When I open the app, it tells me I’ve got 75 current matches. A 28-year-old, ten years my junior, tells me I’m really pretty and am I free that week for drinks? A man, 33, tells me he likes my red hair and would I like to have coffee? Another, 30, says he likes my eyes. One, 34, my smile. The 35-year-old says I’m really sexy, what do I like to eat? Of the subset of the 75 that have messaged me, nearly all start with a comment about my looks. It is the least interesting compliment I could have received, the shape of this smile being genetic, brown eyes a hereditary given. And I only sometimes pretend to care about fashion, wear makeup infrequently, if at all. To me, the most interesting thing about this face is the way that when I’m laughing, truly laughing, my smile crooks up further on one side than the other, the same way my brother’s had when he was alive.
When the men I do not know open their conversations by telling me I am beautiful, I am reminded of the last man I cared about who told me one night after I brushed my hair out for bed how nice it looked that way. It did not feel then like a compliment. Three months earlier, on a night when we are standing in my kitchen, our faces touching, his hands moving up and down my back, mine in his hair, I tell him I have feelings for him. He waits 29 days before he says he has never felt anything for me beyond friendship at all. 29 days, during which we have phone calls and texts and drinks and a weekend spent at a cabin for his birthday, where I cook with his mother and entertain his children. And after he tells me this, he also tells me that what he wants is someone more girly, skirts and make up and the whole thing. My face. It had never occurred to me there was anything wrong with my face. Or that what I wore should even matter.
I am nice about it. I shift myself into the role of supportive friend. We spend six hours that night on my couch just talking, about life, about the girl he is now seeing, and there will come a time when I will stop wanting anything more than to just be his friend. It isn’t easy, but I think his presence in my life is more important to me than the exact role I might play, his happiness too, and after all, I know it’s a shift I am more than capable of. There are already men in my life I have once upon a time kissed or cared for who I still have happy hours with or see each time they are in town. And when we see each other we dish about work and relationships and life and feel nothing for each other beyond friendship. Sometimes they tell me I look nice; sometimes I compliment them back. But that one night, when I brushed out my hair, when he told me I could increase my appeal to men if I wore it that way all the time, it did not feel like a compliment. “It’s not my looks that are the problem,” I tell him.
Last Friday, when I am on a date, a man asks me to recite one of my most well-liked poems, and over the noise in the half-lit bar I do. It gives him chills, he says. It’s one of the better compliments I’ve received in a long time. Better than those of the subset of 75 men on an app who tell me I’m pretty before they know anything about me, better than that given by a man who thought changing my hair might make it easier for me to find love.
When a man tells me I’m pretty before he knows anything about me I trust him no more than I do that man, the one who gave me silence and was then gone.
After all, I don’t ever want a man who thinks that smile is why I love her most, or, it’s in the way the light hits her hair, not even the way her eyes shine.
I don’t ever want a man who thinks my face is more beautiful than my mind.
Only a man who, when he calls me beautiful, is seeing first my heart.