Author’s Note: The following narrative is meant as a personal examination of my neuroses. Please see end of blog for disclaimers.
A few months ago, the company I work for worked with a male model/actor on a mini-campaign. As the de facto talking head for brand, I had to interact with this person a few times. Each time, I was extremely on edge, twitchy, and uncomfortable.
It wasn’t the guy’s fault. He was the quintessential showbiz “starlet” (is that a word we use for guys?), which is to say flirty with all and sundry, but in a way that felt kind of expected, considering his “image” and “newcomer” status. I guess it’s a little bit like how, in their rookie years, male KPop idols are expected to do cringey fanservice.
Basically, dude was just doing his job. And I knew that. I have nothing bad to say about how he acted at all. Still, in the one long video we appeared in together, you can see me slowly inch away from him, physically incapable of hiding how tense and uncomfortable I am.
In that video, I am dressed in a loose sweater, boot-cut jeans, and black Chelsea boots. My shoulder-length hair–freshly dyed blue–is disappeared under a beanie, the visible bangs styled in a swoopy part all KPop boy group stans recognize. If you follow me on Instagram, you know this look all too well. It’s what I call my “guy” mode, my “handsome” self.
With a name like “Frankie,” I guess some androgyny was inevitable. My wide shoulders, curve-less frame, square jaw, and low voice (no Elizabeth Holmes acts here) mean that I naturally telegraph a degree of masculinity. And I’m comfortable with that, embrace it even. I like that my looks are a little ambiguous, that the clothes I wear to feel attractive are more Harry Styles than Taylor Swift. I like being “handsome-pretty,” as a college friend once called me; wholeheartedly enjoy challenging the idea that there is one way to be feminine.
In short, when I’m leaning into pretty boy, it’s because doing so makes me feel like a pretty girl.
…but I’ll admit that handsome, sometimes, becomes less about sexy and more about self-preservation.
I bought the outfit I wore in that video a week before the shoot. I bought it because it made my shoulders look big and erased my curves. That day, too, I wore my tightest sports bra, one that flattened my A-cup into nonexistence. I wanted, not just to look like a boy, but to feel like one, because in that moment my brain telegraphed that as feeling safe.
I made it very clear earlier that I knew this male model/actor had to be friendly, flirty, downright rakish even (we should bring that word back), for his job. He turned the charm on everyone, and I knew it was because he felt he had to in order to secure more work. Such is showbusiness.
I knew that, but I still turned myself into a boy so I could escape that charm as much as possible.
Sometimes, I turn into a handsome boy for fun. A lot of the time, actually. But, on rare occasions, I turn into a handsome boy to feel safe. To escape charm and charmers.
I started dressing like a guy in earnest as a university student, coincidentally also the last time of my life I remember being super “girly” on the regular (other than a brief IU phase in my mid-20s, when I fell down the KPop rabbit hole). From my five-inch stiletto boots to my sock-curled hair, to my bright red lipstick smile, I worked to be pretty. And I was.
At least, that’s what a somewhat handsome boy told me. He said I was pretty. Or, well, beautiful. He was charismatic, well-spoken, playful and flirty and charming the way a male model/actor has to be, except that he didn’t have to be this way. It came naturally. He wanted to be this way and enjoyed it. And I enjoyed being around him. I had a crush. And I preened and prettified myself in response.
My efforts did not go completely unnoticed, I guess. Without going into a ton of details, we had a few verbal and physical exchanges that only just managed a PG rating (because, well, purity ring and personal convictions). I fell for him, hard, drawn in by his charm and easy laugh and the way he said, “You look really good today.” every so often. How he’d grab at my arms or nuzzle into my shoulder and murmur, “Your skin is so soft.” How he made me feel like the prettiest girl in the world.
In the end, I was wrong about how he felt. He said sorry, too, for the touches and the words. Still, I couldn’t shake–can’t shake–the feeling that I had been stupid.
Since then, I’ve been scared of a certain kind of charming, aggressively heterosexual guy. Of a certain kind of boy with a pretty face who says pretty words. Of situations where I feel too much like a pretty girl in the presence of a flirting guy.
Because, as a pretty girl, I’m incredibly stupid. I forget words are words. I forget it’s all a hunt, a chase.
And, as a girl, I’m seen as a target.
At least, when I’m a handsome boy, I can be, to them, an equal at best, and invisible at worst. At least, when I flatten my chest and hide my hair and quirk my brow and out-swagger them with the rings in my ears and the bite of my lip…pretty boys with their pretty words won’t think of me as a pretty girl, won’t think to try their charm on me. I can avoid looking and feeling stupid. I can avoid mistaking charm for something real.
When the male model left our studio, I took off the beanie and threw my hair into space buns. I slicked on brighter lipstick, and traded my spiky chains for dainty earrings of moons and stars. In short, I turned into a girl again, and after I was done, I posted this photo.
The male model liked it. He still likes my photos sometimes. It’s always the ones where I’m my girl self, posing and preening and being pretty.
Each time he does, I throw my hair up and chisel my jaw with contour and run my hand through my hair the way I’ve watched Tom Felton, then Ed Westwick, then Park Jimin do. I post photos of this, my other self, and my friends leave heart react emojis and call me handsome and I feel…relief.
Because handsome is safe. Handsome means I’m out of reach. After all, those charming boys with their charming words don’t often start with, “Hello, handsome.”
My brother wrote to me that this sounded pretty heteronormative (and unhealthy) for someone he knew had feminist leanings.
What he says is true, and I’m aware (and saddened) of that fact. I wrote this blog as a means to pick apart why I always felt the need to “man up” around charming men, and why I shy away from flirtation and shoot down physical compliments from the like. When it comes to a certain breed of heterosexual [bleep]bois, after all, also being a boy generally renders you invisible.
That being said, I feel I should make things clear with a disclaimer. So, DISCLAIMER: This blog is a personal reflection of an unhealthy inner narrative. I by no means endorse the prevailing idea that masculinity means one is “safe” from predation, and femininity is not.
I recognize, in fact, that this narrative feeds into a rape culture wherein male victims are unable to come forward, due to the assumption that being male by default makes them sexual aggressors.
Also, I am 100% androgynously dressed, cisgender women are someone’s type, and that person may or may not have “predatory” intentions.
I hope that, by sharing the end results of the toxic mindset that makes masculinity as equivalent to hunter and femininity as equivalent to prey/prize, I am helping build safer spaces for everyone.