I just read “Why Standards Night is Substandard,” written by Kathryn Lynard Soper and posted at Patheos.org. It’s a good article. But her experience did not resonate with mine at all. Although I may have fancied myself physically attractive from time to time, I think I have consistently underestimated the power that my attractiveness might have over men. I can remember only a few times a man (other than a relative) has told me I looked nice. Even if I recognized that a man might be interested in me (and let’s be honest, my recognition abilities aren’t that great), I did my best to stuff that recognition as far down in my consciousness as I could to negate the possibility of anything ever happening and continue to believe in my own categorical romantic unsuitability.
I have never learned to wield feminine power or barter sexual attractiveness for love. Maybe it is because of my somewhat unconventional feminist literary upbringing. I grew up with the ideal that I could be valued for my mind and for my heart, not just for my body. I learned about the cultural minefield for women and their battles over body image and social acceptability: I was reading about eating disorders in junior high and mean girl behavior in high school.
My mom raised me to not only avoid clothes that were too tight or suggestive but to study some of the strongest women in history. I rolled my eyes when she told me to read Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, but read it and found parts of it extremely touching and inspiring. She also encouraged me to research Amelia Earhart, who became one of my childhood fascinations and heroines. I still have a picture of her taped to my bedroom door at home. And I filled my time reading other tales of women, actual and fictional, which led me to aspire to write and to hope for the day when I might be appreciated for a literary contribution to humanity.
And somehow with all this reading I never really learned about love. I intellectualized it, and like Dorothea Brooks, considered the life of the mind sufficient grounds for romantic attachment. But, we all know how the Casaubons of the world fare in love and how withering it can be to Dorotheas. Thus, like young Dorothea, my sweet little intellectual-appreciation theory of romance has proven insufficient to explain the real-life complexities of love. I begin to despair, that all men really want or notice is a sexy woman. Or that they are more interested in the physical than the intellectual qualities of their partner. Such is the fear of the inept female graduate student. I know it all doesn’t fit into simple binary categories, but let me get to my final questions. What DO men really want? And how can women give it to them without sacrificing their integrity or their authenticity?
And because I love the introduction to Middlemarch so much, here’s an excerpt:
That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangeld circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.
Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women’s coiffure and the favorite love-stories in prose and verse. Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heartbeats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed.*
*George Eliot, Middlemarch (New York: John B. Alden, 1883), 5-6.