Plain Jane. Plain Jane. Sitting Alone, It’s Plain Jane.

Plain Jane. Plain Jane. Sitting Alone, It’s Plain Jane.

“I was never hit on or sexually harassed by my professors in college, or later, by my co-workers or superiors. I have not felt as if my male teachers, friends or colleagues thought less of me because of my gender. I’ve never been aggressively “hit on” in a bar, despite the fact that I have frequented them alone throughout the years. In fact, I’ve rarely been approached in a bar at all.” – Jennifer Bartlett “Longing for the Male Gaze

We tend to see the world in black and white. If this woman is being harassed in the street then ALL women are being harassed in the street. Men are continually invading our personal space demanding our time, our attention, except when you are deemed unworthy of such attention. Unlike Ms. Bartlett, I do not have CP. Like Ms. Bartlett I have been sexually dismissed by men for most of my life, moreso now that I am single and middle aged. When I was young I was never the pretty one, never the beauty, never hot. Newly divorced, I have stepped out into a literal and figurative no-man’s land. This is life when you are plain. Trust me, I am not one of those women who has collected enough social capital where I can proclaim my plainness from the rooftops and be greeted with a rousing chorus of “no you’re not!” The best I get is not conventionally attractive or lovely. I’ve read countless flippant articles, usually written by people with sufficient social capital, telling us invisible unfortunates how not to be invisible. Advice includes:

  1. Get male friends. Done.They’re all married with families or gay. That counts.
  2. Get older, younger, different than you friends. Done my friends range in age from 24-80.
  3. Wear dresses more often. Done, including a Marc Jacobs minidress.
  4. Stop waiting to be invited. If I waited to be invited I’d never leave my house.
  5. Take boxing, karate, or some other self-defense class. I’m going to yoga, pilates, and core training classes and training for a marathon. That counts
  6. Spend 30 seconds on your make-up before you go out the door. Since I actually work for a living, I put on makeup before I walk out the door, except when I go to the gym because wearing makeup to the gym is stupid.
  7. Stop dressing solely for comfort. Like I said, I work. I don’t run out of the house in yoga pants unless I have my mat slung over my shoulder and I’m going to yoga class. I don’t own a single pair of sweatpants.
  8. Speak up. This is a strange one because when I do speak up I get the dreaded you have three heads look. I have also had to wave my arms to get the attention of the male server who has just finished flirting with my much younger friends. Like I said, social capital.
  9. Embrace your grownup-ness. Let me see, I survived sexual assault, emotional and verbal abuse, divorce, death. I make my own living and own my own home. I rebuilt my life quickly and successfully. I still have baggage, but I’m working through it. I think that’s pretty grown up.
  10. Always carry cash in several denominations and tip generously. Apparently older women think men are supposed to pay for everything. I developed a system when I was in college. I pay for the first date and I pay for myself unless the other person insists. The logic being that I don’t expect anyone to feel that they have to pay for me and if something goes wrong I don’t what the other person to think I owe him anything. As for tipping, my paternal grandmother raised five children on tips. I tip generously whenever I can.
  11. Lift weights. Done. See also #5.
  12. “In research, you see time and again you are the company you keep. For me, I may not technically be the smartest or most beautiful person, but I run with those who are.” This is advice given by a self-help specialist named Leigh Peele. As she has fame, she was recently published in The Guardian, she has social capital. She may think she is unattractive, but she is tall and blonde and a celebrity. Having social capital makes a difference.

The vast majority of the advice out there is dedicated to improving your personal appearance, sometimes couched in language about pushing yourself physically further than you’re pushed yourself before. The assumption is that you have turned into a middle-aged shlub so no wonder you’re being ignored. You, middle-aged woman, have brought your invisibility upon yourself. I’ve done the vast majority of these these and yet I am still invisible. The other advice is about embracing who you are. The assumption is that my accepting who you are you break the rules and will gain acceptance. It never occurs to them that they are, in a way, telling us to embrace their our invisibility. Perhaps we should embrace it as part of our grownup-ness?

