Fair warning: this is preachy.
Excessively so? Probably. But the message behind this piece has been on my mind a lot lately, and it truly bothers me. I think with work this story could be a good one. As is, it’s probably too overt in its message. It verges on a creative essay more than flash fiction, but so be it.
I haven’t actually overheard the conversation below. Honestly, what I’ve heard is often worse. Some males are alarmingly candid in their judgmental attitudes when women aren’t there to hear it. I’m sure the same is true of all people, really, but I can’t be a fly on the wall in the ladies room to verify that.
Judgmental attitudes make me sick.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how all fiction has a message, intended or not. I encouraged other writers to embrace this fact and actually give thought to the messages embedded in their fiction. The story below is not an example of what I meant. Like I said, this is preachy, and, as a general rule, it’s better to write fiction that doesn’t come off like a sermon.
Do as I say, not as I do.
I’m hoping, however, that the sentiment is enough to make up for the preachiness, at least a little. It was therapeutic for me to write about it, as is often the case. I needed to rant a bit. I’m so tired of our perpetuation of the current standard of beauty, even as we agree that it’s messed up. I want to stand up and be counted as one of the voices that sees the bullshit for what it is.
The scene of the crime: Starbucks.
I don’t even what to think about how many social misdemeanors have taken place there. I’ve witnessed more than a few, but I’m not the type to indulge in public drama. Drama of any kind, really. Why seek that shit out?
Still, that’s where it happened, and in spectacularly public fashion.
I was waiting in line. It was mid-afternoon, and I’d just finished my yoga class. The perks of self-employment–no set schedule. Behind me, two patrons back, stood a pair of business men. Everything about them, from the cologne I could smell at a distance of 3 feet to their pristinely pressed shirts to their obsessive smart-phone use, screamed, “Sales! We’re in sales!” They were talking to each other, louder than they knew.
“Black Skirt needs to hurry up,” one of them said. “I have a meeting in 20 minutes.”
Black Skirt was, presumably, the woman ordering. She appeared to be debating between coffee cake and a scone.
“Seriously,” the other said. “Sweetie, this isn’t the feeding trough.”
“Heh,” the first chuckled. “Cows gotta graze.”
Had I known either of these two jerks, that would have been enough for me to wheel around and call them on their douch-baggery. Black Skirt was a stranger to me, but that hardly mattered. On the other hand, she hadn’t heard them. If I turned and made a scene, she’d be sure to learn the nature of their comments, and that would only serve to hurt her. Better to leave it alone, I decided.
They fell silent, probably playing on their phones again. Black Skirt finished her order, and I stepped to the counter.
“Venti Pikes Place,” I said. “Room for cream.”
The cashier nodded and took my credit card.
“What about yoga pants?” I heard one of them say.
“Bit of a rhino,” came the reply.
I felt my cheeks go flush. Adrenaline flooded my system, enough that I could feel it in my forearms. Fight or flight kicked in, and I’m not a flyer.
“Excuse me?” I said turning to face them.
They looked up from their phones.
“Did one of you just call me a rhino?”
The tall one chortled.
“Sorry about that,” said the other. “It’s actually not an insult.”
I put a hand on my hip, never a good sign, and leveled my gaze.
“Enlighten me,” I said. “How is that not an insult?”
The tall one was content to let his friend continue digging the hole. The shit-eating grin on his face clearly indicated he had no intention of answering. His friend looked at him for help, but assessed the situation with relative speed.
Sputtering, he tried to explain. “Like rhinoplasty,” he said.
“Ah, so you can tell I need a nose job from my yoga pants.”
The tall one actually laughed.
“No, no. It’s an inside thing, you know, between us,” he said gesturing to his friend. “It means you’re hot, but…”
He paused. Finally, his brain was outpacing his mouth. Just barely.
“But, I need work?” I asked. “Like a nose job? Or, I don’t know, lipo?”
Slowly, he nodded.
“So, I’m, what? A 7?”
“No!” he said. “Rhinos are 8’s.”
