I’m not sure what I looked like when I took Tae Kwon Do in college, but I received a B- when I thought I moved like an A+. My husband saw a picture of me at that age and thought I was 12. I had Betty Page bangs, but I didn’t wear the accompanying makeup. I would have looked like a twelve-year-old wearing makeup.
I’m not always sure what I look like today, moving around in my thirty-three-year-old body, but it is not the look I want. I know this because of how a lot of people respond to me. After giving a poetry reading, reading poems that have no reference to my appearance, a fifty-something woman comes up to me and says, “Oh, wes, wou do have a waby fwace,” as if my face really was a baby’s. The handyman stutters after I explain I am not a student, but a professor at the local university. The woman behind the greens table at the farmers’ market looks at me and leans in before I even ask for swiss chard, assuming I’m timid and inaudible.
I don’t know if customer service people on the phone assume how old I am, but I’ve never been relieved from having to repeat my name again and again and again. It makes me feel six. Carrie is never heard as Carrie. Mary, Gary, Carol, Karen . . . Larry. I try to say it slowly. I’ve started repeating it in any situation before anyone’s asked. It makes me feel like I was born yesterday. Just given my name, and I’m still trying it out. My mumbling is paired with this baby face that has never burned off.
My father would put a mirror up to my face when, as a child, I wouldn’t stop crying.
“Is this how you want to look?” he would ask. He had a short temper when we were young, and despite this or times like when he would jump off the tractor, pick us up by the coat, and yell in our frozen faces for not helping correctly with the farm work, I didn’t consider him unkind. He cried at sitcoms like Full House. He cried more than my mother. He said he wouldn’t trade any of us four daughters for the boy he never had. The older I became, the more I recognized his fits of temper as frustration.
Today, I do think my crying is quite ugly, more than a typical crier’s. I know exactly what I look like without having to look.
Is this how I want to look? Is this how I want to look? Sometimes I would want to start laughing, because I thought my father was being childish. One time I thought even if my dad had a point, I’d fix the problem by the time I had grown up. I’d look like Cybill Shepard while crying.
“It’s how you carry yourself,” my friend said quietly, breaking down from my constant fretting over being told I look young.
“Fake it to you feel it,” an ex-lover told me once, explaining how he lived his life and tried to improve himself. He had told me of one summer in his mid-twenties he spent mostly paralyzed with one of his worst bouts of anxiety, laying in bed and sweating in an un-air-conditioned room he rented at the top of a house. Somehow he faked his way out of this feeling. He would never admit to our friends that we were sleeping together. I was too young to date, he felt.
How much can I fake my face? Not all of me looks younger than I am. Should I figure out how to pull maturity from these older parts? I start to dissect myself by what of me is too young and what of me looks like it ran ahead. My calves are young calves, chicken legs from the knee down. When I wear dresses, I watch for my calves in reflections, and they look like a teen girl’s on her way to perform at a recital. My thighs are old thighs. They look older than thirty-three, soft with plenty of cellulite, victims of my tall frame that makes me pretend I don’t need to work out. It might be that my body is a struggle between too young and too old.
When you look young, people think they know you. Young equals vulnerable. Everyone knows vulnerable. You can say what you like to the vulnerable, unless they are too vulnerable, so vulnerable you don’t want to even consider them as vulnerable. In this case, you look away or pretend like you’re not looking at anyone unusual.
Alice Neel’s portraits often depicted people to look their oldest. She looked hard. She said that after a day of painting she would feel weary and like she had no self left. I saw her 2010 exhibition Alice Neel: Painted Truths in Houston, TX, and thought even the children in her paintings looked lived out. Neel would often paint portraitures to reflect their historical context or class, which made her an odd duck during the time of abstract expressionism. This lean toward a type of realism was paired with her attempt to include some kind of psychological depth to her subjects, which was also considered outdated amongst the trend of the deconstructed and defamiliarized figure.
