Why Objectivity Is Stupid

Objectivity is a bad idea. Maybe it’s a necessary idea, but it does a lot of damage. Maybe groups of people arrive at it automatically, in order to structure a frighteningly chaotic, inexplicable world. Well, not entirely inexplicable. The sun exists to light the earth, so that things can grow, and people can see where they’re walking. And it goes around the earth because that’s what God told it to do. Everyone can agree. Or, at least, everyone could agree…And later everyone could agree that objectively, there was no way people would ever be able to invent a machine that could fly. And when women were upset about anything, they were hysterical, because their uteruses were releasing strange woman gases that made them act funny. And a scientist wandered through the streets of London in the mid 19th century, counting beautiful women. He found that there was a much higher percentage of them there than in the countryside. Beauty, he concluded, comes with intelligence. The countryfolk were clearly less intelligent, which was why they were out there, plowing and stuff.

Objective beauty has been around forever. For much longer, I’d imagine, than people have been plowing fields. People are constantly comparing things. I mean, it’s really how we’re still around. “These are both berries, but this one reminds me of the berries from the poisonous berry bush of death, whereas this other one looks like it might just be a blueberry. I’ll eat the blueberry.” “I want a mate, and both of these people are capable of mating with me, but this one lost his foot on that hunting trip, and he can’t run as fast as the other one, so he won’t be able to catch as many animals, and prove his manhood, and the other men will come to look down on him, and then my offspring will be mercilessly teased because their father is lame, and I’ll eventually be driven from the group and forced to fend for myself, which will probably result in my death. So I should go with the guy who has both feet.” You know, stuff like that. We’re always trying to figure out what is better than what. Who is better than who. And beauty is an important measure of “betterness,” because it’s on the surface. In other words, we can all see it, so we can all judge it.

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So that’s it. We live in a world where, no matter what, we will be compared to other people, and we will be better than some and worse than others. OK. That’s annoying, but I guess I can deal.

Except for three big reasons why I can’t deal:

1. It matters a lot more for women to be objectively beautiful. I mean, it matters even when they’re doing something else entirely, like being a world leader, or an investigative journalist, or an astronaut, or a soldier, or a mother. If they’re famous and they don’t look sufficiently lovely, then lots of people get to talk about how unattractive they are, all the time. Kind of like people talk about Sarah Palin messing up her words, except that even that is considered endearing by many. Being “unattractive” is the fault of the women who are famous. It’s like they’ve failed to live up to the proper standards. They repent by hiring an army of stylists and makeup artists, who spend hours putting beauty armor on them, before they step out in front of the press, into the light, into the world.

2. We have a really hard time agreeing what objective beauty is. We know it’s out there. Many of us agree that models have taken a lot of it and are keeping it for themselves. And movie stars. And pop stars. But even these people have different looks from one another. It becomes unclear how far the objective standard stretches. It goes all the way from the big breasts of Mad Men actresses to the flat chests of runway models. From big, round sweet eyes to slitted, sexy, narrow eyes. From pale, mysterious skin to rich, dark skin. From a perky, tiny stature to a towering form. And although most of us seem to believe that getting thin means getting prettier, and thinness is so often equated with beauty, most of us can simultaneously acknowledge how hot curvy, padded, plush women can be. There are so many beauty rules. But they contradict each other all the time. And besides, we are attracted to different things. And we’re attracted to different looks at different stages of life. When I saw Lord of the Rings, I thought that Samwise Gamgee was the hottest guy in the movies. Hands down. There were a bunch of girls who kept talking about Legolas, and I had no idea why. I mean, he was fine looking, but Sam— he was on a totally different level. Sturdy, manly, sweet, kind, expressive. And I have friends who think that skinny, practically malnourished, slightly bedraggled hipster look is the sexiest look that has ever been invented, and wonder aloud why it took guys so long to start wearing really, really tight jeans. We can’t seem to agree.

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But when we look in the mirror we’re left with this sense that there’s an objective standard that we need to live up to, and we obsess about the individual features that don’t meet it, though we’re not entirely sure what it even is.

When I was homeschooled, I thought I was gorgeous. When I went to college, I began to realize that I wasn’t. And then, slowly, I began to try to reclaim my beauty. But I did it wrong. I started to like the features that were closest to the standard. My lips are full, I thought, even though they’re not wide enough. So I can mostly like them. My eyes are round, even though they’re not big enough. So I can like them a little. At least my legs are thin, though they’re not very long. I could only appreciate the features that ranked higher, closer on the scale to objective beauty. My nose was hopeless. It was a little like an invisible woman was always standing at my side. The most beautiful invisible woman in the world. And because of her, I had forgotten what I looked like except in comparison.

