Last week I finished reading Courtney Martin's book "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body." Martin uses the dichotomy of the "perfect girl" (the perfectionist) and the "starving daughter" (our most basic human desires) to examine women's relationship to their body. (As she said at a talk at the University of VA last week, once you start talking about women and their bodies, you end up talking about everything.)
A lot of things in the book really stuck with me, but one thing in particular was a concept about attractiveness and desire that Martin articulates: being noticed versus being seen.
We walk around wondering what we look like through most of adolescence and, with less urgency, for the rest of our lives. Our inability to really see ourselves imbues the judgment of strangers with tremendous and undue value...A man I have never met can instantly put a little swing in my step...a bar full of half-drunk strangers has the power to make me hang my head.
We are dependent on the kindness of strangers because of the onslaught of skinny-and-fit female or tall-and-toned male images that we suffer daily. We become unsure of our own sight so early on, convinced that the only accurate view of ourselves is outside of ourselves. We search for signs that we resemble the mold---an invite to homecoming from a football player, a wink in the elevator from a cute coworker, admission into an exclusive downtown club. We feel, in these brief, usually fruitless encounters, like we are being seen when really we are just being noticed. The difference is significant.
Being noticed is ordinary, fleeting, and impersonal. Being seen is extraordinary, lasting and intimate. Being notice is common and only skin-deep. Being seen is rare and profound. It is what happens when you stay up all night talking in a stranger's car because the conversation is so good you forgot to reach for the door handle...Being seen is when your boyfriend knows that the horseshoe scar on your knee was from when you fell in the gravel of the playground in fourth grade playing flag football, and he adores it Being seen is a hand on the small of your back as you walk through a doorway, a glass of water when you are coughing in the middle of the night, his making a parting reference to something you said so long ago you barely remember it. Being seen is when your girlfriend asks, 'Why do you seems sad?" before you have realized that you are, indeed sad. Being seen is rarely about physical beauty. Being seen is never about being buff or thin.
- pp 149-150
This passage really spoke to me because I realize that a lot of my anxiety over my body come from a place inside of me that is desperate to be noticed and terrified about what it says about me when I am not noticed. I have never been the kind of woman that gets noticed. In some contexts this is a total blessing. On the rare occasions when someone harasses me on the street, I feel horrible about it and I'm not sure being hit on in a bar would be much different. On the other hand, I am acutely and occasionally painfully aware of the attention some of my girlfriends get. I think I have been wondering all my life to some extent what is wrong with me---why don't I get noticed?
That's not the real question though and in fact, it's not a question it all; it's a gratitude. I am so thankful that I have been seen by friends, family, and some of my romantic partners and that I have seen people. I think I've always thought of my failure to be noticed as some kind of indication of my chances of being seen, but the truth is, I can put that fear to rest. The results are in: I have been seen and loved and I have seen and loved. No amount of noticing is going to change that.