It was hard not to feel influenced by the exhibition’s framing of Neel’s importance. She painted against the trends, she was a loner, a best-kept secret, she managed to get Andy Warhol to take off his shirt and allow her to paint his scars from his gunshot wounds. I loved Neel’s work in that museum, first, because the style of the portraiture was simply different. The people did look wrung out or vulnerable. Despite Neel’s claims that she felt like she would lose who she was while painting, it looked like it cost her subjects something, too. In the depictions of Upper East Side New Yorkers or famous writers, I see not a psychological portrait but a subject of whom something has been teased out and not allowed in the painting.
While Neel said she lost her sense of a self when she painted, she also said that painting kept her from her aloneness to the outside world. Part of me is turned off by her position, the idea that she could tap into something psychological about the person and depict it. How unfair. And to put this perspective into a painting, which is a series of moments, a process, rather than one moment that could just be excused as a moment, is not a rushed, unmindful act. I do, though, love judging people and sizing them up and figuring them out. It feels unstoppable, the itch to read people. But what parts are being teased out and not allowed in? I can’t figure out if my self-deemed skills are a defense because others often read me, or if I look young because I have been so busy reading others, I haven’t gone anywhere. Maybe my face is stuck.
Some subjects sat more than once for Neel despite her depictions. They didn’t seem to care. Was it the ego of being a desired subject? Surely this must have been it and not the ability to separate yourself from someone’s representation of you. A friend who was with me at the exhibition said she would like to write prose poems about people with the same intention as Neel’s. I was mortified. Stay away from me. How easy it must be to think you can read someone who looks young. How likely it was that she was telling me this because she had no intention of writing about me.
Already at four years old, beginning to exercise the inner vs. outer self, I assumed everyone could see me. I started scheming what they would see. I had more than one severe crush on boys at preschool, and I hoped they could tell. It was a Lutheran preschool in Minnesota, and during Sunday morning church, I remember trying to fan my church service bulletin flirtatiously when a boy I liked from preschool was ushered out with his parents. I tried to look away, because I learned somewhere on TV that this was effective. I thought I was good at pretending to be preoccupied. My family sat in the back rows of church that were reserved for families with newborns, as my dad thought it looked ostentatious to sit in the front, or even the middle or the tail end of the middle.
During bathroom breaks at preschool, I encouraged other little girls to twirl around in front of the sinks and become Wonder Woman before going back to class. I don’t know what I would have looked like to an adult, but in my mind I was a badass when I sat back down in class. I knew what a badass was. I had watched reruns of Wonder Woman on T.V., and she was a badass. I’d seen edited James Bond movies on ABC, and I did not know why Pussy Galore was a dirty name, except that it made my parents fidget uncomfortably when Bond said it. Surprising to me now, my modest parents loved to watch Bond movies with us kids. They had the idea that anything aired before 9 p.m. was okay for us to watch. I thought it was particularly powerful for a woman to have a dirty name like Pussy Galore. Or, at least, she first acted powerful when she met Bond.
At preschool, when I came back from bathroom break as Wonder Woman, my teacher likely noticed nothing while I thought everyone knew I looked different.
“We’ll be better than the boys,” I tried to urge my four-year-old girlfriends when attempting to convince them to twirl and achieve superpowers. I don’t know if they had any idea what I was talking about. I don’t think I did, but I thought I felt it. Playing Wonder Woman wasn’t just about her gear, skills, and plane. It was about tapping into something that felt grown up.
“Well now, she’s the prettiest thing, that baby face!” said an old man in the produce section while bagging himself some green peppers. I was sitting in the kid’s seat of the cart, grocery shopping with my mom around this age of preschool and crying into mirrors. I wonder what I looked like in the seat. I loved shopping with my mom as it felt like a just-you-and-me event, my two older sisters at school. I doubt there were even red bell peppers in our town’s grocery store.
“She must be the mailman’s daughter. The only blonde!” the old man added. I didn’t know him, but he knew my sisters were brunettes.
