By Beth Cartino
“Don’t you secretly want to be fuckable?”
We were in my small kitchen and I was cutting her bangs when she asked me this. I had just finished dying her hair to cover the course white wires that were sprouting and multiplying on her scalp. I froze for an instant comb and shears halted in midair and then…
“No,” I said the word with conviction. Her brown eyes peered up at me through her thick dark brown hair, I could feel her assessing my answer trying to decide if it was the truth, and I looked way from her focusing instead on making sure her bangs weren’t crooked. We were both silent for a while and I moved around to the side and began to cut in long layers to frame her oval face (the perfect face shape according to every fashion magazine ever). Into the silence and safely unable to make eye contact with me she says, “I always want guys to want me, you know? I’m single and I’m almost fifty.”
I hear the unasked question in the slight tremble that enters her voice and the way it raises in pitch at the end.
What if no one ever wants me again?
What if this is it?
What if I die alone?
As I continued cutting her hair, I didn’t confess my own insecurities. Instead, I talked about cultural constructs of beauty, gender and how we don’t teach men that the true measure of their self-worth is their fuckablity quotient the way we do women. We teach girls that everyone should want to fuck them but they should never fuck anyone or they will be a slut. Girls are often taught they should have no sexual desires of their own but should be pristinely fuckable and untouchable all at the same time, while we teach boys their worth is based on conquest and hyper masculinity. There is nothing worse for a boy then to be a virgin, a sissy, a girl. I talked and talked and talked mostly to avoid the original question.
I lied and then I shut her down because my own desires and insecurities make the question impossible to answer. I wanted to believe then and still do want to believe that I know better than that, that I am a feminist and I don’t need a man to want to fuck me in order to prove my self-worth.
When I was twelve my best friend and I snuck up to her dad’s loft one night when he was gone and looked at his Penthouse Magazine with the centerfold of the recently de-crowned Miss America, Vanessa Williams. My friend and I giggled and flipped through the pages over and over again. In them Vanessa was with another woman and they are caressing each other’s naked bodies nipples barely touching, backs arched. In one picture one woman is going down on the other woman. I remember wondering if that was what boys wanted. I remember my friend and I talking about if boys liked girls better if girls kissed each other. We talked about kissing each other and then decided it was too gross and weird. The thing that strikes me looking back is that we didn’t think in terms of whether the pictures made us feel anything, (speaking only for myself the answer is yes they did.) but rather how could we use what we saw in those pictures so that boys would find us more desirable.
In 2010 I began taking a forty hour basic advocacy training so that I could volunteer on the local domestic violence and sexual assault hotline. I had been in therapy working through my own sexual abuse history and had decided I wanted to become a social worker like my therapist. I was starting to feel whole again and I wanted to help others who had experienced something similar to my trauma.
The training was held at the local YWCA and met in the evening five days a week for a month. Every night at the back of the conference room there were tables filled with candy, chocolate, store bought cookies, home baked goods and a sad tray of veggies wilting at the far corner of the table because no one wants broccoli after four hours of talking about rape, domestic violence, and systemic oppression. At the end of one training on rape culture I was walking out with a woman and she said, “Now I feel guilty for liking high heels.”
I smiled at her and said, “The point isn’t that you should or shouldn’t wear high heels or mini- skirts or make up or whatever you want to wear if it makes you feel good. The point is you should be able to wear those things without fearing for your safety.” I meant what I said and yet I had spent days judging her for those impossibly high and spiky heels she wore to the training every night and her tall thin willowy stature, her perfect A-line haircut that framed her beautiful face so well.
Shortly after I had my daughter I met a woman who had a baby about the same age and we struck up a friendship. The first year with a new baby is lonely and I was very grateful to her for striking up conversations whenever we bumped into each other at the park or at story time at the library. I had recently gone back to school to get my Masters in Social Work and was working on a college campus meeting with students, mostly younger girls who had been sexually assaulted or were in abusive relationships. One afternoon my friend and I were at the park talking about my new internship position. We were pushing our daughters in the baby swings and she said to me, “I guess I was just lucky that nothing like that has ever happened to me. I partied pretty hard in college.”
