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How do you make yourself ready to drop your defenses?
Let me explain. I’m a single lady in my late 30s who has been pretty much on my own for the last few years, since my only long-term relationship broke up. I have a decent-ish career and a fairly active social life. I guess I should start dating, but the idea of Putting Myself Out There in That Way fills me with dread — blame it on a childhood where I was mocked for having crushes, followed by a post-childhood where dudes I felt sparks with would date other people because I was too chickenshit to make anything even resembling a move. (The long-term relationship came about in a kind of roundabout way — the old “hanging out at the same bar turning into spending a lot of time together and then developing into a Thing after resistance on my part” plot. Which is not very serviceable at my age.)
I watch friends of mine find partners and I feel like they’ve been given access to a manual that will only be open to me if … well, if I lose weight. I’ve always been heavier than normal, but after maintaining in the 12–14 range for a long while, through all the teenage and twentysomething trips to Weight Watchers and ambient sucking-up of information that I don’t even want to read from the beauty-industrial complex, I have landed in that gray area where the top of “regular” sizing and the bottom of “plus” sizing overlap. I have spent most of my dating-age life hoping to ignore my corporeal self in the hopes that it’ll go away, somehow, or that my other characteristics — my wit! my compassion! my ability to throw a really good party! — will at least serve as mitigating factors. I haven’t even watched That Episode Of Louie because I feel like hearing the words in Sarah Baker’s monologue spoken aloud, instead of just in my head, will make me legit break down.
“I’ll lose the weight,” I think sometimes, “and that will make people less repelled by me.” But I have trouble exercising because my schedule is unpredictable and sometimes I need to be working for unbroken stretches to tackle big projects.
And in my darker moments (which often come after I screw up my regime in some way), I despair and think that I’ll never lose it because what’s the point. Friends suggest people I should date and I laugh it off because yeah, right, who would want to take a chance on me? I develop romantic interests and subsequently get super anxious when I’m around them; all that energy eventually settles into friendship, which is fine! I have met lots of great people, and I have been very lucky in that sense. I am just tired of feeling like a fuck up, even WITH the high divorce/etc. rate. And the idea of putting myself out there on OKCupid or a site of its ilk is low-level terrifying for multiple reasons, from the sociopathic spammy way that some dudes operate to someone I know finding me on one of those sites and rolling their eyes at the idea of me being even casually dateable.
What is wrong with me? Why am I so freaked out by even voicing the desire to look for someone out loud? Am I just preemptively rejecting anyone who would love me for me? Or am I just being practical?
I Wanna See Me Be Brave
Fuck being practical. Practical about how you measure up to the other women on the dating market? Practical about the imaginary notion that people are repelled by you and roll their eyes at the idea of you being even casually dateable? Practical about exactly how your dress size will mathematically compute in the mind of the modern man?
I would rather live in the real world, which is ruled by a wicked laugh and a faint whiff of honeysuckle and a chilled pint hitting a man’s lips, along with the vague sensation that he’s brighter and stronger than he usually is, because he’s sitting across from a woman with beautiful eyes and a sick sense of humor who really, really gets him. The reason the beauty-industrial complex kicks up an acidic taste of contempt in so many of our mouths is that it can never quite capture the intoxicating magic of real-life intrigue and attraction and romance. Flat, glossy images of size-0 teenagers can’t come close to conjuring the sensation of being alive in the company of TRUE charisma and sensuality and courage, that electric feeling of being close to someone confident and witty who, for some unfathomable reason, hasn’t been loved nearly enough.
Sure, the most skilled artists of the high-end fashion world choose models with odd, alien faces and ask them to jut out their hip bones or their elbows, in an attempt to throw our perceptions slightly off-kilter, in an effort to demonstrate that something more mysterious than fuck-doll mathematics is going on in their pretty pictures. But even these images can’t quite stir up the same electricity as real life. Real-life beauty is a blur of motion, a flash of disbelief, an assured gesture, a long sigh that sings with intelligence and self-acceptance. We can’t capture in two dimensions, or reduce to a series of numbers, the feelings that real human beings experience in the company of a woman with the confidence to own exactly who she is, to show where she’s been, to listen closely and understand completely. A woman who loves her life, who can laugh at herself, but whose head isn’t crowded and noisy. A woman who can focus and make room — real space — for you, and bathe you in her generosity and her compassion.
Jesus. Now I want to get in your pants.
The point is: Fuck practical, if “practical” is searching for your statistical match — weight, height, race, IQ, income level — instead of meeting real, imperfect human beings with souls that erase all of those numbers with their originality and warmth. If that’s practical, then practical is the territory of unimaginative warthogs.
