Girl wearing a bikini posing

Like many women, I’ve spent most of my life trying to get hotter and the rest of it trying to make up for still not being hot enough—to reclaim some of the power and privilege I missed out on by not winning the genetic lottery at birth.

To be clear, it’s not lost on me that I am a white, cis, straight-sized, 20-something woman; my body, however short of the aesthetic ideal it may fall, remains more privileged than many.

sex at 26
But listen, I was an ugly kid—ask anyone but my mother. Fortunately for them, my parents didn’t set much store on beauty. If anything, I was the one refusing to wear sneakers in favor of Mary Janes as a child—a precursor to the fact that you’ll rarely if ever catch me out of heels today. But somehow or other—by which I, of course, mean very easily if not inevitably—by about age 4, I’d already managed to internalize the lesson that the most important thing a woman could be was beautiful, because the best thing a woman could be was something men wanted. I may not have understood it in those exact terms as a preschooler watching Disney princes fall for animated beauties with uniformly gargantuan eyes and infinitesimal waistlines, but I got the gist. If I wanted love and all the things that came with it—boyfriends and prom and marriage and kids and happiness, all these markers of a female life supposedly well-lived—I was going to have to figure out some way to get a lot prettier.

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This means all of the usual things. It means there was a not-insignificant period of my life during which I subsisted on Diet Coke, sugar-free gum, and exercise for dinner. It means I’ve spent more money than I have to my name on skincare and hair dye and blowouts and waxing and makeup that somehow never seems to sit quite right on my face. It means I have two fingers more intimately acquainted with the back of my throat than I can likely reveal here without placing a content warning at the top of this story.


I no longer craved love or happiness via the fantasy of marital bliss; I craved power.
I saw beauty as a ticket to the life I wanted or was supposed to want. All this time and mental energy I spent trying to spin something resembling gold out of the hay I’d been dealt didn’t feel like a price worth paying so much as a standard fee, tuition I owed for having been born female. Play by the rules—be pretty, be sexy, be desirable to men—and gain entry to a good life. A normal life. A life made valid and meaningful and acceptable because a man has chosen you.

When playing by those rules only got me so far, however, I resorted to cheating them. Beauty and sex appeal are close cousins, yes, but there are ways of leveraging one to make up for what you lack in the other, and I sniffed them out early on. In middle school, this meant flaunting my premature cleavage and regularly landing myself in the principal’s office. I may not have been pretty or skinny, but damn was I stacked—just ask the JV boys basketball team, whose widely circulated ranking of the hottest girls in our 7th grade class awarded me second place in the Best Tits category. In high school, it meant dating guys who went to the all-boys school—I look better when there’s less competition—and perfecting my oral sex game in the back of their hand-me-down cars. In more recent years, it’s meant dating older men—leaning on my youth as a crutch to support my aesthetic shortcomings—and married ones too, because sometimes the most attractive thing you can be to a man is anyone other than his wife.

By my early 20s, a handful of heartbreaks and the disillusionment that came with them had worn thin my faith in this system of beauty = male attention = happiness. Not only were men and being loved by them not going to save me, but I’d also caught a whiff of the rotten core at the center of the domestic fairytale women are sold from birth. My dalliances with older men—both married and divorced—had provided a glimpse behind the curtain, one that revealed the sobering reality of where women who had played the game more “successfully” ended up.

I’d seen the 30-year forecast of the lives my luckier-in-love peers were signing up for—the stagnant, sexless marriages husbands seemed to step out on so casually and the disdain they had for their wives and ex-wives and mothers of their children—and I didn’t like the looks of it.

Rather, as a sugar baby in the first half of my 20s, I’d come to see attractiveness and sex appeal—or whatever marginal claims to it I’d managed to lay my hands on at the expense of my brain and body—as a chip to cash in, one I’d be wise to play shrewdly and strategically. I no longer craved love or happiness via the fantasy of marital bliss; I craved power. Short skirts and sky-high heels and the toned, bare legs that separated them could, I realized, buy me better things than a life with a man who would one day stop seeing me at all.

In addition to designer shoes and the kinds of experiences my married-at-23 mother never had the chance to dream of, it could buy me freedom to subvert a system that had been stacked against me and all women from birth. Freedom from this trap the world and the men who run it laid out for us in the promise that if we were beautiful and sexy but careful never to capitalize on that beauty or sexiness, then some man would do us the honor of making us little more than a piece of furniture in his stately suburban home and we’d all live happily ever after.