3. It’s impossible for beauty to stay superficial. We’re more complicated than that. We are too sensitive to other cues. We get to know people in too many other ways. We fall in love. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf describes a conversation between a couple. The man is saying, “You’re so beautiful.” And the woman is frustrated because she thinks he thinks that mostly because he loves her. And once he loves her, “you’re beautiful” just means “I love you,” and is therefore devalued. Because all of the value has been co-opted by the idea of objective, loveless beauty. The kind that can be universally recognized. The kind that makes the man fall in love in the first place, without knowing anything else about the woman. Reading this, I suddenly thought of myself, saying to Bear, “But how pretty did you think I was when you MET me?” As though that would clarify it once and for all. As though his love distorted and clouded his ability to effectively evaluate my beauty, and so his report of it was compromised. Instead of, you know, my lovableness being a meaningful part of my beauty. Instead of all his knowledge of who I am, as a person, contributing to my beauty, and giving it depth and expression that it could never have at first sight, or in a picture.

When Mr. Darcy sees Elizabeth Bennet for the first time in Pride and Prejudice (one of the funniest, most sarcastic, and most playful books ever written), he doesn’t think she’s very attractive. “She is tolerable,” he says. “But not handsome enough to tempt me.” Her sister, everyone agrees, is much, much better looking. But then Mr. Darcy sees a little more of Elizabeth’s personality. He hears her laugh a few more times. He encounters her after she’s been running through the mud in a very unladylike (but very daring and excitingly independent-minded) manner. And he begins to change his mind. By the end of the book, he thinks she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. Who cares if Darcy thought Elizabeth was hot when he met her? Well, I do, because that would make for a much less interesting story.

I think Bear thought I was hot when we met, but not nearly as hot as he thinks I am now. Because my appearance is only the beginning.

So when I look in the mirror and the stunningly gorgeous invisible woman pops up next to me, smirking and coyly flipping her shiny hair, I do my best to stare her down. I say to her, “Who told you you were the best thing out there? There are plenty of people who don’t agree, so you’re not even objective anymore. How’s your singing voice? How’s your sense of humor? And by the way, even after the nose job, my nose could take your nose in a nose fight any day.” And it’s true. My nose would totally win.

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Un-roast: Today I love my nose. Hell yeah.

P.S. Thank you to the president of my synagogue, for mentioning this blog in his address to the congregation on Yom Kippur. Seriously, you rock.

P.P.S. If you’re new here, sign up for email updates in the pink box on the main page. That doesn’t sound sexual and feminine or anything….

P.P.P.S. Hooray, homeschoolers! Penelope Trunk just sent me this profile from NY Mag’s The Look Book.

13 Comments »

Kate on September 20th 2010 in beauty, body, homeschooling, nose, relationships

13 Responses to “Why Objectivity Is Stupid”

  1. Ana responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    Your website sent me an email for THIS?! Brilliant. This is just what I needed.

  2. lk responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    Kate –

    I saw Shallow Hal for the first time over the weekend. It made me wish that all men would see women that way first – their inner beautify. I cried when he started to see the women for their physical beauty first… if only.

    And then I realized that I have learned to see people’s inner beauty first. I don’t know how or when or even why, but I wish I could teach a class for people to get past the goddamn (sorry for the swear, but I totally needed that today) physical part of a person and get to the part that REALLY FREAKING MATTERS!

    Ugh. Sorry, I totally went off. :) What I’m trying to say is – who CARES what conventional beauty is. Why do we care? Why can’t we just all like someone because we like them for them and not their face/boobs/butt/whathaveyou? And then – why do people who want ‘conventional beauty’ have to hate on us that don’t give a rat’s keester that our friends/significant other don’t have that conventional beauty that they desire?

    Isn’t it time to quit judging?

    I hope I made my point. I don’t know – it’s Monday and I’m no writer. :)

    Thank you for saying so beautifully what I can’t say, Kate. Keep up the awesome work. :)

    – lk

  3. Cindy responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    that pretty much is the only truth I can think of.

    we are all pretty in our own way and there is always somebody who thinks so. (and plenty that do not).

    for the most part our personalities shine far brighter than our eyes and curves or lack thereof.

    and it is SO objective isn’t it? what is “normal” and who determines what true beauty is ?

    magazines and media or each individual?

    I guess it’s just important how WE think of ourselves. why is beauty so damn important? It’s just genetics. What we do with our lives and how we treat each other should be FAR more important and FAR more the barometer of our actual beauty.

    but that’s just me.

  4. Kim NYC responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 2:01 pm #

    Dude. Brilliant.

    There is something exciting about being objectively gorgeous and having people be powerless against your beauty. Who doesn’t want that? (Hello, ego.) And while everyone wants inner beauty, having outer beauty feels much more fun, is easier to maintain, and yields faster results (the stares, admiration, flirtation, and the favor). On the other hand, people don’t respond to inner beauty as readily since it’s often more subtle. It takes its time. It’s earned.

    Like everyone, I will go certain lengths for both inner and outer beauty. But I’ve got that perfect invisible lady behind me, too, (and sometimes she’s my more beautiful and outgoing sister who is NOT so invisible).

    Next time when I ask my husband, as I often do, if he’d be attracted to me if we met today for the first time, I want to remember that when he says “You’re pretty” he also means “I love you and you are gorgeous inside and out”…and that this is by no means consolation prize to “You’re hot”.

  5. poet responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    Another amazing post! I recently became a reader of your blog via Already Pretty and I am really happy to have found you. Your insightful, dare I say wise discussions of attentionworthy topics are delightful to read!

