In Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, a sweet and charming but ultimately forgettable independent teen movie, the titular characters are taking the next, slightly naked, step in their budding romance. The step is implied, as the cameraman mysteriously loses interest in the pair and starts filming the scenery while we hear their dialogue. What comes next is the best exchange in the whole movie.
Norah (apologetic, embarrassed): I'm not pretty like that.
Nick (with wonder): What are you talking about? You're beautiful.
There are funnier lines, there are more clever lines, but Norah's is the best in the whole ninety minutes, solely because of those last two words: "like that." Surely I can't be the only person in the world who heard that line and felt resonance. That's what they wanted when they wrote that line. They wanted people like me to stand up, point at the TV, and say, "I relate to that."
And Nick's line is right, it's exactly the Right Thing to say and he says it with just the right amount of awe, and that's all we want in a romantic comedy. We want men to say the Right Thing. They're allowed to say the wrong thing a couple times roughly two-thirds in, because otherwise there is no conflict or drama. But when it counts, they have to say the Right Thing. If we wanted to hear men say the Wrong Thing, then I guess we'd just stay home and ask our boyfriends and husbands trick questions. I thought "awww" just like I was supposed to when he said it, but it's been a while since my viewing. Now, I'm thinking about those words, "like that."
Because there is pretty, and there is pretty like that.
Women are beautiful (Men are very nice, too, but this is not about them). I am convinced of the beauty of every woman I've ever met. All the girls that I hung out with in high school, I am certain they hated the way they looked. But I thought they were lovely. At first, they were regular-looking. You know. Ordinary people, though some were obviously more attractive than others. And then I got to know them and I would notice their individual and secret prettiness. On a good day, I could look in the mirror and see myself that way (did you know that I have perfectly sized lips?). On a bad day, I would see just another plain girl (one with crooked ears).
But then there were the girls who were pretty without you even getting to know them. Their prettiness was not a secret at all. They did not have to be nice or funny or smart or anything at all to be attractive, which was just so unfair. I resented them. I feared them, was intimidated by them. I imagined telling them off. I looked for signs of physical flaws, be it too-skinny ankles or a weak chin, anything at all. I think women stare a lot more at other women than they do at men. Us girls are constantly checking out the competition, trying to figure out where we stand. It can be quite exhausting.
At some point, the regular pretty get over not being pretty like that. You get to sixteen or eighteen (or twenty? thirty?) and realize that it's not going to get any better. You accept that everyone has different assets. You figure out your strengths and you begin to take pride in them. You hope that by having a wonderful personality, you will enable others to see your individual and secret prettiness. There are bound to be men out there who value substance. Surely one of them will like you. This is acceptance. It's still missing the point that you probably shouldn't tie your ego to what a man might think of you, but baby steps, please. Some women don't get to acceptance at all, and that's why we have plastic surgeons.
I had this acceptance pretty early, or at least I learned early on that I should look to my other qualities. I've known where my strengths lie for a long time, because my mother told me over and over. Once, back when I was a promising sophomore on the Varsity basketball team, my coach, who still thought I might yet get over my clumsiness (ha!), spoke in encouraging tones about my future. He said that with hard work and lots of practice, I could possibly get a scholarship to play basketball at a small private college near my hometown.
I gave him a funny look. My mother really stressed modesty and humility in our house (you have to do that when your kids are as awesome as hers are, poor woman), and I tried hard not to make it obvious that I thought that I was kinda smart. But I said, being very careful with my words, "I'm not counting on basketball to get into college." My expression could be best described as "knowing."
He paused, nodded silently before saying, "Yeah. Okay." He got it.
I could have said something similar to my girlfriends who wanted to teach me how to put on makeup: I'm not counting on my looks to get a man. You know, I probably did say that. And then they rolled their eyes and came after me with mascara.
Despite my preaching about acceptance and playing to your strengths, it's a lot easier getting over being mediocre at basketball than it is to get over being average-looking. Even after you mostly get over not being pretty like that, even after you've decided that you are completely awesome in other ways that are much less fleeting than beauty, a dark part of you is afraid that no one else will ever appreciate you for you. You wonder if anyone will ever notice your individual and secret prettiness, or if they will all be too busy looking at the girls who are pretty like that. And that's how you get Norah, who starts out okay, but gets prettier as the movie goes on without changing a thing, apologizing for the way she looks.
I'm going to tell you a super-special Sandra secret, so secret that I've never told anyone besides Josh, because I think it's nuts. So I'm going to put it on the internet to find out how nuts it is. When I assess other women, I have three things that I look at. The first is just straight up appearance. If I am prettier than that girl, I write her off as not a threat (a threat to what? I have no freaking idea). If I am not prettier, I move to the next thing, which is height. Being tall was one of the things that I claimed as part of my Sandra-ness when I determined that I wasn't pretty like that. That woman over there may be drop-dead gorgeous, but she'd need a chair to get stuff off the top cabinet shelf. Pshaw, what man wants that? (Interestingly enough, height also happened to be the only reason I ever made any basketball team.) And finally, there is my trump card, my brain. Since I'm just judging a complete stranger, there is no way I can tell how smart she is, so I simplify matters by just assuming that I'm smarter. Then I feel better, self-esteem crisis averted. One more rock bounces off my thick ego bubble.
Is this insane? Is it normal? Both? Isn't it neat how I came across as incredibly self-conscious and ridiculously arrogant all in one paragraph? It's probably 'cause I'm smart.
I am one of the confident ones, as you've probably figured out by now. And get this, I am proud of my own confidence - it is one of my strengths, boys like that about me - such that I am self-consious about admitting that I am self-conscious about my appearance. Josh was actually confused when he found out how not-really-that-confident I was about certain things, after he had come to think of me as a person who was completely sure of herself. He thought it was bizarre, which is sorta like Nick saying, "What are you talking about? You're beautiful."
I was at a bar for one of Josh's shows, the bar being a parade of people trying to convince other strangers that they are worthwhile. There were girls there who had spent hours getting ready, some who changed clothes three or four times, everyone trying very hard to be as attractive as possible. Oh yeah, and then there was me, who decided a long time ago that it was way easier to look like she didn't give a crap (and you get to feel superior to all those shallow people). Many of them were much prettier than I am, but most of them were average height or shorter, so I wasn't feeling threatened. A beautiful girl passed by, wearing something flimsy and entirely inappropriate for February; it looked fantastic on her. She was very close to my height, and I instinctively looked at her shoes, which were spiked heels. See, that's cheating, and I still win (I'm going to go back someday and erase these last paragraphs about the three levels of comparison, because I sound like a lunatic). I told Josh about it, while pointing out this knock-out gorgeous girl to my boyfriend, explained how my confidence remained intact because of her stilettos. He laughed, because it was silly, it's all so completely silly and I'm so glad that I have someone who knows crap like that about me and somehow doesn't run away. He leaned in and whispered, "Baby, they don't make shoes that make you smarter."
He gets it.