Of course, you don’t need to bang married guys to become disillusioned with the offer men and matrimony present. All it takes is internet access to glimpse the myriad ways men hate women—even, if not especially, the ones they are supposed to love and/or lust after—and aren’t afraid to show it. Social media accounts like @askaubry and @sheratesdogs provide dispatches of Bad Male Behavior from around the World Wide Web to hundreds of thousands of followers, and they never seem to hurt for content—from AITA posts where husbands question whether they’re in the wrong for insisting their wives lose weight to dating app profiles where single men state their demands for the thin, attractive, submissive partners to which the world has told them they have an inalienable right.

Whether we want it or not, women have never had more direct insight into the ways in which men—sure, maybe not all, but certainly more than any of us would like to imagine—struggle or simply refuse to conceive of us as anything other than objects of their lust or scorn, bodies they are entitled to rank and rate and rail against according to our willingness to conform to their standards.

Be ugly and they hate you for not getting their dicks hard. Be hot and they call you a used-up whore no man will ever want (read: for getting their dicks hard but not fucking them personally). Be beautiful and “virginal” and hit all the right marks right on time and they insist they own you.

And we starve and spend and inject poison into our faces for that? For the approval of men who, as we love to remind each other online, will literally fuck a corpse while insisting Margot Robbie is mid?

“You’re an alluring character,” a man I don’t know writes to me in an email I didn’t ask for. “Not just for your 26-year-old body and sexual adventurousness but for your moral flexibility.” There was a time when I would have taken a certain pride or satisfaction in receiving this kind of anonymous male attention from afar. Now it makes me want to crawl out of my 26-year-old skin and hide.

I probably don’t have much of a right to feel that way. After all, the very obvious truth is that throughout all these years and compensatory behaviors in all the forms they’ve taken, I’ve been actively seeking male attention of this very nature.


I want ‘fuck you beauty’ the way people talk about having ‘fuck you money’—a stockpile of power and privilege that buys you the freedom to live the life you want.
But I’ve also been seeking power—social capital. Like it or not, pretty privilege is very real and it’s not a privilege I begrudge anyone. It’s one I’m still desperate to get my hands on, because power by way of male validation isn’t the only privilege that pretty can buy. I no longer want to be beautiful enough to comfortably conform to society’s standards—to land a man and live a “normal” life. I want to be hot enough to safely eschew them—to be able to say, “Thanks but no thanks” to the status boost of husband and kids and normal and still be respected.

The trouble is that even if we write ourselves out of the marriage plot, there’s no escaping the T.J. Eckleburg eyes of the male gaze. Sure, maybe we don’t dress for men anymore—we dress for ourselves or our jobs or our bank accounts. But the uncomfortable reality is that for women, dressing for almost any kind of success in this world still involves catering to traditional standards of youth and beauty and sex appeal. Which means that merely existing as women still involves being ruthlessly judged and compared to one another in the never-ending, always-losing beauty pageant none of us seem to remember entering.

Recently, I’ve started seeing beauty as something more like armor. I want “fuck you beauty” the way people talk about having “fuck you money”—a stockpile of power and privilege that buys you the freedom to live the life you want and protection against the people who hate you for doing it. Because in case you haven’t noticed, the world is not very kind to those who decline the path that has been laid out for them—especially if those people are not men, especially if those not-men live public lives. Somehow—despite the fact that you can be Taylor fucking Swift and the world will still ask when you’re getting married and heave a collective sigh after every breakup wondering why you can’t seem to keep a man—I’m still convinced that if I were just a little bit prettier, I’d be safe from it all.

I want to be beautiful beyond reproach. I want to be hot enough that no one can hurt me, and if they try to, everyone else can say, “Yeah, but she’s hot though.” I want to be hot enough that when you comment on this column to criticize my looks, you’ll be as obviously wrong as the critics who say I can’t write. I want to be hot enough for random men to stop emailing me to let me know that I’m running out of time to coast by on my youth and mediocre looks, so I’d better give up this life of sex and singlehood and settle down with one of them before it’s too late. I want to be hot enough to never marry and still avoid aging into an object of pity. I want to be hot enough that when a gorgeous man casually breaks the heart I pretend not to have on a sunny September afternoon, the imaginary cast of spectators in my head all clasp their hands to their chests and say, “Oh my god, how could he possibly do that to her?” I want to be so hot that gorgeous men will never break my heart at all.

This level of beauty doesn’t exist, of course. But that won’t stop me from crucifying myself for not having it.