“Well, there are blondes on Wally’s side of the family,” mom said, kind of smiling but not really.
I knew that my mom felt pushed. Even then I knew what a dirty old man was, and that he gestured at me the way a dirty old man does. The usual dirty eye-twinkle. I can’t remember this scene without thinking I knew this already. This feeling that something was wrong would accumulate with other similar moments. These experiences would break out into categories, of which this moment would be known as one of those creepy man encounters. Maybe I didn’t understand the look yet, but I understood the feeling after the look, that something was slightly trapped or unsettled, realizing I was.
My mother has this way of stopping time with her face. While everything freezes, fear trickles down from the top of her skull, pushing out any color from her face. She worries about everything from egg salad sitting out more than ten minutes, to a criminal glancing at the account number on her checkbook, to the horror of a library book one day overdue. I have inherited this, and my husband quickly caught on to the moments when time stops for me and I worry in paralysis.
Once as a young teen, I was walking in the mall with my mother and sisters.
“God, he must have a thing for blondes,” my mom said, like she was simultaneously trying to spit out and wad up paper with her mouth. She sounded disgusted and scared. I didn’t know at first that she was talking about me. I didn’t turn around to see what the man looked like who had just walked by and leered at me. My face felt red.
“Don’t turn around. Don’t look!” mom spat, as if I would look. Just by commenting on the look this man had given me, I felt like my mother wasn’t protecting me. I also wondered what was wrong with how I looked, that would make someone leer at me.
When I was a teenager, my mother also said to me that she would rather be killed after being raped than survive. It felt like advice. My face felt gray. It seemed like bad advice, and I didn’t know what else was out there.
I have felt most young when I’ve felt most vulnerable. That afternoon in the mall I felt most vulnerable after the fact, after the moment. Can you fake feeling not vulnerable, or anything but vulnerable? I couldn’t that day, because it was unexpected. You can only be good at faking things if you know the time is coming for you to fake it.
When a woman has been leered at and catcalled, she has to fake that she didn’t hear or see it. If you can’t fake it in time then you must appear unaffected. When a woman has been leered at and catcalled enough times, it is no longer unexpected. A lot of normal, stable, respectful men may think that means it eventually is expected. That you think something of yourself and expect random hoots on the street. I mean, instead, that it is infuriating and unsurprising, and this is different. Infuriating and unsurprising with a dull, quiet annoyance that can slip up into rage or down into “whatever.”
I read a blogger’s account once of being harassed on the street. Particularly stirring was the most chilling incident of a harasser calling out to her, “Little girl . . .little girl . . .” When the author turned around the man realized she was a lot older, in her thirties, than she looked from behind. He, unsettlingly, became embarrassed and stammered, “I . . . I thought you were a little girl.”
Other websites solely devote to “fighting against” catcalling. Some sites break reasons for catcalling down into categories like 1. Out of pressure from other men 2. Out of boredom 3. Out of sexual frustration 4. Out of anonymity. There is a website called Hollaback! where you can document on a map with pictures or stories where you have been catcalled. If you can capture your catcaller on film, his face will be blurred out. New York has toyed with the idea of creating no catcalling zones, making it illegal in certain sections of the city. One website advises that dealing with 1. the catcaller and 2. yourself are two separate responses you are going to have to face.
I know that looking young makes me more susceptible to being catcalled and for a longer stretch of my life. At least, that is what some of the women on these blogs, who say they kind of miss being catcalled, would remind me. I wish I had a tight face. Can I convince you of this? A Kim Gordon, Patti Smith-type face or one that is headed that way. I am aloof by nature, and this creates a kind of prickliness, but I can’t do much with this baby face. I have tried with gazes and makeup and ended up looking like a porcelain doll. Not an untouchable porcelain one, either, but a stupid girl whom you want to shake and pull her hair, which I, like many girls, loved doing to my dolls.
