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.
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.
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….