Is body image everything? At times, insecurities overshadow the beauty of a flaw.
The sheets were blue and white, I remember, and smelled lightly of l'Air du Temps. The mattress was on the floor and I was flat on my back looking up, admiring my girlfriend as she stood admiring herself, completely naked, in the mirror across the room.
"If you had to pick something that you didn't like about the way I look," she said, "What would that be?"
"You're perfect," I said.
"No, really," she said.
"Perfect," I said.
"Come on," she said.
I wish—oh, how I wish—I'd maintained my resolve on that one. I knew it was a trap, even if it was not intended as such. (She really was, and is, extraordinarily beautiful.) But there are moments when the woman you love asks more than your besotted, indulgent patience will bear. She asks you to focus on a detail when what you appreciate is the entirety. She asks you about her shoes when you are gazing much higher than that. She asks you to find a blemish when you hadn't noticed any at all. And then you tell her... something.
I looked, and looked, and spotted what I thought was, well, a very small flaw. I said that, if she was really going to insist, there was one thing that might be a little less than perfect.
Yes, it was just about the dumbest thing that I've ever said.
I'd like to think I've come to understand more about women, and the world, since then. But I’m not so sure. What I do know now is that when a woman asks what a man may see as the simplest, most perfunctory and inconsequential of questions—"How do I look?"—it can be a mine-field, and even a turning point. What I also know now is that one of the most common answers, "Fine," is just about the worst. “Fine” is the judgment of the inattentive. Infinitely preferable to "Fine" are "Wonderful," "Beautiful," "Radiant," "Dazzling," "Resplendent," "Delicious," "Delectable," "Hot," many pop-rap-gangsta variations thereon, or, simplest of all, "Wow!"
But the rituals of inquisition go beyond that question, of course. There is, for instance, the de rigueur shopping trip for clothes or shoes. (The second I step into a store, I look for a "husband chair." No matter how beautiful the clothes on the rack, or on my wife, my back develops a ferocious ache in proximity to Blahniks, TSE, and the like.)
"The shopping trip is part of the pain process," says a 40- year-old bachelor whose profession is pediatrics, whose passion is good wine, and whose luck with women has not been great. Like most men, he dreads the moment when he's asked for his opinion. "I lie," he tells me over a nice bottle of Barolo. "But, of course, it’s not good enough to lie. Women are so much more intuitive than we are."
A filmmaker out in L.A.,who's been happily married to a former Vegas showgirl these last 20 years, says that when he's put on the spot, he wants to take the fifth. Even if he's thinking something critical, he won't say it. "I usually tell her, 'You look great!'" He also suspects (and half hopes) she's got a built-in filter for tuning out his brand of BS. “If she hears what she wants to hear, then she listens," he says.
This instinctive male aversion to the truth may be a matter of self-preservation. My idle observation, made in a daze of l'Air du Temps in 1978,was revisited by my girlfriend for decades. Rethinking that moment I ask women, friends, and acquaintances what they really want to hear from their husbands or lovers. They're surprisingly passionate on the subject. One of the most down-to-earth, a 39-year-old working mother, fixes right away on what a fraught moment we are talking about. "This 'how do I look' thing is very loaded," she tells me. "Because when you feel like you look great, and you ask, and you don’t get that back, it crushes your confidence."
Evenings out with her husband are fairly rare events, thanks to the kids,which puts even more weight on his response when she asks him the Question—usually just before they head downstairs. "It sets the whole emotional tone," she says. Sometimes she knows that she hasn’t really been able to pull herself together, and when he says, "You look fine" (that awful word), she wonders, "Is he even looking at me?" Other times he tells her, "You'll be the most dressed-up person there." Which makes her think, "He's worried somebody will flirt with me."
For an American-educated Lebanese woman who has been having an open affair with somebody else's husband, the Question is part of a continuing game of seduction, "a very subtle sexual dance," as she writes in an email from Beirut. "Do I exaggerate? If sexual desire still lives between them, then what he sees and what she hears still matters. If it does not, all you hear is silence, and then the opening click of the door."
After a few long-term romances, a 20-something Parisian is of a similar mind. "What I'm looking for isn't an objective judgment on the choice of my earrings, or the way a color complements my complexion," she says. "What I'm really waiting for is the vague yet firm assurance that even if I were wearing a potato sack I would still be the one object of his desire and attention. In that singular moment when you're about to leave the intimacy of your home, venture outside, and mingle with strangers, it's a bit like reaffirming the trust you have in each other. In the question ‘how do I look?' there's a hint of the 'how do we look?' I can't help but think that the day when your lover or husband gives you an objective answer about the way you look, something may be a bit broken."
Perhaps. My bachelor friend, Dr. Barolo, thinks that "some women actually appreciate it when you tell them the truth." He takes a deep breath of fermented grape. "But—you never know when that is," he sighs. "When they ask you what they should wear, I used to tell them, 'Wear what you want.' Wrong. They want you to be the man, to take command." Or do they? Husbands and lovers who try to be Pygmalion, pushing women to match some image of perfection, are just as intolerable as,well, any other sort of pig.
It means to be the key to weathering this little inquisition, and turning it into something positive, lies not so much in what you say as in proving that you see. There is a terrible invisibility that creeps into long-term partnerships, a corrosive obliviousness, and it's especially dangerous for women. Many become like the shopper in Randall Jarrell’s heartbreaking poem "Next Day," who is buying detergent in the supermarket, "Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All," then meditating on what is overlooked in life, including herself:
When I was young and miserable and pretty
And poor, I'd wish
What all girls wish: to have a husband,
A house and children. Now that I’m old, my wish
That the boy putting groceries in my car
See me. It bewilders me he doesn't see me.
Men are not always good at showing the people we love that we see them. But there's really nothing more important to a relationship. So now when my wife asks me how she looks, I say to her what I said to her more than two decades ago,when she was my girlfriend: "Perfect in every way." And I mean it. And now she doesn't push for me to find the slightest flaw. She says, "You're saying that because you love me."
Yes, I say, and because I love her, it's true.
Christopher Dickey is Newsweek’s Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor. His most recent book is The Sleeper.