I was on the train, heading back to NYC from New Jersey and there were three guys sitting behind me. They were talking about life. Which meant that they were mostly talking about girls.
“Sometimes some girls ask me if I have an ideal woman,” said the guy with the deep, commanding baritone, his voice carrying over the crackling of a broken ceiling speaker. He paused for dramatic effect.“I can give you measurements.”
The other guys chuckled, low and a little menacing.
Deep Voice didn’t leave his bros wondering. “34 C,” he said. “Definitely 34 C…”
“Yeah…” said the other guys, savoring the measurement.
“A 24-inch waist. Hips, 36.”
Murmurs of agreement.
“She’d be 5′ 7″.”
“Weigh about 130.”
His authoritative voice went on and on and I sat there, tensed in my seat, suddenly uncomfortable and on-edge. Suddenly, I was much younger, much less sure of myself, and I was thinking that I didn’t know how big around my waist is but I am positive it’s bigger than 24 inches. And I was thinking that my breasts will probably never fill a C cup, and that my rib cage is too big for a 34, and so I have both a larger frame and smaller breasts than this guy’s ideal woman. Which, in that misguided, flash of a moment, felt like I was failing. I am not an ideal woman, I thought.
This is ridiculous, I thought next. I am not 18 anymore. Who cares what this faceless guy behind me on the train thinks about anything?
But in the ridiculous moment before, it’d seemed like he was somehow speaking for all men.
I had a brief fantasy about turning around in my seat and saying something. But what would I say?
“Do you want to hear about my ideal man? I can tell you exactly how long his penis is.”
I knew I wouldn’t turn around. Instead, I hunched lower in my seat and listened, feeling invisible and acutely aware of my imperfect body, all at once.
“I don’t know, man,” another of the guys was saying now. “I don’t think that much about measurements…”
But he was cut off by the first guy, who was asking him about some girl he’d hooked up with.
“No, but was her name Christine or Christina, because she’s a junior, right? So she’d be at—” here he said the name of an institution—”And Bobby is there. He knows everyone so he’d know her. Brown hair?”
“Yeah, maybe Christina,” said the guy who wasn’t sure about measurements. “Maybe Christine. I don’t know man, but she was hot. Blond, I think. Really skinny. Definitely really skinny and blond. And tall. I’ve been thinking about Facebooking her.”
“Yo, speaking of hot girls,” said Deep Voice, “I ran into Lydia at —” Another name of a place I didn’t recognize. “She’s really cute. But her abs are too thick, you know what I mean? I don’t like girls with thick abs.”
Thick abs? What? Is that even a thing? I tried to figure out what else he could possibly have meant. My brain tried to work it into “thick arms.” That would make sense, I thought, looking down at mine. But it wouldn’t fit. Thick ass? It had really sounded like “thick abs.”
“I bet it’s totally different, in the real world, with girls,” said the third guy, who hadn’t said much so far.
Deep Voice was ready for this. “Yeah, it definitely is, man. After college, girls are really into money. It’s like, if you go out to Wall Street, even if you’re this nerdy guy, and like a year later you come back with 20 mil in the bank, then they’re gonna be all over you. Like, at the reunion. It’s totally different.”
Suddenly I knew who they were. They were Princeton students! They were boys who didn’t know anything about anything. $20 million, your first year out of school? Or ever? It was laughable.
They talked about the social hierarchy for a while and a lot of their conversation was lost to the crackling of the broken speaker. There was discussion about the eventual first reunion they would attend, and mentions of how the girls in New York City would be all over them, when they moved there after graduation, and speculation about whether it was better to be at this place or that place. The places, I realized, were eating clubs. Students at Princeton join big frat-like groups their freshman year, and their social lives, housing, and food all revolve around their groups. I remember, when I took the campus tour at 17, how they were cheerfully described by a current student.
“But what if you don’t get into one?” someone asked.
She explained that that was rare, but that there was alternative housing, for the kids who got left behind.
I remember the horror rising in my throat at the thought of being one of the kids who didn’t get picked for an eating club.
Deep Voice told his friends about a few other girls he knew who were flawed but acceptable, and one of the less important guys told the story of grabbing this girl and kissing her at a party, and then walking away as she shouted after him, “Hey! You’re not allowed to kiss me!” He snickered, pleased with himself.
Then there was a story about this girl one of the guys had hooked up with after a party.
“I didn’t get her name. I mean, she wasn’t that hot.”
Laughter. Deep Voice: “She served her purpose.”
I tensed again. I wished for a second that I looked like a supermodel or a movie star. Then, I thought, I would whip around in my seat so that the full-impact of my hotness blinded them, and say something scolding or insulting. Looking like myself, I didn’t feel powerful enough. They sounded so sure about girls. About what girls were worth. About how girls were divided up and measured and ranked. And I still felt like a college girl.
The guys stood up at the Newark airport stop. They fussed with their bags for a minute, and I got my first look at them.
My breath caught.
I was grinning, suddenly.
It was a short Indian guy with acne and a dumb tee-shirt, a tall, gangly white guy with unfashionable glasses and puffy hair, and an Asian guy whose chest seemed to cave in, with stringy too-long hair, and round glasses.
He was Deep Voice. The last one. The scrawniest, most fragile-looking of the lot. The one with the most oblivious hair.
I laughed. They didn’t look over. They were too busy showing off for each other.
I was flooded with relief.
Why? Because they weren’t threatening-looking. Because they were just little boys. Because they looked like they had never gotten kissed, let alone hooked up after every party. Because they suddenly were no one to me, so I didn’t care about their judgments. About their favorite measurements. I didn’t care about them.
Sort of like the way they didn’t care about the girls they met who weren’t hot enough.
They got off the train. A quiet, middle-aged couple took their place. I sat beneath the enthusiastic crackling of the speaker and thought about the boys, all the way to Secaucus.
Before I had known that they were wearing stupid T-shirts. Before I had known that they were kids my youngest brother’s age. Before I had known that they didn’t know anything—I had been automatically diminished by them. Deep Voice had made me feel like I didn’t matter, for a few minutes, on NJ Transit. Just because my measurements are different from those of his “ideal woman.”
What’s that about?
That’s about beauty and body image. It’s about the way that your self-esteem is constructed, as a girl, and the way it evolves as a woman. It’s about worth. It’s about what makes girls important.
But it’s also about me. And someday, I hope that Deep Voice makes me laugh first, before I know who he is or what he looks like. Or maybe I’ll turn around in my seat and say, “Can you please keep your voice down? I don’t really want to hear you talking about girls like that.” And it won’t matter what I look like, because I will be powerful no matter what.