Navigating the Sandwich
On Losing My Looks
I'd always taken comfort in making myself invisible. Now I certainly don’t miss the catcalls and whistles
When I was a child I knew how to make myself invisible — especially where it most counted: in class. I called this ‘cellophaning’ and fervently believed in its magical power to keep me from getting called on. I couldn’t cellophane at will, but I was pretty good at deflecting attention. If I didn’t want someone to notice me, they usually didn’t.
That changed by the time I was 16 and went to Italy for a month. I was traveling with two 18-year-old friends, and we happened to arrive in Venice by train the same day the Italian navy sailed into town.
As my friends and I lugged our suitcases from railway station to pensione, we found ourselves leading a parade of smartly dressed sailors who alternated between swoons of admiration and offers to carry our bags wherever we might be going. My friends were adamantly opposed, but I eventually caved in, and somewhat to my surprise my volunteer porter shook my hand and politely took his leave at the door.
For the next four weeks we were pestered more or less nonstop and we got pretty good at deflecting advances before they had a chance to advance. Then, at the end of the month my mother came to meet us and, to my shock and horror, she was subjected to the same amorous attentions. What was more, she was flattered by them.
I remember that in those days, whenever I complained about unwanted male attention, someone would always annoyingly remark that it would be gone one day and I’d miss it.
That day arrives for different women at different times. But almost everyone eventually has a moment of revelation: You have become invisible; no one is looking at you. And just in case this new reality should slip your mind, the evidence just keeps piling up. Each venture into the world becomes a reminder of your diminished status in the social order.
I remember my friend Nancy’s observation about visiting China on a tour. “It’s interesting,” she said, “when you are with a group of people and there’s an ingénue and it’s not you.” Nancy and I had another such “interesting” experience on a trip to New Orleans to do research for a documentary. We spent an afternoon with a charismatic and locally famous jazz musician who drove us around his childhood neighborhood, pointing out the sites of all the famous music clubs that were no longer there. At the end of the afternoon, he told us that he liked hanging out with us, we were cool, and he was sure we used to be sexy. (We formerly sexy persons decided to take this as a compliment. We liked hanging out with him too and would have made him the subject of our documentary if he hadn’t gone into rehab shortly thereafter.)
Do I miss it? Maybe not as much as some of the formerly sexy. Because I never entirely lost my schoolgirl belief in the magical powers of invisibility. There’s a cost to turning heads — at least there was for me. At some point, I concluded that the most effective response to unwanted male attention was to pretend not to notice it. I cultivated a kind of prim obliviousness, sort of cousin to my cellophane strategy. Eventually, I no longer had to pretend; I really didn’t notice. (When women complain that men can’t take their eyes off their breasts, I’m always amazed that they’re even aware of it.) This spared me from the corrosive effects of living in a state of constant ire, but it did nothing for my powers of observation.
So I don’t mind being invisible to male passersby. And I certainly don’t miss the catcalls and whistles. When my high-school-aged daughter reported hearing cries of, “Nice meat!” as she walked home, I felt some of the rage I’d managed to avoid by going around in a fog. But I am not invisible to myself, and an unintended glimpse in a store mirror can still send me into a funk. Or a frenzy of self-improvement (even though there is only so much you can do and it is the ultimate losing battle).
During one of these bouts, when I’d been hitting the gym more frequently than usual, I received my favorite street compliment ever, delivered without the usual edge of aggression. It reminded me that genuine admiration is never unwelcome. It was a sparkling June day, the kind that makes you want to be exactly where you are. I was walking along a very wide boulevard — this may have been a key factor — and coming toward me on the opposite side of the street was a handsome young man. “Nice arms!” he called out. “You’ve been working out!” And I had. And somebody noticed.