Soon the limousines will begin their parade to Lincoln Center, delivering celebrities and industry insiders to the spectacle that is fashion week in New York City. Photographers and video crews will let the rest of us catch glimpses of the styles on television or the internet. They let us in on the excitement of watching models work their outfits in front of movie stars and other icons of beauty whose upturned faces register the approval, astonishment, or disappointment we feel at home.
However, the emotions that ripple across the faces in the crowd, and through every woman who will experience fashion week at a distance, are far more complex than any designer's most intricate work. Of course we are impressed by the creations displayed during the week's hundred-or-so events. But if we check our hearts more closely, we can also discover more painful feelings that wash over us in the moments after the show is over, or when we click off the TV.
We ask ourselves, "Was there anything in that show that would look good on me?" More often than not, the answer that comes back is "No, except for maybe some of the shoes." The leap from this realization -- that none of those fashions are right for me -- to feelings of self doubt, insecurity and shame is a short one. Shorter still is the distance between this insecurity and the fear that it's not the clothes that are wrong, it is me. "I wouldn't feel this way," we think to ourselves, "if I wasn't ugly."
There. I said it. Fashion week makes us feel thrilled, excited, inspired, and ugly.
And by "us" I don't mean just the women sitting at home in their pajamas catching up on the show courtesy of "Entertainment Tonight" or "E! News." If the women in the chairs at the runway shows are anything like the rest of us, 95 out of 100 felt pangs of discomfort, feelings of insecurity and, if they are honest enough to admit it to themselves, the fear that they ARE just a little bit ugly, as they viewed the shows and reflected on them later. I'd even bet that the majority of the models, those paragons of beauty who can actually wear couture creations, also worry that they are ugly.
How can I be so certain that the fear of ugliness lurks inside so many women? I am certain because every human being who occupies this planet is ugly in one way or another. If you don't think you are included in this number, just wait awhile. The wear and tear of life guarantees that a little bit of ugly happens to all of us, eventually. Chins sag, bellies bulge, the hair thins, and wrinkles form. Ugliness happens. It is as much a part of the human condition as birth and death.
The problem isn't ugliness but rather, how we think about it. Thanks in large part to mass media and the diabolical brilliance of advertisers who play on our fears to sell us everything imaginable, ugliness has become one of the most dreadful conditions that a woman can imagine. It ruins your prospects for finding friends, or a romantic partner, or acceptance in almost any group. You might say this has always been true and you would be right, to a degree. The difference today is the ever more extreme standard we set for those who would escape the ugly fate.
Every season the beauty ideal gets a little more refined, and a little further out of reach. Before you know it, you aren't showcasing your natural beauty but scrambling to cover any suggestion that you are ugly. And since every square inch can be assessed and found wanting, we all have something ugly to hide. With time those flaws multiply, and before you know it you live in fear that someone will discover your secret. It's as if we're trying to "pass" as pretty in the same way that people have, historically, tried to "pass" in order to escape being noticed as a member of an oppressed racial, ethnic, or religious minority.
This fear, which I have seen in every person I have ever treated in my psychotherapy office or taught as a social work professor at Empire State College, is practically universal in the industrialized (and therefore media saturated) world and can become so intense that it inhibits our choices in life. This ugliphobia, as I call it, can seem irrational, but if you think about it more closely you'll see that it is based on a fairly accurate view of society. In an age when the law and the rules of civil discourse make all other forms of prejudice taboo, it's still okay to put down people based on their appearance. It is the last acceptable form of bigotry.
Faced with competing truths -- that ugliness is both inevitable and frightening -- anyone who wants to find some peace must make the choice to overcome the fear. This can be accomplished when we stop denying that ugliness exists and instead recognize it as universal. What we call ugliness, and what we have been taught to fear, is both the natural variation in the human form and the outer manifestation of our life experience. Ugliness isn't the opposite of beauty but rather, its companion. And just as we are all beautiful in a unique and interesting way, so, too, are we all uniquely ugly.
This realization -- that we are all ugly and beautiful at the same time -- allows us to accept ourselves and others without the fear and denial that make us inauthentic, insecure and isolated. It can also make fashion week a much more joyous experience. When you know that everyone on the runway, and everyone watching, is ugly, it's much easier to focus on the art that the designers and their models are putting on display. With this point of view, the shows are not an opportunity to compare ourselves to some ideal and find ourselves lacking. Instead they are a celebration of color, shape, texture and movement.
Take a look at those models strutting their stuff and remember, it doesn't matter how you would look in those clothes. That's not the point. It's a fashion "show" not a representation of reality. And those "models" are similarly representational, replicas, if you will, and not examples of a woman in full. The fantasy they create is there for us to enjoy in all our beauty and ugliness.