The Eliza Doolittle Complex

Audrey_Hepburn_-_1964I have a bit of a complex. It has to do with my appearance. And it is totally ego-centric, vain, and narcissistic. Here’s how it goes: there is a normal part of me that generally wants to look good, all the time; but another, more cunning and meticulous part of me wants me to look like I don’t care that much about my appearance. Believe me, I care. But I definitely don’t want to look like I’m trying.

Probably ever since seeing the film My Fair Lady as a kid, I have had this fantasy about being noticed by someone who recognizes that I could look a lot better than I do. A Henry Higgins if you will, but not so much a speech therapist and etiquette coach as a Clinton and Stacy team.

Granted, there is a new aspect to this situation since becoming a mother that doesn’t really allow me any time to care. And there is the fact that I adore feeling comfortable more than feeling cute. And also that I can’t really afford to have a great wardrobe & a fabulous haircut every six weeks. Plus, I was about half-tomboy as a kid (“half” because on top of playing soccer and practicing my free throw during my spare time, I loved dressing up and playing “ladies” and have tea parties with my cousin).

So to make a long story short, here’s a list of things I could probably do but don’t really want to:

  • Wear make-up
  • Shave my legs more than twice a month
  • Wear heels once in a while
  • Pay some attention to my nails
  • Spend more than 46 seconds on my hair
  • Wear some jewelry besides my wedding band
  • Pluck my eyebrows more carefully and thoroughly
  • Refrain from buying pants and t-shirts in the boys’ section at the store
  • Exercise?

Ok, so here is where it gets more complex. Besides wanting to be some kind of diamond in the rough, waiting to be discovered and made over, which may be partly responsible for this behavior, there is part of me that does (or doesn’t do) these things out of a kind of feminist rebellion. Part of me is simply a minimalist. And part of me has grown so accustomed to not giving the time for these things, that it has really become an issue of practicality. I mean, I already have 50 more things than I can actually accomplish on my daily to-do list. But I still have a fantasy that underneath my boyishness/sloppiness, I am stunning and that my Henry Higgins will notice that beauty and want to bring it out. Besides, what girl hasn’t wished she were Audrey Hepburn?

So what’s your personality contradiction?

(Cross-posted on my personal blog.)


I am a children's librarian. I have 2 kids. I have a professor for a husband. I obsess about writing and about making things.

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  1. Caroline says:

    Brooke, this was so much fun to read!

    So many thoughts crossed my mind as I was reading this. First, that part of you that cares about what you look like, but doesn’t want to look like you care, totally reminds me of Mike. (That’s why he opted for the shaved head for so many years, and fought so hard against having a real haircut. Having a real haircut would make it look like he actually cared.)

    I think I personally am more willing to look like I care about my looks. I wear makeup usually, high heels often, jewelry almost every day, worry about my weight often (damn those 55 baby pounds!).

    On the I don’t care side, I rarely shave my legs, exercise, and I’ve never had a manicure. And as I get older, I become more and more interested in the feminist rebellion aspect of not buying into mass market media projections of female beauty.

    At this point in my life, I don’t have many Eliza Doolittle fantasies about someone discovering my fabulous physical potential. (Though I fully admit to having them before I married.)

    Now I think my general goal is to a) feel good about myself and b) not be physically repulsive to people who have to look at me.

  2. jana says:

    I feel like I’m a mass of contradictions in this area, too. The thing is that I care very much about what I wear and how I look. I want to look clean and tidy and healthy and ‘put-together.’ I want to wear clothes that show good taste and not necessarily knowledge of the latest fashions.

    But the bottom line is that I have yet to find the kind of clothes that I can wear for everything I do on a daily basis. What can I wear to the garden, the gym, to Target, and then still looks good when I’m teaching? Nothing really. So I often end up changing 4 or 5 times/day which just makes me crazy (and means lots of extra work in laundry, etc). I’ve also totally given up on finding a decent pair of jeans. My body just doesn’t look good in them (I either end up with too-tight in the seat/thighs or ‘Mom jeans’ that sit 4″ above my navel). bleh.

