Saturday, September 15, 2007

On Losing My Looks

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 didn't.

That had 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 in to 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 non-stop and we got pretty good at fending off 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 is more, she was flattered by them.

I can remember that in those days, whenever I complained about unwanted male attention, someone would always annoyingly remark that one day I'd miss it.

It's true, sort of. I thought about this watching the scene in Knocked Up in which Leslie Mann’s character Debbie, gorgeous and gorgeously decked out in a spangled dress, is denied entry to a club because she is “too old.”

That moment arrives for different women at different times (who knows when it arrives in Italy) but almost everyone eventually has a moment of revelation. You have become invisible; no one is looking at you. 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 ingĂ©nue and it's not you.”

So do I miss it? Not the catcalls and whistles, certainly. But I have to admit that genuine admiration is never unwelcome. I don’t expect it, but last summer I received my favorite street compliment ever. 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 African-American man. “Nice arms!” he called out. “You've been working out!” And I had. And somebody noticed.

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