‘I’m an ugly woman’

Jo Prins ‘I’m an ugly woman’

A man said this to me on Saturday night. What stuck in my mind was the word ‘woman’, not ‘ugly’. I’d deal with ugly later.  

It all started about a month ago when I shared a photo on my Facebook page of a woman lying on a pile of books.

Beautifully made-up and dressed, her bare legs and high heels crossed. Sensual, even a bit naughty, but not erotic. Or so I thought…

About ten people commented on this tongue-in-cheek post. Mostly women. Everyone, except one, saw the humour in it. The one’s comment? ‘I didn’t expect it of you.’

It made me think. Am I so out of tune? Is the way I appraise women completely off kilter? How do men look at women? And how do women experience it?

This all happened around the same time as two male FHM journalists were fired for joking about corrective rape on Facebook. One encouraged it as ‘punishment’ for a silly dance move; the other said rape can actually be romantic if you drug the woman…

I thought of my four-year-old daughter, Manon. How do I want her to be looked at one day? And in my actions: How am

I ‘programming’ the behaviour of my two-year-old son, Alexander, towards his mother, his sister, women in general?

As a man, is it at all possible to put yourself in a woman’s shoes?

Coincidentally, my wife and I end up watching Tootsie one night, the Oscar-winning 1982 film where Dustin Hoffman plays an actor who so successfully disguises himself as a woman that he lands a part in a popular soapie – as a woman. I google it afterwards.

In an interview Dustin said the most important thing for him about this role was that he looked like a credible woman, not just a man in women’s clothing. If such a transformation weren’t possible, he would drop the project.

And so the seed is planted… My wife, Mariska, will be my ‘friend’ for a night, my sister will babysit and a make-up artist will come to the house to do her damnedest to transform me. If it doesn’t work, we’ll stay home, drink a glass of wine and laugh it off.

Make-up artist Liezl Callaghan tackles my face – as clean-shaven as it was in the army. With my beard gone, my nose is enormous and my chin looks like Jay Leno’s. She decides to make my ‘pretty blue eyes’ the focus point, along with a long, dark wig that covers my eyebrows.

An hour or so later Liezl steps back and looks at me. She tilts her head a bit and says, ‘A bit like Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City…’ My stomach turns.

Fortunately it’s a cold night, so long sleeves to hide my hairy arms and a scarf for the bobbing Adam’s apple won’t look too suspicious. Luckily, I’m also as slender as my wife and fit almost effortlessly into one of her dresses and jackets.

The only problem is trying to shove my size-9 feet into a pair of high-heeled boots. If a fight breaks out somewhere, this girl will definitely not be able to run away…

With a spritz of my wife’s Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue and cute little bag for my cigarettes, my wife/friend and I leave home. Ready to hit 7th Street Melville.

We park right at the bottom of 7th Street. As we get out of the Honda Jazz, the car guard shouts, ‘Evening, sisters!’

We laugh and I place my arm around my wife’s shoulders, like I always do. She says, ‘Uhm, maybe you shouldn’t.’ And I suddenly realise there are three big challenges: my masculine hands, not touching my wife, and my voice.

We decide on Six Cocktail Bar in Melville for a drink. The place is packed, music pumping.

One guy, apparently already wearing beer goggles (or cocktail goggles, in this case), sidles up to us. ‘Good evening, ladies!’ I give a friendly wave and gesture that we’re on our way to get a drink at the bar. The couple next to us buy us each a shooter. The guy is a lawyer, the woman is a nursing sister at Milpark Hospital’s ICU.

I ask, ‘Why the drinks?’

She says, ‘You have guts to walk in here like that. People should accept each other the way they are.’ We’re also invited to a party, which we politely decline.

With the ICU sister’s advice of ‘be self-assured, walk with your shoulders back and chest out’, we cross the road to a new watering hole, called Jo’Anna Melt Bar. Men are frisked at the door, but us girls enter without a hitch.

Waiting for our gin and tonics, I spy the American Psycho character three barstools away. You know the type: a loner in a suit, quietly checking out everyone.

He sips slowly on his beer and his jaw muscles flex every now and again as he bites down too hard.

‘Trouble’, I think. My wife sits between us, so the guy can’t get a proper look at me. But he’s doing his best.

On the other side of the bar a man leans over to his friend to say something. His head motions in my direction. They laugh loudly. I guess both are 40-something. My ‘friend’ protests, but I walk to them to introduce myself – and to hear what they have to say.

Mike is an engineer from Manchester. He is here on contract work for a month or so and he and his friend are drinking at Jo’Anna’s because the place reminds them a bit of home. I decide to tell Mike the story of why I am standing in front of him in a dress. And Mike says, ‘No, I didn’t think you were a man in drag. I just thought you were a really ugly woman.’

Something Dustin said in his Tootsie interview pops into my head: ‘I know I’m an interesting character, but if I ever met myself like this at a party, I wouldn’t speak to me. As a woman I just don’t fit into the physical expectations we were raised with.’ And later the longing: ‘There are too many interesting women I never got to know because of this…’

Later, at home, I pull off my false eyelashes, roll down my pantyhose, wriggle out of the dress and ask for help to take off the bra.

I wasn’t molested tonight. I wasn’t called names. In fact, nothing happened to me, except being dismissed as ‘ugly’. Unimportant, then.

But I could’ve been the Wimbledon women’s champion Marion Bartoli. Or the DA’s parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. A BBC interviewer said that Marion would ‘never be a looker’ – a senior ANC MP said Lindiwe’s backside caried more weight than her arguments.

At home I see how my wife is looking at me. There’s something else in her eyes. And I look at her differently too.

Upstairs in his bed, Alexander is lying at the foot of the bed, as usual. I cover him with the blanket. And Manon?

My daughter lies with her arms outstretched. She’s sleeping the sleep of someone whose whole world is wide and open. And I hope I can keep it that way for her.

» Jo Prins is national books editor of Media24 Afrikaans dailies.

» Get your copy of iMag in City Press on Sundays

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