Jane Devin wrote another great thought-provoking blog post yesterday about beauty. I'm a huge fan of Jane's writing. Her book Elephant Girl was as haunting a memoir as I have ever read, but her use of language as an art form makes it impossible not to read her, even when what she's written about is ugly and painful.
So anyway, beauty. Jane writes, "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."
I posted on her FB wall that I wasn't sure I agreed, and I mentioned my now-deceased friend Peg, who was morbidly obese and losing her hair thanks to Rheumatoid Arthritis and a cupboard filled with medications both toxic and ill-suited toward maintaining one's weight and hair volume. Whenever I saw Peg, or when I think of her now in my mind's eye, I see beauty. I see large brown eyes with impossibly long lashes and I hear the softest, most soothing voice imaginable. I hear her tinkling laughter as she regales me with yet another story about her Boston catholic family.
I concede the point that we give too much emphasis and value to the concept of beauty when we try to compliment someone or try to boost their self esteem. But I also believe we misuse the word "beautiful." The term has been warped by our media to mean an almost impossibly achievable standard of physical appearance. And Jane isn't really talking about the people who miss this standard by some small or even medium mark, she's talking about when the whole person doesn't come close due to physical deformity or flaw and that the act of trying to make someone feel beautiful when they aren't phsyically attractive is to her a disservice.
I know Jane's opinion comes from experience and from her own sense of self, her dedication to speaking the truth as she sees and feels it. We talked about it back and forth on Facebood a little, and to a large extent I agree with her...but there is a space between that extent and my own feelings about looks and attractiveness.
What I wish were possible was for the propensity toward shallowness to somehow disappear from the human gene pool. Its not ever likely to happen, but I can still dream about it. I'm raising a girl, and there's no doubt that females are held to much stricter standards than the male population. (In general, that is, because there are certainly men and women who possess no such incremental measurements of beauty when appreciating one another or their partners. ) It starts so young, with the TV shows for tweens that have mostly very attractive and thin lead characters, and their not-so-cute and maybe-a-little-dorky and often a little fat sidekicks. Its pretty easy to decide which character you'd rather be -- and pretty easy to look at yourself and see all the reasons why you could never be her.
It only gets worse as we get older. Movies and television use all the tricks of makeup and lighting, props and camera position to disguise that which is unacceptable and magazines taking it a step better and photoshopping models and movie stars to the point where the real person and the picture no longer resemble one another. And these are the people we are supposed to emulate? How can we emulate them? Trust me, if I could photoshop my ass for real to make it a couple sizes smaller, I would. Well, maybe I would.
I'll never forget the really average-looking guy who came up to me in a bar when I was in my very early twenties, and said (right to my face!) "You'd be a really attractive girl if you didn't have such a big butt." I spent every day of my life from that day forward feeling horrible about the size of my posterior. One doesn't forget that sort of comment.
How do we teach people to value themselves and others by non-physical standards? How do we teach people that diversity in size and color are not marks of shame but badges of uniqueness? How do we get human beings to learn how to give a compliment that doesn't include the words except, but, if only and however?
To address Jane's point, what about those who fall far short of the current physical standard of beauty? Is it a disservice to seek beauty in those who feel they have none? Do we need to know we are beautiful? What is beauty anyway?
And maybe that's where I see the difference in people -- my definition of "beauty" is subjective. It isn't necessarily the same as others. I see people as a whole picture. I look at my husband and even though I could give you a short checklist of things about him that aren't what might be considered conventionally handsome, those aren't the things I see. The things I see are the things that make him handsome to me -- his big smile, his broad shoulders, his warm brown eyes, and the one thing I can't see but I can hear it the moment he opens his mouth -- his intelligence and his sense of humor. I'm NOT LOOKING for the other things. I suppose its the same for him -- when he looks at me he sees the things he likes and discards the rest as unimportant.
I think I could look at anyone, even someone I don't particularly care for or someone who copes with a serious lack of conventional attractiveness and I could still see beauty in them. Beauty and ugliness coexist in all of us, and they can't always be seen with the naked eye. No human being who has ever lived is immune to the ugliness of that petty, selfish little voice in our heads, and no human exists who doesn't display physical and emotional moments of pure, unadulterated beauty.
Childbirth -- not the prettiest sight imaginable. And yet, that slime-covered, squalling purplish red infant with the pulsing cord still attached is beautiful in a way that cannot be described in words. The physicality of the act of giving birth - blood, fluid, poop on the table, maybe an emergency cesaerean with intestines being pulled onto the table to get them out of the way! There is ugliness but the spiritual and emotional experience of expelling life into the world was for me and for many women as beautiful as it was painful.
I postulate that we are all - every one of us - both beautiful and ugly. The outside may lean far more one way than the other, but to deny the existence of beautfy at all is to deny that inside this flesh wrapper is tethered a being made up of nothing but spirit. We are not our bodies.
Like Jane, I tend to find things other than physical appearance to compliment others on, regardless of how physically attractive they might be - or not. But I'm going to politely, compassionately and lovingly disagree that we do service to another by refraining from letting a person know we find something about them beautiful. Insincerity is in itself not at all useful, but a sincerely meant compliment is another thing entirely. I compliment my daughter on her sense of humor and her strength, her sensitive and loving heart, her ability to write amazing stories and her fierce protectiveness of all things furred and feathered. I try to compliment her on these things more than her beauty, because I want her to always have those messages in her mind when she remembers what her mother thought of her, but she also knows I think she is stunningly beautiful.
Jane of the amazing large eyes, I only know you from your photos on your blog and your book, but know that I do see beauty when I look at you. We both have voices in our heads that spit out reminders of the things we know about ourselves that are the antithesis of "pretty." Nonetheless, you have beauty that is not limited to the inner you. Its there on the exterior as well.
Coming soon to Barnmaven.com: My colonoscopy! And yes, even THAT is beautiful! I KID YOU NOT.