In my case, there is a deeper and sadder aspect to my lack of visibility-that it’s nothing new. It’s not like I expected to step out from my divorce into a new and vibrant world where I would be the belle of the ball. Quite the opposite. I knew this is how it would be, I just hoped and keep hoping that it will be different. I hoped Philadelphia would be like New York and that I would find my place. It’s not. Philadelphia is like Buffalo. The standard of beauty is brutally rigid and the pressure to conform is intense. If you do not fit it’s not like you will find your place. It’s fuck you if you don’t like it. It’s narrow-minded and lazy. If you aren’t hot enough to be on my arm, you are not worth knowing. I’ve explained it to countless people, but unless you’ve experienced it you won’t understand. Men have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. Men are seldom invisible in a world that’s tailored to them. The ones that admit to feeling invisible externalise-it’s not them, it’s the bitches around them who won’t give them the time of day or the idiots who friendzone them and complain about their jerk boyfriends. I internalise-it can’t be all men, so it must be me. This internalisation is reinforced by lists of tips that focus on your appearance. It’s also reinforced by little comments like you don’t smile, you don’t dress sexy, you don’t wear enough eye makeup, it must be something you’re projecting. A straight man alone simply has not found the right woman, unless he shoots a room full of people and even then it’s because he was mentally ill. The straight woman alone is a freak or a defective.

I have wrestled with invisibility for as long as I can remember. I’ve always had issues with my looks. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was five. Not cute little kid glasses or reading glasses, real blind-as-a bat glasses. I tried contacts in late high school and college and found that more often than not people didn’t recognise me. The lack of glasses did not make me more attractive or appealing. They made me more of a stranger. I had baby fine impossibly curly hair which succumbed eventually to chemical straighteners and now silicones. When I straightened my hair for the first time I shook my hair reveling in its manageability. This was the late 70s early 80s. They didn’t have the products to make the curls themselves manageable like they do now. I was told to not even try to be sexy. I was always tall and thin with no breasts to speak of until college. I was the smart one, the problem solver. No one wants a problem solver. My sister was the pretty one. She showed our parents by getting a PhD. I’ve never been able to show our parents that I’m attractive because my lack of attractiveness is borne out almost every day. One day a college friend asked, didn’t your father ever say you were the most beautifil girl in the world?  I watched the colour drain from her face as I had to actually think about that question. No, I said, I don’t think he ever did. My father was never one to say things he didn’t think were true. Unlike most women, I have been called ugly to my face. I’ve had men turn their backs to me when I’ve tried to engage them in conversation. When you are plain, civility goes out the window. Those who are not plain don’t think these things happen, but they do.




Getting Up and Going Home

Getting Up and Going Home

There has been some heavy reading in the press of late. Rachel Cusk of the New York Times reviewed two books on assisted reproduction. Earlier this month Jennifer Senior, also writing for the Times, reviewed The Art of Waiting. In the review, Ms. Simon writes the following.

“I thought quite a lot about what normal is and isn’t as I was reading “The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood,” Belle Boggs’s thoughtful meditation on childlessness, childbearing, and — for some — the stretch of liminal agony in between. Her book is a corrective and a tonic, a primer and a dispeller of myths. It is likely to become a go-to guide for the many couples who discover that having children is not the no-assembly-required experience they were expecting. They will come away enlightened, reassured and comforted by her debunker mentality.”

I have to agree with Ms. Simon’s assessment, but for a reason she does not state here. You see, the author and her husband were successful. I doubt very much that anyone would recommend a book so wholeheartedly to anyone, single or married, going through this process had the protagonists not been successful. I doubt the other book, Avalanche: A Love Story, will be held up as a corrective, tonic, or primer. Cusk describes Avalanche as, “a harrowing and profoundly disturbing account of self-immolation in pursuit of an ideal, for what Leigh has failed to recognize about ‘creative life’ is that it too seeks to concretize the ineffable, and that it arises in people of a single-mindedness and determination so strong it can destroy them.” After years of trying, love, sex, trust, compassion, solidarity disappeared. The author’s marriage failed. She continues her pursuit alone. I did not. As I have said before, I did not feel the insatiable hunger for a child that many without experience. When it was over, I wondered where the love, trust, compassion, solidarity, the friendship went. Now I know. What’s worse, I went to being a person to a vessel to a non-entity. I am still struggling to overcome my erasure.

