A 9-year-old girl with a face so swollen by fat that her features are indistinguishable comes home from school crying. She gets teased, other children call her names. Her mother's response is to tell her that she's beautiful, no matter what anyone else says.
A 23-year-old woman with a mouthful of damaged teeth is distraught because she can't afford to fix them and, in the prime of her life, she can't get a date and her job prospects are diminished. Her friends rally around her, telling her that people are shallow, one day she'll have the money and the right person won't care about her looks. Besides, they say, you're beautiful.
A brilliant 40-year-old political science professor, with thinning hair and a face ravaged by pockmarks, is consistently turned down for public speaking gigs that would elevate her career. She turns to her peers for advice. After reminding her about hair treatments and dermatologists (she's already tried both), they tell her to put the negativity out of her mind. "If they don't appreciate that you're smart and beautiful, it's their loss. They're the ones who are missing out."
I understand that we live in a culture where "beautiful" and "female" have a long and complicated relationship. I know that women want to comfort each other through the hurt of living in an air-brushed, surgically-enhanced, Top Model, Cover Girl society. I also know that the word "beautiful" can be used to describe the inner person and not just their looks. But I have to wonder if we're really doing ourselves more harm than good when we insist on giving beauty such a dominant space in the sphere of women's lives and conversations. Even in "acceptance" movements, beauty is a central theme.
Why is not okay to be un-beautiful? Why is it so painful to admit a lack of objective beauty where it may not, in any objective sense, exist?
I can tell you from over 35 years of first-hand experience, from when my face first got smashed with a baseball bat and my teeth were ruined, that it's a mind-f*ck to be told "you're beautiful" when nearly every single consequential, real-world factor tells you otherwise. I can assure you that when my ankle swelled to elephant size at 16 and when I was covered with head-to-toe psoriasis in my 20s and 30s, that the world outside did not find me "beautiful." I can tell you that I spent the prime of life celibate and alone; that jobs and promotions were hard to come by and that out of social necessity, I spent a ton of energy and more money than I had trying to downplay my physical unattractiveness, and there will still be women whose first instinct is to tell me that I'm beautiful. This insistence has always felt diminishing to the reality of my experiences. It has always felt like a special woman-to-woman lie -- a strictly feminine code that seeks to replace an unwanted truth with a pretty fiction.
Yet, when we of the unattractive class walk out into that great, big world we know better. Whether we are 9, 23 or 40, we know when we are not physically beautiful. We know when we are physically damaged. We know the real-life effects of our social disadvantage, and we know -- God, do we know -- that no amount of self or other-woman affirmations about "beauty" is going to change something that much of the world finds off-putting, unattractive or even repulsive. We may appreciate that our friends find "beauty" in us, but when those perceptions don't line up with the realities we face, it doesn't feel quite right. It doesn't feel understanding, empathetic or genuine, but like a belief we're goaded into because "beauty" is just so damn important -- at least to those who insist that without it, we just won't feel good about ourselves.
Why does the matriarchy feel so drawn to steeping itself in assurances of beauty? Not that I'm using men as a role model, but they don't tip-toe around the subject of physical attractiveness, stopping to console each other that their beer bellies, balding heads and scarred faces are really, truly beautiful. They don't insist on denying their realities or the realities of other men by promoting the concept that all men are "handsome" in their own way. Instead, they have come to take for granted a patriarchy where "handsome" may be a gift, but unattractiveness is really not that big of a deal.
I wish we'd get there. I suspect that when women quit focusing so much on beauty, theirs and other women's -- whether physical or in the broad sense of personality -- that we will be able to change our real-world consequences. We will be more truthful, more realistic, more effective and therefore more tangibly helpful to one another.
I learned to live with my un-beauty. In the absence of dates and career success, I developed and honed other qualities. I'm smart, well-read, charitable, passionate and empathetic. I'm not afraid to take risks. I'm strong, aware, emotionally accessible and interested in the world around me. I'm loyal to those I love and I'm willing to put up a good fight for causes I care about. This is enough for me. It has to be, because it is what I have to offer myself and others in the absence of prettiness, in the absence of beauty.
Instead of telling the distraught 9-year-old something that does not reflect the truth of her reality, I would encourage her to develop her own, unique talents and take pride in her accomplishments. I would teach her how to defend herself and how to seek out supportive people. I would help her in whatever concrete way I could, without caving into the emptiness of the beauty paradigm.
Instead of denying the realities of other women's consequences with throwaway bromides about beauty, I'd rather stand next to them and say, "Yes, we've got to change this. How can we take the focus off of beauty and direct it toward something more valuable?" If I wanted to point out their sterling qualities, I would use the most truthful adjectives -- one of the hundreds that might describe an admirable character -- like kind, loving, generous, intelligent, sensitive, compelling or fearless.
We're never going to make it okay to not be physically beautiful if we don't get off this beauty kick we've been on for so long. We're not going to change our futures and those of other women as long as "beautiful" remains a priority. We're not going to change the culture that places such an inordinately high premium on female attractiveness as long we keep promoting beauty myths through the lies we tell ourselves and each other.
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