When Beauty Makes You Vulnerable

By
Photo: Getty Images

Perfection is a moving target. This week, the Cut explores the allure of trying to achieve the impossible.

I’d met Olivier the summer before, at my grandmother’s house by the Mediterranean shore. He was a writer, around my father’s age, with youthful bright-blue eyes and a heavily lined face. He and I had sat along the dune fence and talked about our work, and how lonely it could be at times, while my grandmother and his girlfriend leaped to keep the paper plates from blowing away across the sand. I liked the way he spoke, funny and thoughtful. I asked him for advice and he was generous with it.

Several months later, he wrote to me to say he was in Paris, and invited me out for a drink. I didn’t reply, though I didn’t allow myself to wonder why. Eventually, my grandmother called. Olivier was hurt that I hadn’t responded, she said. She scolded me, asked me not to be rude. I put down my phone and stared at it, then made myself pick it up again. I called Olivier and set a time to see him that evening, but as we spoke some harder part of me took over. I found myself smoothly inventing a dinner date that would force me to leave early. I hung up feeling an anxiety I refused to name. Olivier was my grandmother’s friend, I reminded myself, and we would talk about books again. It would be pleasant. It would be nice to have an older writer as a mentor, and this was something I could figure out how to have. Other women knew how to navigate these things and I was no longer so young. Later, I put on a short black dress, tights, high black boots, and a leather jacket. I hesitated a split second before the mirror. Perhaps this wasn’t the right thing to wear. I felt a compulsion, one I had difficulty controlling, every time I got dressed. I thought I would feel powerful if I felt beautiful. I knew so many women who were both. I had worn this outfit the day before, just to sit alone in a café. I applied lipstick. I was already, as always, running late.

Olivier stood waiting for me in the middle of the Rue Montorgueil, his arms held out, palms toward me. My walk toward him stretched into slow-motion. My arms swung stiffly by my side, self-consciously casual. I couldn’t remember how they usually moved.

“You look ravishing,” he said.

“This is my Parisian look,” I said, my tone defensive. I had lived in Paris for nearly two years at that point, and I was still struggling to master the elegance. Now, with Olivier’s eyes on me, I regretted the dress acutely.

“I was hoping I’d be able to take you out for dinner,” he said.

“Ah,” I said, “well. As I told you …”

“Shall we get a drink then?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, and he beamed.

“I would take you to that café there,” he said, pointing to a gleaming brasserie, “but it’s been two months since they’ve seen me. They would fall all over me.”

He took me instead to a place with hand-lettering on the window — a run-down café whose grit, he told me, was authentic. He chose a table on the terrace and sat down facing me, then adjusted his body so that he was nearly in profile, legs spread wide and one elbow resting on the tabletop.

I don’t remember the specifics of what we talked about, only that the conversation flowed easily and at some point he cried. He hinted at something he was trying to escape; I asked and he told me he couldn’t talk about it now. Then he told me anyway, a story he’d told me before, about a deep childhood pain. He touched my arm repeatedly, jabs that reached across the table. The way he looked at me made me aware of my eyes, of my skin, aware of my cheekbones that had begun to show that year. I kept my arms firmly crossed in front of my chest and never took off my jacket. I tried to talk about neutral things. I asked about his writing as if we were colleagues. At one moment, to illustrate a truth about what I don’t remember, he reached toward me and pressed the backs of his fingers against my cheek. I started. I asked him about his girlfriend. He said things weren’t going well. I tried to tell him about my girlfriend, but the subject soon changed.

He read aloud to me from the book he had with him. I tried to tell him about my mother, how she hadn’t known how to protect me from men. He interrupted me with a long story that never related back to what I’d said. Then he asked what I’d been saying, and I continued. He nodded absently while I spoke.

He told me things that he said he could only express in metaphors. Life was a sphere, and there was a point in the center that had moved far off balance. “Who knows why anything happens,” he said, “why sometimes love works with a woman and sometimes it doesn’t.”

He said, “You know, Nadja, you’re brilliant. I noticed it the first time I met you. Truly.” His tone was insistent, as if he expected to be contradicted. I blushed and looked down. What else could I say but no-no, no-no? Later, I thought about this moment often. Maybe I should have simply said, “Thank you.”

The conversation rolled on — the supernatural, imagination, and despair.

I thought of my mother, my grandmother, my friends. Other women wielded their beauty with power. When I was alone in front of the mirror, I splayed my fingers across my stomach so that they crisscrossed the vertical scars of my stretch-marks. I compressed myself backward toward my spine until I gasped for breath. Since adolescence, my body had strained and fought against my skin. I longed to be smaller, to be self-contained, to be an object with boundaries that could be grasped in someone else’s hands. But when I lost weight, as I had that year, for reasons that seemed to me as unknowable as when I gained it, my heart pounded and surged with fear. Walking down the street, I felt breakable and raw — a protective layer stripped away. The weight of other people’s eyes and expectations was more than I knew how to carry.

I longed to be beautiful, it consumed my thoughts; I longed to be desired, and rarely felt I was, but when desire came it drowned me. I thought of my mother, my grandmother, my friends. My mother never seemed to fear her own beauty. Men declared their love for her brazenly. They knew she owed them nothing. Men asked her to marry them with a wink at the end, and my mother smiled and the air stayed light. Olivier kept touching my arm. How do you say no when nothing has been asked of you? I was 26. I should have learned these things by now.

“Are you okay?” Olivier asked.

I snapped my head toward him. I insisted quickly that I was fine. The last few minutes were a complete blank. I had no idea what he’d said or how my face had looked. It was even possible that I had shut my eyes and fallen asleep.

Olivier walked me home. As soon as we left the café, my memory of the afternoon flattened into a blurred space where everything and nothing had been said all at once. I talked quickly, as if kicking dirt over a hole. I told him I was afraid of crossing Parisian streets. Once, I told him, a car turning left through a crosswalk had hit me. I’d rolled over the hood and onto the ground. The driver, an older woman, had apologized profusely. She had asked for a hug and I’d given her one. It was only once I’d walked away that I’d felt the pain in my knees, the fear and anger flooding through me.

Olivier pushed me playfully into the middle of the street, guiding me across a boulevard at an angle far from the crosswalks.

“Time to get over your fears,” he said, his hand on my arm. I laughed nervously.

“I’ll be in Paris all week,” he said. “Perhaps we can see each other again.”

“I need to be alone this week,” I said. “Maybe next time you’re in town …”

I walked us past my door to the corner, then said I was late for my dinner. I kissed him quickly on each cheek and spun on my heel.

Back in my apartment, with the door closed behind me, the numbness faded. My body filled with the delayed emotions. Heat spread through my chest, shame and guilt. It should have been easy. It should have been simple. We should have been able to talk about writing. Things had gone wrong, and I knew I was to blame.

I thought of my mother, my grandmother, my friends. Other women knew how to stay in control. Other women knew how to say no. Other women did not feel so easily devastated. Other women, other women, other women. Other women would not have eaten a bag of candy that night, chewing methodically, waiting until they could no longer feel their cheekbones.