memoir: you could be really beautiful if you had some confidence
Loud music, techno-repetitive, rebounded in my head until it stopped making sense. Voices yelling to be heard: Did you hear about that girl? About that guy? Confessions cloaked in the sound of reverb and electronic seizures. I was an intruder, an outsider among my fashionably dressed peers. I made myself small; hiding behind my more popular, more social, more poised friends who were experienced in the party scene. I didn’t feel like myself.
Discomfort. My skin crawled like it was trying to remove itself from my muscle, from my bones, from me. Embarrassed by association. The fear was visceral. Being watched. Ogled. I tried to enjoy myself, to dance. My rhythm off-kilter, strange when I have two years of percussion lessons up my sleeve but rhythm of the body is a different kind.
Being watched. It’s a self-centred kind of fear. Thinking that in a shed full of scantily clad eighteen-year-olds, each of them more interesting, more beautiful, more worthy of being watched, someone would be looking at you. Looking at me. I couldn’t shake it, and when a friend suggested we go out into the paddock, out to the bonfire, I was relieved.
We swarmed the door, the group of us. I was last in line when I was grabbed. Pulled. Yanked by fingers around my arm pressed tight like a blood-pressure cuff. Beer polluted breath in my nostrils, on my skin. It was the birthday girl’s 40-something-year-old uncle. His hand was gripping the flesh of my upper arm, pawing at it.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘You could be really beautiful if you had some confidence.’
What could I be if I had some confidence? Smart? Successful? Happy? Equal to you, sir? Beautiful, of course, is the most important. We can’t forget beauty. Is confidence something to have? I always thought of it as a feeling, not a possession. Not a tool used to make myself more attractive, more appealing, more worthy of love, more worthy of acceptance and the respect of a man that I don’t even know. I don’t know his name but he affects me. He affected me. I was seventeen and alone in the hands of a man who was telling me where my true value rests. And I believed him. Of course, I thought. He’s right; I know he’s right.
He lifted his hand from my arm but I could still feel the place where his fingers had gripped me. I knew that under the fabric of my shirt there was the red imprint of his palm on my skin. I knew that the imprint would fade, but his words would not.
The fire in the barrel flailed and whipped against the complete blackness around it. It consumed the chunks of freshly chopped wood, reducing them to ash. To nothing. I stood watching the fire and watching the wood burn, watching charred pieces of paper escape the flames and float into the sky. And I wondered how I could be better.
I didn’t see him coming; I didn’t see his face because he was already pressing it against my ear but I knew it was him. He whispered his quiet encouragement, his helpful hint.
I felt his cheek, slick with sweat, against my ear as he pulled away from me and walked on toward the shed where the main party was taking place.
Fearful. That’s how I feel writing this; of normalising this man’s behaviour – although it’s been normalised already. Why did I feel like he was right, that I should take his words as gospel, as truth, as the source and the road to my true purpose? He thought he was doing me a favour. Other people I told thought he was doing me a favour.
Why do I have to be confident to be beautiful, and why do I have to be beautiful to be good enough?
I have found my confidence since then and it wasn’t because of him or any man like him. My confidence exists in spite of every man who has ever told me to smile, who has encouraged me to act a certain way or speak a certain way. It’s not ladylike to swear, did you know that? It’s not right for a girl to eat so much, to look that way, to take up so much space. A little make-up wouldn’t go astray. Why don’t you put in some effort? Don’t wear those clothes. Don’t speak over me. The female voice is shrill. Nobody wants to hear you complain. I was just trying to help. Take it as a compliment. You’re lucky I even wanted to fuck you. It was just a joke.
He wanted me to be confident for his benefit, not for mine, so that I’d be beautiful for him, easier to look at, easier to consume. I’m not supposed to be confident for my own advantage – that would be selfish. To grasp at career goals and opportunities or to take pride in my body and my appearance for my own interest would be self-centred. No. It’s so I can appear more palatable to him and to others like him. Fuck that.
I never needed confidence to be beautiful. Not his brand of confidence anyway. I didn’t need it to be smart or successful. It was there; I always had it and I needed to realise it for myself. Learning that being what men expect me to be isn’t mandatory was freeing. They don’t teach girls that in school.
‘You could be really beautiful if you had some confidence.’
The last thing men like him want is for women like me to be confident. With confidence comes the realisation that my voice is worthy of being heard, that I am entitled to the space I take up, to be mad if I want to, to look bad if I want to, to fucking speak however I want to speak. I don’t need to be policed. I am free.