I Have Always Turned Heads: What it’s Like Being a Physical Other

There is a lovely essay by Sarah Einstein in Salon, making the rounds of my Facebook friends. In it, Einstein talks about being a plain woman married to a beautiful man. She talks a lot about desire and a little about aging bodies. It is painful and thought-provoking and if you haven’t yet read it, you should.

Initially, I dismissed the essay based solely on the title, “‘I have never turned heads’: What it’s like when you’re not the object of desire” because my initial thought was, Aren’t you lucky? I always turn heads and it’s not fun.

For as long as I can remember my unruly body has been a problem that refuses to be solved. According to my baby book I was put on my first diet around the age of four. I spent my pre-adolescent years going from doctor to doctor waiting for one of them to say, “Yes, yes she is done growing.”

I remember shortly before my twelfth birthday sitting on an examination table in a doctor’s office crying because he said I was six feet tall. I have no idea why this was such a horrible thing, but the reaction of all the adults in the room clued me on the not-goodness of this pronouncement and that led me to tears. What was wrong with me?

Nobody could tell me. Nobody ever bothered to tell me there was nothing wrong with me either. So there I was twelve and shy and in possession of a six-foot body with perky breasts and blonde hair and absolutely no idea how to handle the attention I was getting.

I garnered a lot of male attention in that blink of time when my height and weight seemed to be somewhat in proportion. Or at least in a proportion that a lot of men find super attractive. To say that I was unprepared to handle this kind of attention is an understatement. A lot of times I had no idea what in the hell was going on, and whenever I was asked for my phone number I would say, “I’m twelve.” Some men thought this was like a hilarious joke and other’s were kind of aghast.

Things have not changed at all in the thirty-one years since I was twelve. I’m still grievously ill-equipped to deal with a man’s desire for me or my body. I grew up being told that this was just not something that was going to happen for me. My dad always told me I was too fat for most men. My mom disagreed with him. “You see guys with big girls all the time,” she said. “But never taller ones.”

So now whenever a man expresses desire for me and my body my initial reaction is Really? REALLY? which is the hottest thing a woman can say. I have to ask twice because a lot of times the desire is not for me AND my body, it is for my body. A fat, freakishly-tall woman gets a lot of attention from fetishists and men looking to mark some box off their fucket list.

But this isn’t even the kind of head-turning I sat down to type about. No, I wanted to talk about the head turning that happens to me on a daily basis — the double-takes from people at the gas station or the grocery store; the points and questions from small children; the stage-whispered “whoa look at that”s from rude teenagers. This is what head-turning means to me.

Head-turning induces shame and the longing to wish you could just once go somewhere and not be noticed. Head-turning is embarrassing and makes you feel a little less than human. Head-turning makes the shy and introverted just stay home and hermit because putting on the brave face, answering the questions, pretending to not hear takes a lot of fucking energy.

Maybe this is the same kind of head-turning the beautiful also endure. It might be just as exhausting. I don’t know. I’ve never experienced that.

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  1. Susanna 18.Sep.15 at 7:11 am

    Your blog post is insightful, and her column is insightful, and I know one should never read the comments (not here! On Salon! or anywhere!) — but there is a great point in the comments on Einstein’s article, that then everyone naturally wants to google Einstein and her husband, and from the outside, let’s say objectively, they are equally attractive in different ways, and whatever floats a person’s boat, fine.

    And that’s all fine, but I wish her essay had talked about that — that come on, it’s not like he’s … um … who does everyone think is hot? David Beckham or whatever. To me, for instance, her husband is not beautiful, and so what her essay about is really the imbalance of desire, because she’s saying she’s always been plain, but in the essay she assures the reader several times that she’s felt the heat of desire from other men, just not this one whom she adores.

    I don’t know what I’m saying — I guess I wish she’d gone a bit deeper, because she’s posing her argument as about being like an outlier, when she seems perfectly average (physically — she is an above-average writer), whereas you are above-average in both, and that’s quite a different thing, to really have a difference from the norm. I guess I like what she wrote, I just wish she’d taken a different, more honest tack when we can google them and see what they look like and then realize she’s being a bit coy about reality in the interest of a good story.

    1. Jodi 18.Sep.15 at 10:25 am

      I didn’t even think to google her husband, though I googled her as soon as I finished reading the essay.

      And I don’t know if she’s being coy about reality so much as just very much reflecting her point of view. It’s a bit contradictory within the essay itself. She’s trying to use her husband’s lack of desire for her to make a comment on her plainness but still gives us two examples of men who find her greatly desirable.

      The headline doesn’t do her any favors. . . but you’re right it would have been a stronger essay if she would have written about how she battles with the imbalance of desire in her relationship.

      But your issues with the essay are kind of why I felt compelled to respond. I was kind of annoyed with the boo-hoo nobody notices me and wanted to be like here’s what it likes when you are always noticed.

      1. Susanna 23.Sep.15 at 9:29 am

        Yes! And I guess that’s why I’m grousing. I grew up “the redhead” as compared to “the cute one” (my sister, my best friend), so I know a bit about standing out too — and the interesting experience of having the pendulum swing from “haha!” to “hey baby” at times. I would have loved to look like she does — so it’s all relative, which I suppose is part of her point.

  2. Bonny Holder 21.Sep.15 at 10:24 am

    My dad always told me I was too fat for most men. My mom disagreed with him. You see guys with big girls all the time, she said. But never taller ones.

    THAT is why I love you.

  3. Sarah Einstein 23.Sep.15 at 12:36 pm


    What a lovely and thoughtful essay about the dangers of being a person who is noticed and made the object of unwanted (and creepy) kinds of attention. I’m so glad to that our essays are in conversation with one another.

    I want to say that the essay began life as a submission to a Full Grown People’s anthology Love and Sex 101, where it was titled “Striking the Match.” It was written as a literary (or so I hoped) meditation on the different ways I have experienced desire in my life, coming to rest on this moment, when I find myself the one who desires rather than the desired one for the first time. FGP sent it to Salon, where it got the title you read it under (which reframes the whole piece in a way that I think is very problematic), as part of promoting the anthology. I agree with you, and with Susanna, that if the point of the essay had been to talk about my plainness, using my husband’s lack of attraction to my body, then it falls short. But I didn’t write about the “battles,” as you say, because there aren’t any. We had to have the conversation we had, and then we moved on to being happy and adjusting in the ways we needed to adjust. Mostly, in the way that means I am usually the one to “strike the match.”

    Anyway, thank you for letting me respond here to your thoughts on the essay, and also, Jodi, I love your piece and hope you won’t mind if I share it.


    1. Jodi 23.Sep.15 at 1:08 pm

      Thank you so much for stopping by and for commenting. Your piece has sparked many great conversations in my life both online and in person. It is a brave piece. I am so glad you wrote it and I got to read it.


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