I AM TWENTY years old and I hate myself. My hair, my face, the curve of my stomach. The way my voice comes out wavering and my poems come out maudlin. The way my parents talk to me in a slightly higher register than they talk to my sister, as if I’m a government worker that’s snapped and, if pushed hard enough, might blow up the hostages I’ve got tied up in my basement.
I cover up this hatred with a kind of aggressive self-acceptance. I dye my hair a fluorescent shade of yellow, cutting it into a mullet more inspired by photos of 1980s teen mothers than by any current beauty trend. I dress in neon spandex that hugs in all the wrong places. My mother and I have a massive fight when I choose to wear a banana-printed belly shirt and pink leggings to the Vatican and religious tourists gawk and turn away.
I’m living in a dormitory that was, not too long ago, an old-age home for low-income townspeople and I don’t like thinking about where they might be now. My roommate has moved to New York to explore farm-to-fork cooking and lesbianism, so I’m alone, in a ground-floor one-bedroom, a fact I relish until one night a female rugby player rips my screen door off the hinges and barges into the dorm to attack her philandering girlfriend. I’ve bought a VHS player and a pair of knitting needles and spend most nights on the sofa, making half a scarf for a boy I like who had a manic break and dropped out. I’ve made two short films, both of which my father deemed “interesting but beside the point,” and am so paralyzed as a writer that I’ve started translating poems from languages I don’t speak, some kind of Surrealist exercise meant to inspire me but also prevent me from thinking the perverse, looping thoughts that come unbidden: I am hideous. I am going to be living in a mental hospital by the time I am twenty-nine. I will never amount to anything.
You wouldn’t know it to see me at a party. In a crowd I am recklessly cheerful, dressed to the nines in thrift-shop gowns and press-on fingernails, fighting the sleepiness that comes from the 350 milligrams of medication I take every night. I dance the hardest, laugh the hardest at my own jokes, and make casual reference to my vagina, like it’s a car or a chest of drawers. I got mono last year, but it never really went away. Occasionally, one of my glands blows up to the size of a golf ball and protrudes from my neck like one of the bolts that keep Frankenstein’s monster intact.
I have friends: a kind group of girls whose passions (baking, pressing flowers, community organizing) do not stir me. I feel guilt about this, a sense that my inability to be at home with them proves, once and for all, that I am no good. I laugh, I agree, I find reasons to go home early. I have the nagging sense that my true friends are waiting for me, beyond college, unusual women whose ambitions are as big as their past transgressions, whose hair is piled high, dramatic like topiaries at Versailles, and who never, ever say “too much information” when you mention a sex dream you had about your father.
But that’s also how I felt in high school, sure that my people were from elsewhere and going elsewhere and that they would recognize me when they saw me. They would like me enough that it wouldn’t matter if I liked myself. They would see the good in me so that I could, too.
On Saturdays my friends and I load into somebody’s old Volvo and head to a thrift store, where we buy tchotchkes that reek of other people’s lives and clothes that we believe will enhance our own. We all want to look like characters on the sitcoms of our youth, the teenagers we admired when we were still kids. None of the pants ever fit me, unless I head into the maternity section, so I buy mostly sacklike dresses and Cosby sweaters.
Some days, my haul is massive: a peach power suit with subtle coffee stains, leggings with trompe l’oeil chains running down the sides, a pair of boots specially made for someone with legs of different lengths. But some days the spread is meager. The usual bounty of patterned off-brand Keds and ripped negligees has been snapped up. On one such day, I wander over to the book section, where people discard their guides to better divorce and crafting how-tos, sometimes even their scrapbooks and family photo albums.
I scan the dusty shelf, which looks like the book collection of an unhappy and maybe even illiterate family. I ignore get-rich-quick advice, stop briefly at Miss Piggy’s autobiography, contemplate a book called Sisters: The Gift of Love. But when I reach a faded paperback with edges so yellowed they have almost gone green, I stop. Having It All, by Helen Gurley Brown, who graces her own cover, leaning against her tidy desk in the kind of shoulder-padded plum suit I have taken to wearing ironically, all pearls and knowing smile.
I spend the sixty-five cents required to take the book home. In the car I show it to my friends like it’s a decorative joke, something for my shelf of kitschy trophies and Sears photo-studio shots of strangers’ kids. This is our hobby, appropriating meaningful artifacts and displaying them as evidence of who we will never be. But I know I’m going to devour this book, and when I get home I head straight to bed, shivering under my patchwork quilt, an Ohio snowstorm swirling in the parking lot outside my window.
The book is from 1982, and on the inside cover is an inscription, written in ballpoint pen: “To Betty! Love, Margaret, your Optifast friend. ☺” This moves me, the idea that the book was handed from one woman to another in some long-ago weight-loss support group. I extend her message in my mind: Betty, we can do it. We are doing it. Let this book take you to the stars and beyond.
I race home from class every day for a week to devour Helen’s teachings. I’m electrified by the way that, in Having It All, Gurley Brown shares her assorted humiliations and occasional triumphs and explains, with Idiot’s Guide precision, how you too can be blessed with “love, success, sex, money, even if you’re starting with nothing.”
Most of her advice, it should be noted, is absolutely bananas. She encourages readers to eat fewer than a thousand calories a day (“crashing is okay, so is fasting … Satisfied is out of the question. You have to feel slightly uncomfortable and hungry during your weight loss or it probably isn’t happening”), avoid having children if you possibly can, and be blow job ready at all times (“the more sex you have, the more you can tolerate”). Helen has little tolerance for free will in this department: “Exhaustion, preoccupation with a problem, menstrual cramps—nothing is a good excuse for not making love unless you happen to be so angry with the man in your bed your eyes are darting around their sockets and your teeth are grinding.”
Some of her advice is a little more reasonable: “Always leave for the airport fifteen minutes earlier than you could. It will save your valves wearing out,” or “If you have severe personal problems then I think you go to a shrink for advice and support. I can no more imagine not going to get your hurting head and heart taken care of than one would go around the streets with blood spurting out of your throat …” But her frank wisdom loses some of its power because it’s forced to occupy the same space as gems such as “to me, avoiding married men totally when you’re single would be like passing up first aid in a Tijuana hospital when you’re bleeding to death because you prefer an immaculate American hospital some unreachable distance across the border.”
Having It All is divided into sections, each section a journey into some usually sacrosanct aspect of feminine life such as diet, sex, or the intricacies of marriage. But despite her demented theories, which jibe not even a little bit with my distinctly feminist upbringing, I appreciate the way Helen shares her own embarrassing, acne-ridden history in an attempt to say Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone. In the process she reveals her own unique pathos (a passage about binge eating baklava stands out in my mind), but maybe I underestimated her. Maybe that is not an accident but is, in fact, her gift.
When I found her book, I did not yet understand Helen Gurley Brown’s position in the canon, that she had been written about and reacted to by the women who would come to guide me, women like Gloria Steinem and Nora Ephron. I did not know that she was the bane of both the women’s movement and the smut-police, or that she was still alive and in her late eighties, still peddling her particular brand of chipper, oblivious help for the downtrodden. All I knew was that she painted a picture of a life made much richer by having once been, as she calls it, a Mouseburger: unpretty, unspecial, unformed. She believed that, ultimately, Mouseburgers are the women who will triumph, having lived to tell the tale of being overlooked and underloved. Hers is a self-serving perspective, but one I needed more than anything. Maybe, as Helen preached, a powerful, confident, and, yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born. Maybe.
There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.