go around telling them how miserable they made me feel. Misery was my choice, not theirs. Josh didn’t take the high road. He didn’t nobly bow out and disappear from our lives. He made a point of blaming me in a way that everyone would see… for something I didn’t even do! The passive aggressive little shit.

I guess that’s one reality of being an attractive woman that didn’t dawn on these two guys in their experiments: some men assume rejection (even if you’re just going about your life, barely aware of them) and sometimes they get nasty about it. And as a woman you’re conditioned to feel guilty about this – even though you weren’t trying to create it and weren’t even aware that it was happening until it’s too late. It’s an illusion of power.

What these men felt was the rush of having “power” over others (and probably all women have felt that same rush at some point), but the power is only a mirage. You actually don’t control the situation at all – and sometimes you learn that the hard way – but you still get blamed for it. You are assumed to be personally responsible for men’s feelings when they don’t want to be. And it sucks.

I never did find out what eventually happened to Josh. I assumed that he grew up a bit and found somebody else. Maybe he still remembers the mean girl who broke his heart when he was a teenager… or maybe he’s now old enough to realise it was all in his head in the first place.

Either way, I don’t actually care anymore. He didn’t inflate my ego or help me to feel more attractive. He didn’t do me any favours at all.

My life was worse for having met him.

 

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