Saturday, April 21, 2007

Under the blanket of ugliness

Yesterday evening, as I went to buy groceries for dinner, I had a sudden intuition: it could happen that one of my students has a crush on me! After one minute of further deliberation, I decided that it's most likely not the case, and if it were, my best strategy is to ignore it and just make sure our relationship doesn't become too friendly.
But I kept wondering why it took me so many years of advising to realize that some such thing might at all be possible. The answer, of course, is that I am (by current standards) ugly, and have been so ever since I hit puberty. So I am used to the fact that usually people, and especially men, see me in a unsexual way.
And this has been good for me in many ways. I think I have been bothered much less than better-looking women, and in fact almost not at all.
I got used to the fact that whomever I was attracted to was most likely not attracted to me, and learned to live with it without suffering - surely a very useful lesson, especially if learned early in life.
Any human being who was ever attracted to me (a very small set anyway) was usually at least partially enthralled by my intellectual abilities, something which is by nature a bit more longlasting then physical beauty.
And very importantly for me as a scientist, male colleagues were not so tempted to discuss my looks instead of my theorems. I remember overhearing a comment "I don't know what she talked about, I was looking lower than the blackboard" after a talk by a good-looking woman wearing some ever so slightly tight-fitting trousers. This is unlikely to happen to me - and since then I always make sure to show up at conferences wearing non-revealing clothing to be on the safe side.
Ugliness has been a shelter for me, a bit like Harry Potter's invisibility blanket. As a teenager, I was very unhappy with it, but now I regard it as a blessing. I think for a really beautiful woman it is harder to be taken seriously as a mathematician.
I also have started to really like my looks. When I have time, I buy clothes with pleasure, and I appreciate the fact that I want first and foremost to look good to myself. It is also easier to make a few adjustments to accommodate the few preferences of WS: for instance, not cutting my hair really short, and wearing warm instead of cold and/or dark colours. It is much less effort than trying to keep up with a forever changing fashion and our society's unreasonable demands on women (uncomfortable clothing and shoes and unpleasant body hair removal spring first to mind, but do not exhaust the list).
Now I just have to find the time to get a haircut and buy clothes. Maybe next week.

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