Physical beauty is such a massive, overwhelming force in people’s lives — especially women’s. I’ve always felt so uncomfortable just thinking about it. Uncomfortable, yet driven. Obsessed and despairing. The anxiety of it comes out especially when I’m thinking about getting older, these days, being as I’ve made it to the ripe old age of 28. (Might as well be dead!)

I’ve been occasionally featuring postcards from PostSecret, an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. I’ve been reading PostSecret for many years, and I’m uncertain when I began saving postcards, so I can’t date the following images; they could have come from any time, because I’ve always been so freaked out about this. And so has everyone else, apparently.

“I am more worried about aging than I am about dying.”

Me too, postcard. Me too.

I feel like my brain often goes through backflips, wanting to think about beauty but shying away from it too. I slammed up against this limitation a lot when I was researching and writing Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser — the pickup artist community is so obsessed with feminine beauty, and I felt so torn between hating that and wanting their validation. I think dealing with them made me more anxious about it, though it could also just be getting older.

I work so hard to see men’s perspective, but I can’t help resenting the way a lot of men talk about women’s beauty; for so many men, all they can see is power. So many men miss the slavery of it. A lot of men also miss the absurd schizophrenia, the way so many women trick ourselves into being unable to believe in our own beauty — because that would be vain and shallow and bitchy — so we trick ourselves into not-believing that we’re pretty. Yet we are simultaneously forced to believe we’re pretty in order to believe that we deserve to be out in public, because there is no greater crime than ugliness, for a woman.

A picture of Britney Spears, overlaid with: “I feel your pain. I was once beautiful, too.”

No greater sin than ugliness. Unless it’s being beautiful. Britney really epitomizes that. I made her the focus of an article that I wrote about men’s “visual sexuality” and women’s presentation, because she has taken so much punishment, been assigned so much blame — from both sides of the coin. Britney often comes across as bubbleheaded, but I feel like that’s how I’d come across too, if I had to balance such intense and conflicting imperatives. Sometimes, when I feel hemmed in by a man’s preconceptions about my appearance or my body or my sexuality, my only half-decent defense is to act like an airhead. Especially if I’m afraid of making him angry.

(It’s also a question I focused on in my short story “The End of An Age,” based on the ancient epic of the Ramayana: How much would the most beautiful woman in the world internalize her social punishments, believe that she deserved them?)

“I enjoyed being a beautiful woman … but it’s over and I’m glad because I feel free to be myself now.”

I’d like to believe that’s how I will feel as I get older and older: glad. They call it aging with grace, yes? Something women are expected to do, even as we are simultaneously expected to pull out all the stops to hide every advancing wrinkle. We must be beautiful, but our beauty must also be effortless and “pure.”

It would be nice to feel graceful every time there’s a change to my appearance. Breaking my neck imparted scars and a small amount of weight gain… an amazingly small amount for how much it makes me freak out over photographs on Facebook, which I shouldn’t be looking at because I’m not shallow or vain and don’t care about that stuff. Right? Right. Which is why I’ve never worn much makeup, except that now I feel like I’m behind the curve and I should learn how to do it properly, when I think about it, which I don’t because I’m not shallow. Right.

Not shallow.

I’m still scared, though.

(Shoutout to The Beheld, a smart feminist beauty blog that I follow sporadically.)

(Please note that there are many PostSecret books available for purchase, including A Lifetime of Secrets, and Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives, and Confessions on Life, Death and God, and others.)