Thursday, December 17, 2015

The beautiful mystery

It would appear that Santa’s bag this year is going to include a whole lot of selfie-sticks. If my friends’ kids are any indication of the nationwide—perhaps even worldwide—trend, people are becoming whimsically narcissistic at ever earlier ages. Oh don’t frown; I have nothing against selfies (though my own phone does not take photos and the only use I’d have for a selfie-stick would be to reach things on tall shelves because I’m too lazy to get the steppy stool). It’s fun to record moments of your life that might otherwise be forgotten, and to share those moments with other people, and as for critics who claim this practice increases our already disturbingly aggrandized self-absorption, well, clearly that’s not just a factor of selfies alone. People have always cared about how they look; we just have far greater means to satisfy that need. And this brings me to the very atypical subject of my post: beauty. 

This is a huge departure for my writing, and not just because I mostly focus on running, reading, ‘riting, and, er, recipe-ing. Back when I taught freshman composition, I would cringe as soon as I read the opening paragraph of an essay criticizing the way “society” establishes “standards of beauty” that are harmful and wrong. As soon as I see that, I know exactly how the essay is going to go, I know the essay is going to make a lot of good points, and I know it’s going to conclude in a way that will make me sigh and wish I’d become a math teacher. One great thing about math, it’s beautiful without making anyone feel like they need to emulate that beauty. Not so human beauty, and therein lies what I see as the true problem with this ever-popular topic.

We learn from a very early age the power of beauty. The cutest babies get the most attention, after all, and attention is what it’s all about when you’re almost entirely reliant on other people to survive. Imprinted on our brains forever after is the idea that beauty means survival—and, eventually, power. The attractive kids in school are more popular, both with their peers and with adults. People listen to them, want to be friends with them, are far more willing to see them in a positive light, to give them the benefit of the doubt. And of course when puberty hits, well, beautiful is more important than everything else put together. Let’s not kid ourselves: Beautiful people are loved.

Of course this isn’t fair, but it is true for pretty much everyone who relies on visual information. And it is far more significant for girls and women than for boys and men. Obviously physically attractive men have a huge advantage over those who aren’t considered so, but “beautiful” is not a word commonly applied to or associated with maleness. For a woman, though—well, I’ll say from personal experience that it is hard to go a single day without seeing some kind of message or image relating to female beauty.

The fact that beauty is associated with femaleness far more than maleness is one key reason why I believe that any kind of spin you put on the concept of beauty is still going to end up doing more harm than good. No matter how much you want to argue that a person can be “beautiful” in ways that don’t just have to do with physical appearance, I still say that’s crap. People like to say that “inner beauty” is far more important than external attractiveness, but that’s pretty much meaningless. Why call it “inner beauty” when there are far more precise terms for it—kindness, caring, generosity, positivity? Even worse in my view is the recent push for women to “feel beautiful”—not to try to appear attractive to others but to feel beautiful in your own view. This is supposed to be empowering because it shows that your own view of yourself is the most important one there is. OK, but again, why “beautiful”? Why does it matter at all whether I feel like a physically attractive person? Why isn’t it more important to feel satisfied with my life, or excited about the possibilities for the future, or curious about our world? You can argue that if a woman feels beautiful, she will feel confident and empowered—but then why not skip over beautiful and move straight to confident and empowered?

No matter how you spin it, beauty is still going to be about the way you are perceived by others. And in my view, true empowerment comes when you stop worrying about how the world sees you—or even about how you see yourself—and start focusing on the way you see, interpret, deal with, and take action in the world. As weird as it sounds, I dream of the day I can go anywhere in the world without worrying about being stared at, for whatever reason, or ignored, unless that’s what I want. In other words, I want to not have to worry whether I’m beautiful or not because I know it isn’t really all that important.

Does this mean I go everywhere in rumpled clothes and no make-up and hair like a bird’s nest? Of course not. Like anyone else, I want to be taken seriously and granted the respect due to a human being, and that does entail paying attention to physical appearance. Does this mean I look presentable and polished but sexless? Oh hell no. I like to look attractive. I like making my boyfriend’s eyes light up when he sees me in something other than grungy workout clothes or prim-and-proper office attire. Let’s put it this way, despite the fact that you may spend hours creating an enticing profile on Match or some other online dating site, everyone knows full well that the teeny-tiny photo is what’s going to determine whether that profile gets read or not. It’s precisely because of this fact that I am so skeptical of any movement to expand the definition of beautiful.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some very good reasons why this definition has needed to be expanded. There was a time not too long ago when you’d be hard pressed to find any image of beauty that wasn’t fair-skinned. It is real progress that this is no longer true (even if more progress needs to be achieved). It is very wrong that a child with dark skin should be led to believe they will never be considered beautiful. It is also progress that we are finally starting to see a stronger push against thinness being the standard of beauty. The problem, however, as I see it is that making a standard of beauty more inclusive is not addressing the central issue. It may even make things worse in some ways because it continues to reinforce the idea that beauty is something everyone should value as important. Correction: beauty is something everyone should value as being important in women. Do men go around asking each other what makes them feel beautiful? I doubt it. Should they? I don’t see what they gain by doing so. Should women? Well, given my answers to the previous questions, no.

I do not look like a supermodel. Not even close. What’s more, no amount of money I pump into products and procedures will make me look like one (which is good, actually, given that I have no money for such pumping). And you know something—I’m really OK with that. There are women, lots of ‘em, who will always be considered more beautiful than I am. Hooray for them! I’m still OK with that. There are some places on this planet where I would be considered downright ugly. While I’m not happy with this fact, I’m also not expending a whole lot of energy worrying about it. The way the world reacts to my physical presence cannot be ignored, but should not be prioritized. I’m going to try to look my best because as I said at the start of this essay, we learn from an early age that beauty is power, yet I’m also going to focus considerably more of my attention on other things. Every window can show you a different view; the mirror always shows you the same damn thing.

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