Having been through this process, I read these reviews to compare notes. I get everything I need from the reviews, so I don’t need to read the books. I know about the rituals, the infantilization of language (follies? embies? baby bump?), the seemingly endless menu of choices, the statistics (most of them inflated, in my experience) my ex would have understood the not knowing when to stop because he didn’t. I didn’t and don’t understand the not knowing when to stop, but then again it was my body and later another woman’s body who were undergoing these treatments. This is where most women who undertake this journey and I differ, and I wonder if they experienced the same clinic fatigue as I. Our clinic got tired of dealing with us because we were difficult clients and because we were failures. I also don’t think they knew what to do when the man, not the woman, has rampant babyfever. I was never desperate to be a mother, much less a biological one. Most of my friends are on that path now, or are about to embark on that path. It’s the largest not-so-secret club in the world. As a non-parent, I know a surprising amount about the rituals of parenthood simply because my parent friends speak so openly and freely about playdates, birthday parties, mommy boards, and mommy bloggers. I have nothing to say on the subject except to allow my friends who are mothers to vent about the ridiculous standards to which they are held. Of all of my friends who have children, none of them had to resort to IUI or IVF, and only one so far has had a hysterosalpingiogram. She told me about how much it hurt because she knew I’d understand. I don’t talk much about my experience because there’s no one to tell, really. No one wants to hear what I have to say.

These patterns are recurring in other aspects of my life. No one wants to talk about my failed marriage, except my therapist. No one wants to talk about the abuse, except my therapist. No one wants to hear about the loneliness because either they can’t relate or they worry that mine mirrors their own. I think I’m tired of talking about this, but I’m stuck and I can’t move. I’m bound by my own anger and I can’t find the end of the rope to untangle myself. Nothing I did was right in my marriage and I can’t even grieve properly. I want to scream and kick things, but there is nowhere to scream and nothing to kick.

Your Next Assignment

Your Next Assignment

My therapist gave me another assignment-write another 25 shitty things your ex did during your marriage. She gives me interesting assignments like get a massage, write, stand naked in front of a mirror and rub lotion all over yourself, find a man who’s a young 60 just for the experience. As always, these are in no particular order.