It is hard to get people to believe you. When people don’t believe that you detest being catcalled and don’t see it as validation, it feels like a violation. Or simply like you are being handed a pet skunk that everyone calls a puppy.
Once a friend of mine had a summer fling with a poet thirty years older than her. They met when he was a visiting writer at our graduate program. Most of the female grad students claimed to be simply amused by or uncomfortable with the gossip. One young woman, though, declared she was jealous, as if she was breaking out the truth for all of us.
I want to be desired, admired, respected, or something in a particular way without having to be ready to defend myself. It isn’t hard to figure out how to do this without crossing a line. First, you simply need to believe that my previous sentence doesn’t mean I actually want you to cross it.
It is hard to get people to believe you. I’ve always thought this was true, until I realized people often do not want to be convinced.
Looking young for my age isn’t a big deal. I try to convince myself. It means getting carded, getting makeup tips, getting encouragement to enjoy it, getting carbs advice to diet my face to tightness, gasps from a fifteen-year-old cashier at the burger stand who assumes my husband is my dad, students who think I’m a student, and assurance from the cashier at Whole Foods that my face will eventually fall old overnight like hers did.
To some women it is irritating when another says she doesn’t like looking young, that she wished she looked her age. That’s not a surprise. At 33, I’m not young enough for them to snork, “You’re 23 you are young.” Yet, I’m not old enough to have someone older, a 44-year-old mother of two, dismiss me as still young and mock me for looking even younger. I never thought I would have to defend myself, my age and smarts, to someone only a decade older than me. Such a woman likes to emphasize that she was more mature yet wilder than me at my age. At 30, she rode a mechanical bull with her midwife nearly weeks after birth. She eye-rolls at childless me not knowing a thing about life. She has the confidence to be confident. Faked until felt after all these years. Which maybe is confidence.
I’ve been learning to say, “I get that a lot,” without turning color. Without sounding rigid or miffed. It would make me look younger.
Madeline Gins wasn’t concerned with looking young. She was concerned with never dying. Not stopping time but tricking it. “It’s immoral that people have to die,” she once said in an interview. I didn’t know about her until she was dead. She and her husband, Arakawa, are infamous for their architecture that was built for “reversible destiny.” They were trying to delay or even prevent death and stimulate the immune system by throwing the body off, surprising it, confusing it. Gins and Arakawa’s structures house floors that are more like rolling hills, incorporate a couple dozen paint colors, and hold windows that seem either too small or big. Everything about the rooms is focused on creating a difficult and estranged, yet stimulating environment.
Gins said of their structures, “You cannot resolve your view to any one horizon, therefore you become tentative.”
When I first read about the couple in a New York Times article about Gins’ passing, I thought there was something romantic about the couple’s vision. Since they were married, it could seem like that love must have fueled their pursuit. They didn’t want each other to die. But, really, I find sharing a vision more romantic, sustaining the pursuit of reversible destiny. Pursuit fueling love, or partnership. Gins and Arakawa felt “right” about their vision, together.
I don’t know what could age you quicker than being tentative.
The main appeal of reversible destiny, is not that it is immoral that people have to die, but that it is tragic that people have to live any part of their life thinking, “I guess that’s just who I am,” because you only have so much time to deal with, not who you are or who you are going to be, but just you.
What bothers me about looking young is that I am still getting older. Looking young is a kind of faking it without trying. My face is faking it against my will. While I may look young, being in my thirties feels like entering the first wave of irreversible choices. My desire to look my age is a desire to be rid of hesitations. The comfort of the decade before was in delaying decisions. Yet I was mostly a very focused, boring person in my twenties who was always working towards something professionally. What I was putting off was deciding how I wanted to react to things, what my body language should be, how you should look at me.
Carrie Oeding’s first book of poems, Our List of Solutions, is from 42 Miles Press (2011). Her work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Creative Nonfiction, Third Coast, Best New Poets, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Marshall University. You can find more at http://www.carrieoeding.com/