Yesterday’s post and some of the comments on it made me think about beauty as a spectrum. You know: ugly, plain, decent looking, pretty, very pretty, beautiful, super sexy, MEGAN FOX (I can’t think of any Victoria’s Secret models names off the top of my head). It’s a very persistent idea. It follows me around places. It enters without knocking. It sees things it shouldn’t. It won’t go away. But it’s wrong.
“See?” say the researchers who are studying beauty and sex and love and fun, “When everyone in this room divides into couples, they always pick partners who are the same level of attractiveness as themselves. See that?”
But I don’t really see it. And I’m not just saying that to be like, “No….we’re all one family….we’re all a part of the human race… I don’t see differences, I only see how we’re all united by our gorgeous souls” or something. I mean, I think the couple who the researchers are defining as the most attractive looks kind of boring. Normal, I should say. They’re just the closest to a certain ideal of beauty. They’re tall and thin and blond. Maybe it’s my short, dark, Eastern European Jewish genes, but tall blondness isn’t my favorite look. No offense to tall blonds! You guys are definitely lovely! But my eye is drawn to people who look more mysterious.
That’s just me. And sure, I’m weird. But so are a lot of people. In fact, I think we probably make up the majority.
My friend Liane and I were having dinner the other night and talking about beauty. I was telling her that even though plenty of people have always told me that I was beautiful (and given the distinct impression that they meant it), in college I began to ignore those comments, because they were from individuals, and wish instead that I could garner the collective approval of society. I’m not even sure what that means. Maybe I’d walk by a billboard and realize that I looked JUST like the lingerie model on it.
(Please, God, let me be a violet!! source)
I wasn’t completely sure where I fit into the spectrum, but I knew it wasn’t at the top. And that annoyed me. Because there was nothing I could do to get to the top. With everything else in life, I could work harder. With my appearance, well– it just was. So I felt left behind and left out.
The spectrum is hanging over our heads. We have some instinctive idea of where we fit into it. And we try to edge closer to the top through dieting and dressing well and buying new, improved makeup and getting our hair styled more fashionably and flatteringly. The advertisers are always giving us the same message: You’re almost there! Just do this!
The movie stars and models and other acclaimed beauties are always giving us a completely different message: You’ll never get here. You have to be born like this.
Which is a lot closer to the truth. No matter how much weight I lose and how much makeup I use, I will never be 5’10″ and leggy and cat-eyed. I am practically forced to learn about my own type of beauty if I want to stop feeling terrible every time I walk by a Victoria’s Secret store.
But there it is, my own type of beauty. Just being itself. I’ve met people who thought I was stunning. And people who didn’t notice me. After a concert, a famous pianist once called me a Renaissance beauty and asked playfully for my hand in marriage. In college, I felt like I disappeared in the company of flashy, tanned girls with shiny hair that did amazing things on request. When my piece about getting a nose job appeared on AOL, plenty of commenters thought I had a chance at being attractive if my face was improved. The general public seems undecided about me. And so am I.
Which is, I think, usually the way it works. Yes, some of us just happen to look a lot more like the models and movie stars. Some of us ARE models and movie stars. Which is awesome and empowering and also comes with its own sets of difficulties.
And some of us get tormented for not meeting enough of the popular standards. Usually the people tormenting us are young boys who don’t even think the things they say around their friends most of the time and will torment anyone for anything. Which reminds me of a conversation I overheard in college in which one boy tried to tell his friend that he was attracted to a “fat girl.” They had danced together at a party and he loved the way she felt. The friend wouldn’t hear anything of it, and eventually the boy backed down and pretended to have been joking the entire time.
Who figured the spectrum out? Who set it in place? Who deified and reified it? Was it all of us? Sex scientists think so. We all participate automatically in determining beauty. It’s based on biology. Was it advertisers? Not a bad guess. Beauty is fashionable, and fashion determines the changing standards of beauty. Models didn’t used to be so skinny, after all.
Was it the tastes of the very wealthy? Or related to the way wealth operates? Was it Hollywood?
I don’t know. But I know it doesn’t work. And I know I don’t want it applied to me. Because I AM gorgeous some days and weird-looking others and both on occasion. I am perceived differently by different people and by myself. And all of the ways I am perceived are a little bit true, for the people who think them and for the moment. And all of the ways I am perceived don’t represent the whole picture.
And I like it that way. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t days when I’d really rather just be a Victoria’s Secret model, because that would settle it once and for all. (I also have plenty of days when I wish I had a billion dollars and don’t care the slightest bit how I look.) But mostly, it’s kind of exciting to be flexible and changeable and interesting and new.
Beauty is a living thing. It breathes. It evolves. It means different things at different times. So as soon as you think you’ve figured out exactly where you are on the spectrum, look at yourself again. Look at how someone else looks at you. Try dancing. Try being naked or running or dressing up or laughing or feeling happy. You’ll look different, suddenly, and again. You can’t be captured. You can’t be rated. You can’t be conveniently categorized.
If someone tries to do these things to you, they clearly don’t understand very much about being alive.
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Un-roast: Today I love the way I looked different in every mirror at the gym last night.