I know it’s hard. And I know that I don’t know exactly how hard it is. I have a plus-size friend who tells me there is nothing — NOTHING — like showing up for an online date and reading on the guy’s face, “Oh, you’re too big for me.” She tells me I can’t possibly know a thing about that feeling, and I trust that she’s right.
But I just want to tell you one thing that I do know, a message for humans of all sizes: You are not looking for someone who loves you for the sum of your quantifiable qualities. The guy who won’t sleep with you because you’re overweight is not a far cry from the guy who will only sleep with you because you’ve got a hot body. Either way, you feel like the main event, the REAL YOU, is a footnote. And plenty of us waste a lot of time dating people who like us for the wrong reasons. The problem is, it can take years to figure it out, to solve the puzzle and say, “Oh, Jesus, he only likes having sex with me. He doesn’t even listen when I open my fucking mouth.” Or: “She just likes my wallet and my easygoing nature. Meanwhile, she refuses to spend time with my family and is flat-out mean to me when she doesn’t get exactly what she wants.” Dating someone who wants you for the wrong reasons is disconcerting, it’s unproductive, and it’s the antithesis of true love.
Everyone wants to be seen and loved for who they really are. Or they should want that, even if they can’t want it, deep down inside, because they don’t love themselves enough to believe that they are enough.
There’s nothing like being loved for exactly who you are. This is not outside of your reach, or anybody’s reach. Not to state the obvious, but men who like you for YOU roll with whatever you’re serving up. Men like to be turned on (hello, understatement), and if they dig the cut of your jib, they are going to find something hot about you to focus on. They are not sitting at their desks with a copy of Photoshop, zooming in on problem areas. Sure, some men may not imagine themselves with anyone larger than a size 6. Maybe they’re following the lead of our unimaginative warthog culture, so their imaginations are filled with extreme close-ups of extreme wax jobs. And maybe if you ask them, they’ll give you images and numbers and figures that make them sound like looks mathematicians. But even then, what a man thinks he wants and what a man actually ends up wanting is often separated by a wide and mysterious sea.
I know a lot of people are haunted by that Louis C.K. Fat Girl monologue. And I know that feeling of meeting a guy and thinking, “Hey, look! We match!” and then finding out he only dates supermodels. (Why? And … how?) But that speech feels a little hopeless to me. No One Dates Fat Girls. I understand why it would be a relief to voice that feeling. But it falls in line with Older Men Only Want Younger Women and Successful Women Can’t Find Love and No One Wants a Short Guy and a million other self-defeating mantras. Once you start down that road, you might as well just move into the glossy fucking magazines and sit right next to the teenager in the feathered get-up and weep into your hands. Do you want to live in a two-dimensional, imaginary world, or do you want to live in the real world, which is full of surprises and real love and magic?
I know some people found that episode emancipating. I don’t want to diminish that. I just want to say: DON’T LIVE THERE.
Don’t live in that two-dimensional, reductive space where you already know what’s going to happen next, where you imagine that all affection for you is just pity, where you think people are rolling their eyes at the idea of you as remotely dateable, where you accept less than you deserve from a soulless mathematician.
Being hot in two dimensions is all about sanding off your edges and minimizing anything that’s big or pointy or just unusual or unique. But being hot in the real world is all about magic. It’s not about BELIEVING IN MAGIC. It’s about tuning in to the OBJECTIVE, PALPABLE magic of real life. It’s about knowing all of the magic you carry onboard, everywhere you go. You can make a million and one mistakes in your life, but as long as you never lose sight of your magic, people will be drawn to you.
That doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes feel totally below average and wretched and lame. That part often depends on your mood, what you ate for lunch, and a few lunar-phase issues we won’t delve into right now. You will get older and maybe even uglier and you will die some day. I’m not just being negative, it’s science, I looked it up. But — do you see? You don’t HAVE to lose a lot of weight and arrive at some improved, imaginary place BEFORE you’re “ready” to date. You can be magnetic and magical and also be average and wretched and lame. What you need to do, more than anything else, is feel good and vibrant and relaxed and gorgeous in your own skin.
So don’t go on a crash diet just to find love. Don’t tell yourself that you’ll only deserve love once you starve yourself for a while. Even if you’re wildly successful at losing weight and then wildly successful at finding a man, you’ll still be at risk of wasting a decade dating men who have no interest in the real magic of you, beneath your rocking-hot ass.