  1. When I cut off my hair he greeted me at the door and said, you look like a guy i’m going to have to start fucking you from behind. I said, keep talking like that and you’re never fucking me again.
  2. He hit on our friends in front of me and then he’d deny it.
  3. He hit on strangers and told me about it afterwards.
  4. In ten years of marriage, I can’t remember him telling me I looked nice more than few times.
  5. He told me we were sexually incompatible yet wasn’t open to discussing how to make things better. He didn’t like me being on top because he “didn’t feel anything” but never made suggestions. So now I just think I’m lousy in bed and will warn any potential lovers of that fact. Oh wait, there won’t be any.
  6. At a party, he walked up to a friend of ours and said, let’s pretend we’re having an affair. She said no. I don’t know if he was ever actually unfaithful, I’m not sure I care.
  7. He told me I was silly.
  8. I don’t remember him helping around the house after I had brain surgery apart from setting me up on the sofa bed.
  9. He always chose his mother over me, something which continues to resonate as he says his new girlfriend is a lot like his mother. My mother told me a story where here my babcia (father’s mother) came to visit and found my mother ironing his boxers. My babcia told my mother that if her son wanted his boxers ironed he could do it himself. That’s what I expected from my marriage, that he would do for himself but he never did.
  10. He has continued to text me now that we are divorced and he always asks if I’m seeing someone. It feels more like a temperature check than actual concern.
  11. When my father told him he could help around the house more his response was, that’s not part of my culture.
  12. Not long after taking his second postdoc my ex told the head of the department that his study was flawed because the sample size was too small. My ex was out by the end of the year. The reason he was given was not enough money. That’s the reason he gave me. He told my mother about the discussion with the department head but he never told me. I just found out about this conversation a month ago.
  13. He stopped telling me I was sexy.
  14. No was seldom no with him and he would badger until I acquiesced. For example, he hounded me about having dinner with his new girlfriend for two months before I finally realised he was not going to stop until I joined them for dinner.
  15. When I was packing I found our ketubah in a stack of my photographs. He put it with my stuff to get it out of the house. He didn’t want single Jewish women coming over and seeing our marriage contract on the wall. He actually told me this, so I’m not making an assumption. He also said that I wouldn’t be having guys over that soon. I burned the ketubah at a party marking the first anniversary of our initial filing.
  16. He left all of the household chores to me, but didn’t give me time to complete them. He would schedule time with friends or family on the weekends which was the only time I was home. Then he’d complain that the house was a mess. The biggest ongoing arguments that we had were over the division of labour. I expected equal participation and he expected me to do it all.
  17. He picked on my father for not having a college education.
  18. He texted a mutual friend after I left for work, worried about their relationship. She reminded him that they didn’t have a relationship. When it finally sank in that she was not interested in him he sent her a long, condescending email.
  19. He stopped taking care of himself. When we agreed to divorce he was nearly 300lbs. I would come home from work and he would still be in his bathrobe, un-showered, either watching television or playing video games. Now I like big men, but there’s a limit. When we decided to split up he bought a cross-trainer and lost 100lbs.
  20. He says I hurt him as much as he hurt me, which is interesting in light of how quickly he has moved on. They met in October 2015, started seeing each other exclusively in November 2015, and she’s living with him as of September 2016. That doesn’t strike me as the behaviour of someone who has an emotional investment in a relationship. That strikes me as the behaviour of someone who moved on long ago.
  21. He wanted us to go to counseling but insisted that I find the therapist. When the therapist started calling him on his nonsense he stopped going.
  22. One night, he was driving me to a therapy appointment and he harangued me about how I wasn’t there for him, how he needed me to be there for him. When I asked what he needed me to do he said things like. I need you to be strong. I don’t need you to be depressed. He dropped me off. I loped into the therapist’s office and relayed the evening’s events to him. Do you think this marriage can be saved, he asked? I’m beginning to think not, I replied.
  23. He started dating while we were still legally married.
  24.  He asked to use my AAA membership so he could get a tow to a tire store-after the divorce became final
  25. He told me if I did not find a place to live by october 2015 he was going to charge me rent. Then asked what I thought was fair.
  26. I began to fear him.

It’s very easy to look at this list, and the previous list, and say that’s it? That’s all he did? Well, he didn’t cheat on you (that you know of). He didn’t hit you? These seem like petty grievances. Couldn’t you patch things up? Did you try to reconcile, give each other a second chance? The short answer is no. There was no fix to our marriage. If anything we limped along for too long.

There were several factors in my decision to leave. The first was that I did not want to go through the emotional wringer of trying to have a child with him again. With each implantation and subsequent failure his mood swings became more extreme. His job situation was precarious at best. Unable to get a faculty position, he has been working from grant-to-grant for the past few years. I like being the breadwinner, don’t get me wrong, but it does take two incomes. I couldn’t take the uncertainty. His behaviour has become stranger and more erratic. He would be driving and all of a sudden he would shudder in his seat. We would be walking and suddenly he would speed up and his arm would flail over his head. He would have these strange spasms when he sat in a chair or on the couch. He got more rigid, more feral. It was all very, very strange.

I felt less safe around him. When asked if I was ever worried if he would hit me, I said no. I was worried he would rape me. His sex drive was formidable and he’d stopped seeing me as a person long ago. He saw me as a person once, then as a potential breeder. When I couldn’t have children, I was of no use. I was no longer valid. I was no longer a she, more of an it. Much the same way he saw porn actresses he saw on the internet. He told me they are not people to him, just things. I watched myself become a thing. He’d behaved inappropriately towards me before-pinching my nipples in the kitchen slapping me on the ass at my friends’ house. Then I remembered a night not long after we were married. I was asleep. He came into the bedroom, got into bed, lay on top of me and started kissing me and hiking up my nightgown. I awoke with a 260lb man on top of me. I told him no and he stopped, fortunately, but I’m not sure he was all that interested in my consent that night. Maybe he thought he was being passionate. When I asked him about it later he said he’d been watching porn and wanted to have sex with me. I said, next time wake me up first. It’s moments like these that make me think I will never have sex again. That my need for control is such that I will never allow a man to be in charge. That I will never allow for moments of passion like these. Then I think, no, I just like to be awake during sex.