    I like having a nice haircut, but many of the women that I think are most beautiful are natural-looking–their hair is long, full of body, and unlayered. I want to be like that, too, though I’ve learned that it just won’t work with the texture of my hair (baby-fine and stick-straight). I’ve given up on nice nails because they quickly get thrashed in the garden. My eyebrows are probably my biggest weakness–I indulge in a $10 eyebrow wax every few months (I justify it by the fact that I don’t wear make-up so well-groomed eyebrows are my way of making my face look cared-for).

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I care and I want not to care. I want to just look stupendous w/o the effort. But I also recognize that there’s a baseline of beauty/fashion that I need to participate in so I can feel good about myself when I am interacting in society. So what I am constantly navigating is that line between what I need to do to feel good about myself and what I can conveniently ignore.

    And every once in awhile I will see some diva dress in a magazine and I will have a brief fantasy about me in that dress with gorgeous hair, makeup, etc. Those little Audrey Hepburn moments generally fade quickly…especially when I’m headed out the door and I want to wear what’s most comfortable and “me.”

  3. C.L. Hanson says:

    I have a related complex. I want to look good, and have posted photos to that effect, but in reality world I cannot be bothered to do the slightest thing for my appearance. Not wearing make-up or contacts, not doing more to my hair than combing, not shaving my legs out of season, not bothering to buy attractive clothing.

    I honestly think that my main problem is the Internet. Since my primary social network has become my blog network, all that matters is being capable of doing the occasional nice photo-op — looking good on a daily basis no longer matters…

  4. AmyB says:

    This was fun to read. The people in my hipster-infiltrated neighborhood spend a great deal of energy making it look like they are sloppy and don’t care. I kind of like it, because then on days when I really don’t feel like doing anything, even combing my hair, I can still go out to the corner diner and fit right in.

    I’m good about getting myself to the gym and while I get all flustered and shy when I get compliments on my appearance, I secretly really love it. (Although I don’t love catcalls or comments from Mr. Rico Suave on the street).

    One of my contradictions I deal with is my skin. I have acne. I thought that was a phenomenon that would pass after adolescence, but it never did. I have found a product that works pretty well if I am religious about washing my face. Somehow, as much as I hate the zits, I can’t make myself wash my face every night. (Morning is no problem). How ridiculous is it that I have the solution, but just can’t seem to apply it!

  5. Dora says:

    Thanks for this post, Brooke.

    I think we all tend to factor externals into our assessments of others. Beauty and symmetry are indicators of health, and are generally taken to be indicators of goodness. And there are times that I very deliberately “prink” in order to seem more attractive. But I also have time when I jsut don’t have the time or will to put in the extra effort.

    Don’t we all wish that others would recognize our diamond-in-rough-ness? That others could see past our external fascades and discover the god-like qualities that reside beneath the surface?

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way others will start to see The Best Me, is for me to see the best in others (which is another part of being The Best Me). I confess that I’m not always very good at looking very hard for the best in others. But it’s something I’m working on.

  6. amelia says:

    i’m full of all kinds of “personality contradictions,” as you put it. loving difficult, thought-provoking literature but also completely mindless escapist fiction (ditto for films). i regularly surprise people because i’m a fairly outspoken and opinionated feminist (certainly for mormon circles) but i do all kinds of traditionally feminine things (bake, knit/crochet, scrapbook, etc.). sometimes being both mormon and a feminist intellectual feels like a contradiction.

    i used to struggle with feeling like these things that i am cannot coexist–that i somehow had to reconcile these seemingly contradictory aspects of myself with each other in order to be a person of integrity. i’ve since decided that since they do coexist in me, then it must not be impossible for them to coexist.

    i share some of your appearance contradiction. but mine is less about wanting to look like i don’t care and more about the different ways in which i put myself together. i don’t really care whether others think i put effort into looking nice. i have a daily regimen of washing and shampooing and moisturizing. and most days styling, though i have no problem using a bandana to deal with my hair on days when i don’t feel like styling. most days that’s all i do. i’m clean. i style my hair. good enough. but there are days when i feel like make-up. once in a while those days are minimal in the make-up–a kind of made-up natural look that’s very similar to my typical. but usually if i go for make-up, i go all out. i don’t have set eyeshadow colors i always use. i play with color–green, purple, blue, orange, metallics, in addition to the more typical browns and taupes. and bold lipstick–i probably have ten different red lipsticks, a few purples and even one with a green glimmer (i know; it sounds bizarre), in addition to the usual spectrum of more muted colors. and that sometimes strikes people as contradictory. but again, from my perspective it’s just a matter of doing what i feel like no matter how much those things don’t seem in keeping with each other. and i kind of like it that way.