Behind me, the clerk had returned with my coffee. He cleared his throat to let me know he was there. Other customers were watching the exchange, as were the employees. The tall one was having too much fun letting his friend flounder to notice eyes narrowing all around him. Shorty was well aware.
“That came out wrong,” he said.
I turned and took my coffee, thanking the cashier. He handed it to me like it was a weapon.
Caffeine in hand, I sidestepped and let the boys move closer as the line advanced.
“You know what I think?” I asked. “I think it came out right. I think it’s your way of seeing other people that’s wrong.”
The tall one finally found his voice.
“Look, we don’t want any trouble,” he said.
“And I don’t want idiots like you deciding my ass is too big. I don’t want to be a number. I don’t really care to have strangers ogle me and then make sweeping statements about my worth based on some insane notion of beauty. Guess we’re both out of luck, huh?”
I sipped my coffee, mostly for dramatic effect. It was a mistake. I burned my tongue and it tasted awful without my normal allotment of Equal and cream. I like to think I looked like a badass, though.
Shorty looked like he was ready to piss his pants, but the tall one rolled his eyes. “What do you want? An apology? Fine. We’re sorry.”
“Grow up,” I said.
“I said we’re sorry.”
“No, you misunderstand,” I explained. “You asked what I want. I want you to grow up. Try thinking with the head on your shoulders instead of…” Pause for one beat. “…the little one.”
Shorty was still too stunned to reply, and the tall one was clearly over it. He’d apologized, and that was as much satisfaction as I could expect from him. I turned and made my way to the condiment counter to doctor my coffee. As it happened, Black Skirt was sprinkling cinnamon on her latte when I arrived.
“They’re men,” she said under her breath. “It’s just how they think.”
I didn’t reply, but her words stuck with me. I mulled them over on the drive home and in the shower. I was thinking about them when I toweled off and, in spite of myself, turned to view my ass in the mirror. I could see slight dimples here and there. Evidence of cellulite. I wondered if that’s what they’d seen through the fabric of my yoga pants.
I made a salad for dinner. I’d been planning to have steak. I love steak, but it no longer sounded good. I was pouring dressing on the greens when I realized they’d gotten to me that much. It irritated me enough that I tossed the salad in the trash and decided to get takeout from the nearest Outback.
They’re just men. It’s how they think.
Is it? I don’t know.
I’ve known men who didn’t think that way, or at least had the good sense to keep such thoughts to themselves. And I’ve known plenty of women who are just as bad, judging themselves and others based on the vainest of criteria. This is the world we live in, the thinking goes. It’s the media. It’s the magazines. It’s air-brushing and Playboy and Victoria’s Secret.
Everyone knows it’s crazy, the so-called standard of beauty, and there are people fighting it, but it’s a sad little war. Mostly, we’re losing. All of us.
It’s our shared cultural vice. Everywhere you look, there are rhinos. Not a person on the planet wouldn’t be a little more ideal, a tad more attractive, a smidge sexier with some surgical help or photoshop. We all know no living person could possibly attain Barbie’s proportions, but Mattel is still cranking out those damn little dolls by the shit ton, and they’re not likely to stop any time soon.
But here’s the thing: I don’t want to change the world. I mean, I do want the world to change. I wish children could grow up without all that needless pressure. I wish we could see the beauty in everyone. I want world peace, too, but I’m enough of a realist to know that some things, while worth wanting and working for, aren’t likely to happen. And if we can’t create an emotional utopia, then what I really want is my own little slice of it.
I ate steak. A big one. I had a baked potato, too, carbs and all.
I don’t think the solution is a fuck-it attitude. I’ll keep working out and watching my weight, but I will not hold myself to a standard I can’t attain without a combination of starvation and cosmetic surgery. And if my metabolism slows as I age and there’s a little more cushion here and there, so be it. I’ll be damned before I’ll let the firmness of my ass determine my worth.
I’m a rhino, baby.
Be careful. I know how to use this horn.