I am so beautiful I have been maimed by men's attentions

All my life, men have slavered over my looks, never seeing me as a capable woman with a genius IQ.

By Cary Tennis

Published May 31, 2005 7:23PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My problem is painful and yet so idiotic and improbable I feel awkward writing you about it. But I need another perspective, and yours is usually so helpful and compassionate. Basically, I was a beauty at 14 and it maimed me. Men would glom onto me in a trance-like state until I married at 22, and then afterward they still glommed onto me. They would honk their horns, whistle, shout, walk into walls, stand beside me and stare in a stupor. I got sexually harassed at work and thought it was my fault. I got love letters from men I didn't know. I got propositioned constantly when I was married although I didn't dress provocatively and I didn't flirt. I could just be reading or something and some guy would wander over and try to pick me up. Clerks would give me free stuff and waiters would flirt even though my ex was right there. It was so dumb -- I could have been an ax murderer and they would have accepted it because of my looks. I felt like the only deer at a shooting party -- a target of unwelcome, unwanted, bewildering and frightening attention.

I have a genius IQ, a graduate degree, and everything I've really cared about professionally I have excelled at. I could have made something of my life, but my looks shut me down because all the unearned attention freaked me out. I married the first guy who treated me well, and as it turns out, my looks were the most important thing to him, too.

In my marriage I started to get some identity and started to rebel against being treated like an object, and I put on weight. My ex would get angry at my slightest weight gain, and would act out including weighing me and measuring my food, and doing stuff like peering in food cartons in the pantry when he got home from work to see how much was left. After I had my child he was so upset at the remaining weight while I was nursing that I had to stop nursing because he made my life hell with looks, remarks and neurotic behavior. Needless to say, I just put on more weight after that.

The problem now, seven years after my divorce, is that I am still pretty but very overweight -- I need to lose about 60 pounds. I can't seem to make myself get back in shape, although I feel bad physically at this weight and my health has suffered. My joints ache and I am sure I'm pre-diabetic if not actually diabetic. My finances are in the toilet, my credit is shot, my career is nonexistent, and I don't have health insurance. I am so depressed because my life has been such a failure. Most of all, I'm lonely. I was hoping I would meet someone right now who could see the real me, and accept me, and that way I could take the weight off knowing I had someone to whom my appearance didn't really matter. But in our superficial culture, most men won't even look at me. I feel like if I lose the weight nothing good will come of it -- I will just attract the same types of men who glommed onto me before, that my ex has won, and he was right, that the most important thing about me is my looks. Yes, I've been in therapy about it, and we talked about this rebellious reaction and about boundaries so I could fend off unwelcome advances. But like men with money who attract gold diggers, women who are very pretty can never know if the men flocking around them are doing so for the right reasons. While you can hide and protect your finances, your looks are out there for the world to see and judge. I can't see a way out, can you?

Not Just Another Pretty Face

Dear Not Just Another Pretty Face,

Of course I can see a way out. I'm not sure I can get it across to you with sufficient force and clarity, but I will try. The way out is to stop focusing on yourself as an object. Instead, focus on action. Focus on doing what you want to do. Find things you enjoy doing, things that allow you to forget about yourself.

It may take some work to find these things. We'll get to that in a minute. First I want to backtrack to show how I reached this conclusion. The fact that women are sexually objectified in our society is a problem. It's interesting, actually, that you referred to yourself as "maimed," as that is what seems to have happened -- you have been deprived of the use of a member, crippled. Luckily, you have not been maimed physically, but mentally. The "member" you have lost the use of is your creative ability. Because you still have a creative mind, however, you can change your thinking and get back on your feet.

The damage of objectification occurs when we begin to unconsciously mimic our objectifiers; perhaps because they have the power and we want that power, we take their view as ours; we internalize their assessment. As we do this over a period of years we also neglect to develop the activities that truly do give us pleasure and a feeling of accomplishment. That is what I mean by becoming an object rather than taking action. And that is what you mean, I think, when you say you have been maimed -- although I would say it is more like you have been stunted, constrained, starved. Unlike a woman whose feet have been bound, for instance, you can, with proper nourishment, regain full use of your "limb."

So without exonerating society, I must say that you yourself now must take responsibility for ending your own objectification. In order to stop seeing yourself as an object, you must find a way to plunge into activity.

Perhaps you do not even know what you enjoy. You say you excelled at the professional things you cared about. Does caring about them mean that you enjoyed them? By enjoy I mean activities that allow you to forget about yourself, activities that are so entrancing, so involving that while you are doing them you are simply in the flow, in the sense that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the word.

I do not think that Csikszentmihalyi's theories, or anyone's theories, offer a complete answer. But they do offer a vivid picture of how ecstatic action can free us from a state of restless torpor and low-level desperation. They also suggest a route from self-objectification to self-actualization. I do think in your case that perhaps a series of life-changing experiences can change the way you think about yourself.

For the time being, eliminate any thoughts concerning your own beauty or lack of it. Your own appearance is irrelevant for now. What is important is finding things you can enjoy doing, regardless of whether anyone is watching you or not. What do you like to do? If you have a genius IQ, does that mean that you enjoy intellectual tasks? What kind? Crossword puzzles, chess, cards, mathematics, drawing, reading, music? What were you trained in? Were those things that you cared about? Is there a vision of life that excites you? What are you doing in that vision? Are you playing the piano? Skiing? Baking?

This is a lot of mental exploration to do on your own. And you may find yourself feeling destitute as you abandon your dependence on men's approval of your body. So I would suggest you find a therapist who can give you some support as you take these actions. Personally, in your case, I like the idea of using cognitive therapy. It makes so much sense! Your problem is so clear and defined! Unlike some people who have been the victims of terrible abuse or suffer from debilitating addictions or mental impairment, you present a clear cognitive model of what needs to happen. You simply need to identify a set of activities you can engage in regularly and become expert at. (Of course, there may be more to it than that; you may also need someone who can work with you to restore your sense of self-worth. So it's up to you. Just get somebody who can help you do what you need to do.)

I know that sounds like an oversimplification. Life is indeed complex and full of surprises. But this is something simple and concrete you can do today to change your life. So give it a try. Actify, don't objectify!

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