    ~poet

  6. zoe responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    you’re awesome. end of story. sam love? pride and prejudice mention? double awesoooome!

    during the whole lord of the rings saga i totes loved me some sam and pippin! legolas was not where it was at. at all.

    and on a more serious note, the concept of beauty is constantly evolving, especially on a personal level. i like to think the older we grow and the more experiences we live through, the less importance we place on outward beauty. (hopefully) with age comes the realization that beauty is only an addition to the overall package.

    in my counseling session the other day my counselor asked me if i would ever call my best friend fat or ugly. i of course said no because i think all my friends are some of the most beautiful people in the world. and she smiled and said, “now, if you would never tell that to your best friend, and you are your own best friend, why would you ever tell yourself that?” honestly, i can tell you this has helped me see beauty in a completely different light. beauty is the whole of your being, not just the size of your hips. if the rest of the world can see that in you, why can you not see it in yourself?

    have a fantastic monday, kate!

  7. San D responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 5:10 pm #

    It’s one thing to become self aware about what beauty is or isn’t and yet it’s another thing to actually help others one on one to “see” beauty in others. I was fortunate enough to have been a teacher in a public school where one of my “claim to fames” was that all of the young men in my class always thought I was tall, thin and sexy (I am old short and dumpy), and would run down the hall saying that to me (and not in a mocking way, but in an endearing way), and where young women who were a younger version of my build and sensibilities would say “you are the first person in this school to treat me like a human being and actually listen to what I have to say”. When we treat others the way we want to be treated, then all is not lost, and beauty is found.

  8. Angela Jones responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 5:15 pm #

    Kate, thank you for the link! Looking back the two things that I was constantly made fun of was my butt, my curves and my mole on my face. Now, those three features are what makes me unique. They set me apart from others and make me feel special, I love that. I wouldn’t be Angela, if I was any other way. That is why I talk to my children about what makes them special, what are their talents. They are still young and they are going to have to deal with others trying to put them down, it is our job to build them up and allow them to look at themselves as strong, self confident people that they are! I feel that if they see their parents feeling confident and self assured, then it will help them feel the same.

  9. Erika @ Health and Happiness in LA responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 7:45 pm #

    I totally get this post. I remember when I first realized that I actually liked my nose, despite always thinking that it was too big and bumpy. Same for my hair – I have somewhat crazy, curly hair (not uniform like Taylor Swift, but more twirly like… Shakira) and people are always telling me I need to learn how to do something with it. But you know what? I like it! I like what it looks like when I just air-dry it and nothing else, and it feels like part of me.

    And I do not find most “objectively hot” men attractive. I am not a Legolas nor a Samwise kind of person. But it’s convenient because that means my friends and I never, ever go after the same men and that makes it much easier!

  10. JStolk responded on 21 Sep 2010 at 1:05 am #

    This! 100 times THIS! Growing up I HATED the way I looked because I wasn’t skiny and athletic or tall and dark like my not so invisible sisters to whom I was always being compaired. It didn’t help that my high school boyfriend would constantly hit on the “pretty girls” infront of me and tell me I should be more like them. In the years since moving out I’ve come to appreciate/ see my own beauty. I may not have the perfect body by “conventional” standards, but I have the perfect body for me. AND my husband loves every inch of it even on days when I think I look horrible, and especially when I first wake up in the morning.

    I used to babysit a little girl who at the age of three had the right idea when one day she said “look at my butt! It’s big. Look at my tummy, it’s fat. And I’m beautiful and a princess!” I laughed so hard I cried a little and gave her a hug and told her she was right, she was beautiful and to not let anyone tell her otherwise. I hope she keeps that mind set as she grows up, and I hope she teaches her friends too because every little girl needs to know that.

  11. rachel responded on 21 Sep 2010 at 1:58 am #

    Objectivity never exists, it’s just what we call the most popular biases and that holds true for everything from definitions of beauty to scientific research on bacteria.

    It can be very empowering to find that someone who loves you thinks you’re beautiful, more beautiful than the super models and movie stars, but there’s a danger in this line of thinking. Wouldn’t the ideal recognition of beauty come from each person about him or herself rather than by a lover? It may be true that people in loving relationships have more self-esteem about the way they look – I’d love to know if there was research on the topic – and it’s very likely that people in unhappy relationships have worse self esteem, but the idea that people who aren’t romantically attached wouldn’t feel as beautiful is sad.

  12. Wei-Wei responded on 21 Sep 2010 at 4:21 am #

    I’m totally blown away by how much this all speaks to me. Objective opinions are always what I doubt myself about – if a friend tells you that you look fine, do they really think so or are they just being nice? I often wonder about this, and sadly I have to say that it often brings me negativity and doubts.

  13. dustbury.com » For now, we will pretend not to look responded on 24 Sep 2010 at 9:16 pm #

    [...] was not exactly well-received, because one’s appearance is purely superficial, doncha know. The trouble with that stance is that it’s not in the nature of beauty to remain purely superfi… We’re more complicated than that. We are too sensitive to other cues. We get to know people [...]