Here’s one practical thing I do want you to do: You need to exercise every day. That’s my recommendation to you and every other person reading this, no matter what size they happen to be. Because people — especially very smart people — require exercise to stay sane. They do. Exercise will help you feel vibrant and relaxed and gorgeous in your own skin. Exercise will improve your chemistry and that will improve your view of yourself. You also need to remind yourself that you’re up for a challenge, that you can do something hard, even when you’re swamped with big projects and you feel like shit and you just don’t want to. You need to give yourself that gift every day.
“What kind of a gift is THAT, to sweat and pant like crazy?” you ask. It’s a gift that sometimes looks like punishment, but that’s actually a sensual thing, a way of feeling vigorous and alive. I’m not saying you have to do something extreme. You can walk fast for an hour, or do some kind of low-impact cardio DVD for 30 minutes. You can do P90X3 or Tae Bo and bask in the warmth of Billy Blanks’s wonky eye. You can join a gym and do Zoomba or whatever the fuck. Personally, as someone with kids and way too much work, I like the DVD thing. It’s really fast and you never have an excuse not to do it.
The primary goal here is to feel connected to your body. Exercise won’t make you more lovable. You’re already lovable, that’s the point. Exercise will help you to feel that.
After I had my second daughter, I felt creeped out by getting older. I was sluggish and I had dark circles under my eyes. I felt clumsy and dorky and ugly inside. My head was cloudy half the time, because I wasn’t in the habit of eating green things, and I was half-heartedly running a few miles twice a week at best. My career felt stalled out, but writing seemed pointless.
I knew what I needed to do to feel less old and defeated. I needed to exercise every day. It can’t be a choice, or I won’t do it. I have to treat it as the default, and skip it only occasionally.
As a writer, I’m trapped in my head most of the day. Exercise helps me to acknowledge my body. And I do mean ACKNOWLEDGE. Because when you’re sort of blocking your body out of the equation, because it’s too big or its textures aren’t photogenic enough for your poisonous two-dimensional taste, that’s a way of not existing. That’s a way of holding your breath. That’s a way of valuing what you’re told over what you feel. That’s a way of making no space for yourself.
You need to make some space, and breathe, and feel how good your body can feel. You need to savor your senses a little. Smart, busy people like you, who overthink things sometimes, need that. Daily exercise will give you a tiny feeling of control over one dimension of your life — not how you look, but how you feel.
Speaking of control, you write, “Why am I so freaked out by even voicing the desire to look for someone out loud?” You’re freaked out because it’s insanely hard, to admit that some part of your happiness might belong to the fates, that some part of your soul’s dearest wishes might rest in the hands of a world that has a PROVEN tendency to mistake bleached teeth and a bony ass for SOUL.
It’s okay. Some people won’t like you. Some people will reject you. That’s fine. That happens to everyone. The goal is to adapt, to learn not to take it personally. You know in your heart that you’re not looking for just anyone. You’re looking for someone who is turned on by YOU — your charms and your flaws and all of the magic inside of you. Maybe there are only a few people out there who can really appreciate YOU. That’s okay. You don’t need to appeal to everyone, or even 90 percent of the guys out there. You’re hunting a rare species. Most of us are. Recognize that and don’t read into every rejection.
You are a wicked laugh and a faint whiff of honeysuckle and steam rising off asphalt. When you smile and your eyes shine, everyone around you feels the electricity and they want you to stay close. You are the center, the magnet, the fulcrum, the crux of the matter, because you don’t need to be all of that. You don’t need to be the center of everything.
Even so, you haven’t been loved nearly enough. The fact that you haven’t been loved enough? THAT is part of what makes you beautiful. That will feel so lucky to some lucky guy. That will feel like such a miracle, to stumble upon someone who’s been so underappreciated for so long.
Your weakness, your need, your clumsiness, your disappointment, your anger: These things also make you beautiful. And your courage — you know how courageous you are. You know how lonely you’ve been, how fucking let down and sad you’ve been, all these years. But you keep throwing yourself out there, sticking your neck out, offering up whatever you happen to have at the moment, mixing up cocktails, turning up the volume, dancing like a lunatic, throwing your fucking head back to laugh that wicked laugh of yours.
You want to see YOU be brave? Look in the mirror. You are already brave. You need to see yourself clearly, so the world can see you clearly, too. Recognize how beautiful you are, and the world will recognize it, too. The spirits of the dead are feeling you, they are feeling you and cheering you on. “Damn girl,” they’re saying, “DAMN, you are good.” They feel you. Now tell the living to wake the fuck up and feel you, too.
Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.
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