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Why We Should Pity the Beautiful

Posted: 04/20/2012 4:50 pm

There's a can't-look-away controversy simmering over a British writer named Samantha Brick who keeps writing columns extolling (or is it bemoaning?) her own beauty.

Brick first stirred transatlantic passion with an adolescent commentary in the Daily Mail in early April, in which she explained "why women hate me for being beautiful." (Yes, it could have been a wry April Fool's joke on readers, though the article was dated April 2.) After critics on several continents derided her as narcissistic, delusional, and -- this must have stung the most -- ordinary-looking, Brick took a bit of time to "recover."

Now, she's penned a sequel. In her latest column, she explains, for all who are dying to know, why her "cup runneth over with self-confidence." The reason: Fatherly devotion. "Ever since the day I came into this world," she writes, "my dad, a retired nurse, has showered me with love and affection."

It's trite at this point to lampoon Brick as a self-absorbed attention-seeker. The regions of the snarkosphere devoted to #SamanthaBrick have been running at overcapacity since she emerged from nowhere to provoke an attack on her beauty so she would have something to defend. But the whole weird spectacle highlights a couple of serious issues that are more relevant than Brick herself, which is probably why her two articles have generated more than 8,000 comments on the Daily Mail's website, and drawn in otherwise sober people, such as NBC anchor Ann Curry.

The first point is that, despite what Brick seems to believe, parents don't do their kids any favors by calling them beautiful or excessively complimenting their natural abilities. They may even do them harm.

This is well understood by psychologists. Kids obviously need to feel secure, loved and supported. But praising a child's innate qualities -- "you're so smart," or "you're so pretty" -- creates the impression that achieving desirable things doesn't require much effort. Assuming that Brick isn't pulling our leg, her commentaries read exactly that way. She describes having free drinks sent her way, getting favored treatment on airplanes and receiving bunches of flowers from strangers. Why? Because "my pleasing appearance and pretty smile made their day."

Well, congratulations, Sam. But what will you do if you ever get old and less pleasing? Or if your pretty smile fails to get the desired result? If you're like other pampered prima-donnas, you'll flail and complain about how unfair life is, instead of mustering the grit it often takes to overcome difficulty and accomplish hard things.

This isn't a trivial problem, because it's common these days for parents to praise their kids as a way of building self-esteem. It isn't. "Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence -- like a gift -- by praising their brains and talent," writes psychologist Carol Dweck in her book Mindset. "It doesn't work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong."

What's far more effective is for kids to learn how to overcome challenges and accomplish things through effort -- just like they'll have to do as adults. Brick might have turned out more competent -- and less whiny -- if she were less attractive and learned to buy her own drinks and flowers.

The second point is that Brick's fixation on her own beauty may prevent her from seeing the real reason people don't like her. I've never met Brick, so I can't say for sure, but her writing makes her seem vapid and humorless. (Check for yourself, here.) Her Daily Mail stories are festooned with pictures of herself, like a 12-year-old's Facebook page. (Brick is 41.) The host of one British TV program on which Brick appeared suggested that maybe people dislike her because of her arrogance and "air of superiority," rather than her beauty. Brick found that implausible.

Again, there's an unfortunate universality to Brick's neurosis. Many people come up with rationalizations that excuse their own shortcomings and transfer the blame to others. To Brick, her detractors don't just find her irritating or shallow; they're jealous of her looks and her easy success. The trouble is that such rationalizations prevent people from seeing the real problem, and therefore, from improving themselves. In my forthcoming book, Rebounders, this is a trait I associate with "wallowers" who struggle to get ahead and never understand why. Rebounders, by contrast, have the self-awareness and confidence that it takes to accurately recognize their own flaws and make themselves better.

There are many attractive people, of course, who work hard to get ahead, by relying on ability, not looks, and pursuing self-sufficiency instead of self-flattery. Brick gives them a bad name. Too bad. Beauty begins as an asset. You have to muff it up pretty bad to turn it into a problem.

 
 
 

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