    all of the incarnations of my appearance have to do with feminism on some level. with control of my appearance, whether it is in keeping with a trend or expectation or ignoring expectation. i like having hair so short that some people do a doubletake to see if i’m a man or a woman. i like jarring people out of their idea of the natural version of me by arriving all made up. i like using my appearance to assert that i, and only i, make the decisions about how i look and what my body will and will not be subject to when it comes to being beautiful.

  7. Deborah says:

    It has never ever crossed my mind to get my eye-brows plucked. Do most women do this? It’s just never dawned on me . . . I’m feeling out of the loop . . .

  8. amelia says:

    that’s funny deborah. i had no idea about it either, until i went away to college. but it’s one of those things i refuse to do. hurts too much. my eyebrows are good enough. but lots of women do it.

  9. Brooke says:

    Well, Amelia and Deborah obviously don’t have impending uni-brows.

    Caroline, I think those are the perfect goals to have.

    Like Jana, I think when it comes down to someone actually giving me a make-over, I would probably hate it. I really just want to be me and be loved by everyone for it. 🙂

    C.L., I loved seeing your blog. Fun pics! Also, if I lived where there is an off season for shaved legs, I’d skip months at a time.

    Amelia, I love how you do what you want/feel, and give yourself the freedom of lots of options. Your last paragraph especially struck me. So empower-inspiring!

  10. Heather O. says:

    Emily Watts, author of “Being the Mom” and ‘Take Two Chocolates and Call me in the Morning’ talks about this very issue. For a long while, she neglected her appearance for a variety of reasons: she didn’t have time, she couldn’t afford a nice wardrobe, jewelry, etc, and besides, she was going to lose weight any day now so she didn’t really deserve new clothes, etc. Then she admitted that she neglected herself because if she did, then she could continue to labor under the delusion that she really was a pretty woman underneath it all, she just wasn’t letting it out. After all, what would happen if she DID get all dolled up, and she really WAS unattractive?

    She reconciled this by remembering what a beautiful gift a body is, especially a healthy one, which her is. She decided to take some time and do some basic things: buy some basic pieces for her wardrobe, get a cuter haircut–nothing fancy or expensive, but definitely more stylish, and actually use scented lotion to make her feel more feminine. Her long neglected body came alive, and she felt more feminine and beautiful than she had ever felt before, and wondered why she hadn’t given herself this gift earlier.

    I think the point is that there should be a balance between obsessing over looks and doing things makes us feel good about who we are. And that can range from getting our eyebrows waxed (yes, I do it, and I actually love it–9 bucks always well spent!) to simply using a lotion that lifts our spirits and makes us feel better about ourselves.

    I, of course, am not waiting for a speech therapist. I’m waiting for the recruiter from the Rockettes to say, “How on EARTH have we survived thus far without seeing those legs on stage?”

    Hasn’t happened yet. Hmmm…maybe I should shave more often?

  11. Kiri Close says:

    Not even my Phd in Philosophy (I even studied with Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek!) could erase my idol worship for the Emancipation of Mimi! (lol!). Like, for reals. MC is one of my music and attitude idols. Toss in there Aretha, Alicia, Rihanna, and some Christina A.

    However, I don’t do make-up anymore because I was sick of putting it on/off almost every night when I danced the Night Show at the Polynesian Cultural Center (hmmm, another discussion of the exotique can be had here, but we’ll save this for another day). Good, glittery lipgloss is enough for me these days.

    Dare I add that when I have money, I love 5 inch platforms and Vuitton handbags (thank you Marc Jacobs!). There’s one in particular that has me in tangles ’cause I can’t find it online or anywhere. Last time I spotted it was in the Vuitton section of Harold Square Macy’s in Manhattan, NYC.

    Then I think of all the cows and other now-dead animals due to my vanity.

    But is it okay if I don’t buy all the time, only occasionally to feed some version of material, societal, ‘Eliza Doolittle’ validation?

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