Sunday, June 2, 2013


This feel-good Dove advertisement has been making the rounds on social media lately. Knowing that women are increasingly conscious of the way the industry tries to make them feel inadequate, Dove has made the savvy choice to brand itself as the anti-beauty-industry beauty product--but of course it can be pointed out that this is Dove trying to sell you something, just like the rest of the beauty industry.  There's something vaguely troubling and off-putting about the idea that they still just want your money, although they're trying to make you feel like they're in it for your emotional well-being.

I've spent too much of my life worrying about beauty.  When I was younger, it seemed somehow all-encompassing: who I was as a daughter, friend, student, employee, seemed tied up in beauty. While I couldn't articulate it, I truly had the sense that I would be an embarrassment to my parents if I were ugly and perceived as lazy by interviewers if I were a bit overweight; I felt, probably correctly, that I'd be labeled as awkward or unrelatable by potential friends if I had bad clothes, hair, and skin.  I felt like my ugliness would befoul my world--things would be less ideal, less pleasant, less enjoyable, and my life would be less happy, because I was physically flawed.  In pages of my journals past, there are long tirades lamenting my perceived faults.  I railed against so much--wide hips, pale skin, flat chest, thin lips, frizzy hair. Those things are all true to one degree or another, but fortunately the passing of years has allowed me to put things in perspective.  To the great majority of people with whom I interact, my physical attractiveness--or lack thereof--has little to do with what I can contribute to our relationship.  To them I am a friend, a co-worker, a teacher, a fellow church-goer.  What I can bring to our interactions are kindness, competence, patience, compassion, humor, intelligence, wisdom--all things beyond the physical.  As I grow older, and ironically, as the moderate amount of beauty I had begins to fade, my understanding of who I am as a human being has changed and allowed me to find my looks to be less relevant.  I have become both more objective about my physical flaws and aware of how everyone, even me, has some degree of physical beauty.  Yes, beauty would mean more attention and very likely a more successful social life.  But it wouldn't make me a better human being--and while I might have more friends or even more money, in the most meaningful sense, it wouldn't give me more value.

It's such a cliche to openly state that--it's what we overtly say all the time, but then . . .  Look at the successful women out there: Tina FeyHope SoloMartha StewartHillary ClintonOprah, even Brigitte Bardot.  Their beauty, their weight, their hair, their skin, their recent plastic surgery or resignation to "let themselves go" by not using botox or not dieting obsessively--all subjects of wide conversation.  We certainly objectify men, too--People's Sexiest Man AlivePaul Ryan in his weird work out poses--but it seems somehow both quantitatively and qualitatively different; it would be interesting to do a close analysis of how men and women are described differently, and even how the focus of articles about them is often different.  Look at all the strange-looking men who seem to get a pass: Conan O'BrienRon PaulSimon Cowell.  Their looks are commented on from time to time, but it doesn't fill to overwhelm the commentary.

I haven't, by any means, transcended our looks-obsessed culture.  I still worry about it more than is healthy.  I still find myself out with friends or at work or traveling and wishing I were thinner, had more dynamic features, better skin, larger eyes.  But I think the solution to this is not friends trying to stem the tide with compliments in a vain attempt to convince me that I'm pretty enough.  It's stopping to realize that beauty is largely irrelevant--who cares if I'm chubby or frumpy?  There are not enough kind reassurances out there to overcome the onslaught of messages that I am not beautiful enough.  It's like trying to bail out a rapidly sinking boat with a teaspoon.  Instead, I'll just let the boat sink, and recognize that I am powerful and able enough to swim without it.

But for the record, if you have a compliment, I'd love to hear it.  

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