This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.
This has plagued my self-esteem for the past year or so. I have this best friend. We do everything together, and he’s truly the best kind of company: He’s hilarious, makes me feel energized, and, like, we can be our goofy selves together. Thing is, whenever we’re together, all eyes land on my friend, who we’ll call Scott.
Scott’s not my type sexually, but I definitely consider him attractive, with his icy blue eyes, square jaw, and glorious brown hair. I don’t consider myself sexy by any means. I’m probably a 7 on a good day. It’s hard for me to be around Scott and have all the boys gravitate to him immediately. He gets hit on all the time while men act like I don’t exist.
I’m always comparing myself to him. I can’t help but feel down and even inferior to his good looks. This only happens when we’re out meeting guys. Otherwise, I love spending time with him where I don’t feel like I’m invisible. How can I stop comparing myself to him whenever we’re out meeting guys? I accept that he’s better looking than me, but surely I can stop feeling so inferior to him?
Hi Ho, Silver!
Thank you for writing in. Though I must admit, I was hoping for a letter from Scott. Kidding. I’M KIDDING! You are all equal in the eyes of Papi. I can’t see any of you. As an internet abstraction, I don’t even really have eyes.
Let’s start with this scale everybody is so fond of. Why do people do this? It strikes me as somewhat violent to look at someone and say, “That person is an 8,” or “He’s a 6.” I even have friends who do this! They’ll say things like “I’m a 5 in Brooklyn but a 7 in my hometown.” It always makes me uncomfortable.
And yet, I can’t deny I’ve done the same thing. I’ve held myself up next to people I’m attracted to or people I’ve slept with and thought, “How do I measure up?” There’s a brutal arithmetic that goes into this process. Everything gets appraised and assigned a value: my nose, my voice, my height, my weight, all of it.
After I’ve tallied everything up, what I’m left with is a grade, a number, a rank, and it has never, not even once, been one I’m content with. There are simply too many Scotts, or whatever their name might be — people with shinier hair, stronger chins, better clothes, a more confident gait. The list goes on. It makes me feel terribly mediocre.
I have a math department in my brain that draws up proofs for my worst theories. I must not be very attractive, because if I were, then that guy would like me. Or people would hit on me at bars. Or I’d have more followers on Instagram. People would sign up just to appreciate the symmetry of my face. But alas, look at me, forced to develop a sense of humor. Ugly people behavior!
People have come up with all sorts of solutions to this. Most of them involve tips and tricks to negotiate ourselves higher up the scale in our own eyes. “I am a 10!” I am meant to affirm to myself in the mirror. “I am beautiful! I am a wise, spicy, beautiful Mexicana!” We carve out spaces for ourselves in the white-marble cliffs of conventional beauty — we get good at makeup, or fashion, or skincare, or something.
To be clear, I think there’s something to that. I’m all for people gassing themselves up, feeling sexy, feeling attractive and talented. I think many of these are a great way to engage with the brutal game of aesthetics we’ve been dropped into. I have days like that myself, days when I feel like I’m especially well dressed or handsome or, I suppose, a sight.
But it’s impossible for me to feel like that all the time. What’s more, I can’t ignore the realities of strict beauty standards. It’s the case that Scotts get rewarded for looking a certain way while people who don’t look like a Scott will often find themselves overlooked, underappreciated, and pushed out of opportunities. How do I square my desire to exist outside of such a cruel hierarchy with my desire to feel validated by it?
There are no easy answers, Silver, but what I’ve found is that we need more than one pair of eyes to see ourselves with. What do I mean by that? Well, gazes are constructed. The way you look at other people and at yourself has been informed by biases, social conditioning, and interpretations of personal experiences. In other words, what might feel like a totally natural process of looking at a person is actually a series of decisions — on some level, consciously or unconsciously, we are choosing to assign value to someone based on arbitrary standards.
And the good news about choice is that it means we have some agency in the matter. It’s difficult, if not outright impossible, to completely deconstruct and do away with the gaze we’ve been looking through for most of our lives. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the only way we see ourselves and others. We can construct one that’s more our own. We can look at ourselves in such a way that we see someone worthy of love, happiness, and affection.
What that looks like for me is whenever I start comparing myself to someone else I say, “That has nothing to do with me.” It’s my reminder to remove myself from the competition. I think instead about how impossible it would be to contain all that I am in a first impression, for a stranger to be able to dismiss me based on my appearance. I am a lot more than that.
When I find those chances to feel sexy or seductive, I take them. Of course I take them! I’m human! It’s not about being better than anyone else. It’s about me having needs, and one of those needs is to, on occasion, be the prettiest mestizo at the COVID-19 testing site.
But in the end, I can tell you this much, Silver. There is no number of approving strangers who will satisfy you. Someone could tell you that you’re just as attractive as Scott, and it wouldn’t make a difference in the world if you didn’t believe it. It might be better to recognize that you exist beyond your relation to Scott altogether.
You’re a lot more than that, and I don’t mean in the corny “at least you have a personality” way. Scott sounds like he has a personality too! I mean there will be people who look at you and see someone they like, and people who will think you’re not good enough. My question is, when you look in the mirror, which one are you?
I rate your letter a 6.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on January 14, 2021.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, here.