September 24, 2015 | Feature
stop looking at me!
I have, on innumerable occasions, had friends tell me they did not think they were beautiful, or not beautiful enough. They wanted to eat less and exercise more. They were jealous of others’ appearances, and the life afforded by a lovely face. They thought that their relationships would be better if their partners found them more desirable—and, at the same time, they thought the very fact that the health of their relationship depended at all on their appearance was troubling and unfair. I have never had a satisfactory response. I have, on almost every occasion, provided the appropriate ones: you are beautiful, or sometimes, you are beautiful to me. Diet and exercise are good, but for health reasons. I understand how you feel, and I do not and cannot judge you, for I have felt the same things and seen how complex a matter it is to assign blame. I am here to talk, if you want. Be well. Take care. You are dear to me.
These responses are true and genuine. But they fail to convince me when I say them to myself. They seem, at best, to be woefully inadequate. They point at temporary coping mechanisms to ease the unbelievably brutal path through life. The reality is that you can’t live with beauty, and you can’t live without it. The correct response to an incorrect situation is not to bite down and simply bear the pain; to simply learn to cope is not enough.
It is hard not to feel that beauty is real. It is easy to know that fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago women were judged along different standards. It is almost impossible to therefore not judge other women based on the standards of beauty today, nor to instinctively respond to their appearances. It is easy—perhaps mandatory—to understand the incredible harms that come from the desires that dictate appearance. It is hard not to like what you like. I have many male friends who refuse to date any but the most exceptionally attractive women. They are not shallow in all ways: they value intelligence and kindness, and they seek genuine connections. But they would never, and have never, dated women whom they have considered plain or perhaps even ugly. And what would be the alternative? For them to try to feel differently, if it is possible? For them to try to date people for whom they felt no genuine physical attraction, as a part of a self-improvement campaign? This seems disingenuous and exploitative. Surely we are not all so exact in our standards, and most of us do not exclude the less beautiful from our lives. But when you see the tiny girl with the beautiful eyes and the dirty white converse sneakers sitting on the Main Green, does she not break your heart? Tell me truly.
Beauty is, for almost all purposes, a fixed concept. I do not mean that there is an objective standard for ranking physical appearance, as prevailing beauty norms have changed from one age to another, and individual responses vary from person to person and within place and time. Rather, I mean this: what most people consider beautiful is very likely what any single person thinks is beautiful. Those who are not beautiful are treated differently—often, and consistently, worse in many ways. And beauty is almost inherently a hierarchical concept: sure, everyone can be beautiful, but it is important that you do not think she is prettier than I am. Beauty is a concept, one that can shift, but one that binds wherever it shifts. And let us not pretend that beauty is a “subjective” matter alone (some people like blue eyes and some like brown!), because there are patterns within that subjectivity that seem to eerily and consistently cut against those who are already disadvantaged: those to whom race, class, and gender were not kind (some people like blue eyes, a disproportionate number like white skin).
I write of women in particular, not because others are not affected. I do so in part because it is what I know best, and in part because, though beauty is an insidious thing for all, it is especially so for women. For one, beauty is associated for women with femininity, and often, therefore, with weakness. There are exceptions, and people are inventive and sometimes extraordinary, but for the most part, the sexualization of men includes power in a way that it does not for women. Largely, men who are supposed to be desirable are older, charming, and powerful—physically and otherwise. Women, by contrast, are supposed to be young, innocent, malleable, and dependent on the kindness of men. For another, despite all the rewards that beauty holds, you can never be beautiful enough if the rewards are the reason you seek beauty. Even women who seem to be, in all conventional ways, perfect are criticized still for not being perfect enough. They inspire extreme hostility even from those who covet them or their beauty. And even when appearance causes desire, that is no reassurance to the beautiful that they are truly worthy of desire.
All of this, of course, is interesting, but perhaps not useful. I would never recommend telling a friend, “beauty doesn’t matter” as an attempt to comfort. I promise: it won’t help. First, it is obviously false. For my own part, as much as I wish that my appearance did not matter to others, I want as much—or more—that, since it does, those who love me do so not for my beauty in addition to everything else. But more importantly, to claim that “beauty doesn’t matter” in the face of the clear evidence that it does is to callously miss the rare opportunity to repair the damage. Instead say this: “beauty can be empowering.” As long as it exists, it may be more important to decouple beauty from worth than to helplessly insist that it is not real.