Why do I feel far more beautiful in London or New York than when back home in Ireland?

My estimation of my own sexual and physical worth has always dramatically fluctuated depending on location and context.

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Some time ago, I freed myself from the idea that there is a way objectively and definitively to rank attractiveness. When I was a kid, it seemed obvious that there was a scale of beautiful with, say, Monica Bellucci coming in at the 100 end and myself languishing around the 12 mark. Every new girl I came into contact with was immediately sized up – often with the melancholy thought that whatever man I was interested in at the time would take one look at them and realise they had come up short by choosing to be with me.

I’m not sure exactly what deconstructed this hateful system. Perhaps it was simply ageing beyond what I had been informed were my peak years by men with something to gain from keeping women fearful of losing their youth. Certainly, it’s a pleasant surprise that, at 30, my sexual capital seems to have vastly increased from where it stood previously, when I might have been considered more normatively attractive. I think this is to do with need. It isn’t that I’ve ever been financially dependent on a man – my tastes sadly run far too close to the unemployed “artist” for that. But something about the way I lived until recently meant I always felt on the back foot, never enough like a real person. I was always frantic and struggling to stay afloat, and couldn’t seem to live in a way that felt coherent or self-contained. Being desired held almost too much importance for me, lending weight to what felt like a flimsy life.

Now that things have changed and stabilised for me, I need very little from anyone in any material sense. My life goes on existing with or without a partner. And, of course, when you stop needing something, that’s when people want to give it to you most. So, at present, despite being calmly aware of my physical limitations, I generally feel confident and secure in my attractiveness.

Lately, though, I was reminded that this sense of security in my own appeal is conditional and situational. I had forgotten, having been stuck in the same place all year, that how attractive I feel is more than a little dependent on where I am at a given time. It was a disorienting shock to remember I am capable of feeling as sullenly lumpen as I did when I was a teenager. This time it wasn’t so bad: I ventured to a seaside town in Suffolk with the man I’m dating, and immediately realised I had packed badly. I had leaned too far into my excitement for domestic cosiness and fireside pie-eating and brought nothing but loose-fitting garments in plush, infantile fabrics. This was all well and good for our cottagecore cosplay indoors, but when we left to eat in a restaurant or have a drink, I was embarrassed and gawkily self-conscious. I felt all wrong, in a way I hadn’t in quite a long time.

I realised my estimation of my own sexual and physical worth has always dramatically fluctuated depending on location and context. The most obvious example of this is when I return to Ireland, when all the confidence I have slowly accumulated over the past decade vanishes overnight, not to be seen again until I am back on the Gatwick-London Bridge train a few weeks later. At home, I am all too aware of how I looked at 12, 16, 20 – all the different kinds of bodies I’ve had. I’m either shamed by comparing them to my 30-year-old body, or filled with horror at the muscle-memory of my pubescent awkwardness. I feel it all too intimately in a way I never do anywhere else.

When I venture to Dublin, where I lived between 18 and 25, I struggle with a need to prove myself to a city I spent so long making a mess of myself in. It’s difficult confidently to saunter about when you’re going by a club you passed out in, or a supermarket you shoplifted ham from before walking up the street eating it straight from the packet. If I look and feel good in Dublin, it is tainted by my defensiveness. I am incapable of feeling attractive and successful without broadcasting it outward: “See how much I’ve changed? I’m all right now! The person you remember drinking the ends of discarded pints in nightclubs can afford fancy lipstick and brunch!”

I have never felt less gorgeous than when in Greece, despite it being easily the most sensual and beautiful place I’ve ever lived. When I first started spending time there in 2016, I would sometimes note a person staring in curiosity at my damp, pale but incandescently flushed self wriggling on the metro. It would be impossible for anyone from Greece to look so profoundly ill at ease with their surroundings. I may as well have had “TOURIST” tattooed on my forehead, and there is nothing sexy about tourists. In the end, I invited a casual boyfriend from London to visit me to relieve myself from seemingly not being recognised as a woman at all.

You’d think that in big cities – where astonishingly beautiful people tend to congregate – I would do badly by comparison. But in both London and New York I feel great, better than ever. In these places, I understand the ecosystem of cultural capital and charisma: what I lack in a yoga-honed physique or poreless skin I instinctively make up for in shared interests and a certain way of dressing and presenting myself. In hot countries, all my tricks fall away, replaced by barely-there outfits which communicate nothing to the viewer aside from “I am uncomfortable”.

In the long run it’s probably a good thing my confidence comes and goes in this manner. Not because I’m in any danger of considering myself exceptional – I’m too pragmatic about my particular charms and deficiencies for that. But because I know it’s dizzyingly temporary. There are beautiful, attractive people of all ages, of course, but the feeling of being widely desired as you walk anonymously through a city has a shelf life for most of us. When I lose that feeling now, it reminds me of all the skills I learned before I felt attractive, and how glad I am to know they’re still around. 

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 16 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?

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