My heart nose- dived to the bottom of my stomach. I was beginning to realize how little progress we had actually made in addressing prevailing beliefs about rape and rape culture’s influence on those beliefs. Day after day I sat in private rooms with girls who were telling me that it was their fault because they had too much to drink. Or that they shouldn’t have accepted the guys offer to sleep on his couch even though the alternative was to sleep outside. Or that it wasn’t rape because they had been dating for so long and on and on and on.
I turned and looked my friend in the eye and said, “I believe that every young girl has the right to make bad decisions without the consequence of being raped.” She looked away and she nodded. We pushed the girls in the swing and listened to their joy at the sensation of being whisked through the air and then she said, “But that’s not how it is.”
I wonder what I will tell my daughter about boys and men and attractiveness when she asks. She is almost six and we have already begun having conversations about consent, respecting peoples no’s and not touching others if they don’t want to be touched. We have talked about how there are many kinds of love and many ways of being together. Last summer a dear friend of mine married his longtime partner and when my husband and I were getting ready to go she told me in all seriousness, “Boys can’t marry boys, mama.”
“Yes they can.” I said, as in my brain I thought, where the fuck did she learn that?
“Well, that’s weird.” She said in a matter of fact tone and that’s when it dawned on me that she had only experienced the world as a place where mommy’s and daddy’s are people who got married. I have since made a point to talk with her more about love and all the different ways a family can be.
My daughter has recently begun to worry about being pretty and people recognizing her as a girl. She has short hair and likes wearing “boys” and “girls” cloths but she gets frustrated when people call her a he. One night during bath time she said to me, “Mama, I really hate it when people call me a he because I feel very deeply inside of me that I am a girl.”
“It’s unfair,” I said, “that people think you are a boy because of your short hair and Captain America sweatshirt, huh?” She nodded and I felt the sudden pressure of tears flooding my eyes.
She says she knows that girls are supposed to be pretty and have long hair and wear dresses but she also likes ninja turtles and Darth Vader and wearing cool hoodies. I see her trying to make sense of what gender is and what it means to her and some days I live in dread of what will happen when she begins to worry about her looks, her attractiveness, her fuckablity. It is inevitable and it breaks my heart.
Most of my life I have secretly and not so secretly wished I was classically fuckable even as I have hated this secret desire. What does that phrase even mean? I don’t know, I just made it up. The image that comes to mind is not me and never has been me. In my head it is some strange amalgam of sewn together body parts, fuckenstien maybe, or perhaps the bride of fuckenstien? This amalgam is mostly made up of celebrity body parts, women broken into pieces, components, juicy lips, big, but not too big, breasts, slender waists, round taut ass, long legs, and tight shaved pussies. These pieces are then reconfigured to create the perfect fuckable, mythical beast.
I am ashamed that I have these thoughts. That in the many years I have been working to eradicate this toxic notion from my mind it remains stubbornly rooted in my psyche. In what ways, I wonder, am I unconsciously passing these idea’s down to my daughter? In what ways do I have absolutely zero control of my daughter’s consumption of these messages about what it means to be female. It terrifies me and when I hear a recording of our president talking about grabbing women by the pussy I am enraged, mortified, and terrified of the world my daughter will inherit. And then there is that part of me that thinks of course he would say that and think it is acceptable and it isn’t just locker room talk or boys being boys it is the ugly reality of how little we have managed to change. It is the atmosphere through which we navigate our lives only occasionally recognizing how polluted that atmosphere truly is. It is the idea and worry that persists deep within us about attractiveness, desirability, and self-worth.
I hear people say that we have come a long way and in some ways I agree but we are fooling ourselves if we don’t think we still have a long journey ahead of us. Just look at who we have in the office of president. Look at the Stanford rape case. Or ask anyone working on a sexual assault crisis line. Take a look inside your mind and ask yourself this question. Don’t worry because no one but you will know the answer.
Don’t you secretly want to be fuckable?
Beth Cartino is a teller of tales and a listener of stories. Beth has a B.A. in Film and a Masters of Social Work. In her day job Beth works with folks experiencing severe and persistent mental illness. When Beth isn’t doing social workie things or writerly things she likes to read, work on puzzles with her partner, and sing silly made up songs with her daughter.