Beauty is not a spectrum

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.

* * *

Un-roast: Today I love the way I looked different in every mirror at the gym last night.


Kate on February 4th 2011 in beauty, being different

28 Responses to “Beauty is not a spectrum”

  1. rachel responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 2:23 pm #

    Where do beauty standards come from? A marxist analysis (let’s see how concise I can make this):

    According to the Base / Superstructure model (usefully elaborated by Althusser, but that’s another matter) society’s economic system – its means of production – determine its culture – its values and ideology.

    For much of history, say for example the renaissance, being wealthy was marked by a life of leisure, plenty of food and not much hard work, with no need to go outside. Thus, paintings of rather plump, pale women abound in the Renaissance.

    In contemporary society, junk food is cheap and eating healthy is expensive. The poor/the middle class spend long hours at work, but this work doesn’t involve much physical labor and doesn’t often take them outside. Thus, magazine covers of very thin women, with sculpted, tanned bodies.

    That’s fairly rough, but you get the idea.

  2. Obi-Mom Kenobi responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    Attraction is funny, isn’t it?

    If I get my five best girl-friends in a room together with me, there isn’t a thing we can agree on about what makes a man “gorgeous” to us. K loves a blond, blue-eyed, athletic (muscle-bound) man. L likes short and emotionally powerful (I’d say domineering) men. H likes intense, politically and/or scientifically-oriented men; she doesn’t even “see” them until this has been established. It all comes down to hair for R – sandy, red, or auburn and lots of it! D can’t keep her eyes off men that are (and I quote) “6′ tall, dark hair, pale skin.” Me? Tall, dark, thin & handsome any day of the week. So if we six were set to the task of “deciding” for the rest of the world what the ideal male looked like, the world would be rightly screwed.

  3. Autumn responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 3:12 pm #

    Fantastic, fantastic post.

    When I was young, I used to envision the face of every single woman of the world as being on this long strip of paper, and used to imagine that when I became a woman that I would fall exactly on the center crease when one folded that strip in half. I bought into the idea of beauty-as-spectrum because I didn’t understand yet that if it was a spectrum, it was a scatter spectrum with no value judgments attached–pretty, “plain,” beautiful, “exotic” (whatever THAT means), striking, whatever.

    I feel like there’s this diametric pull in two directions: On one hand, social researchers say we’re drawn to those who “look like us” in some way; others, though, say that part of beauty is its unattainability. It makes me think of a friend of mine–a tall, thin, blonde former model–who looked in the mirror and found herself boring, because she looked closer to the “ideal” than anything that she found personally interesting. And interesting, as you noted yesterday, is an integral part of beauty even if it’s not what we usually use in our vocabularies.

  4. Rabbit responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    @Obi-Mom Kenobi:

    It is funny, isn’t it? My best friend in high school and I would spend our summers downtown (where the tourists go, so there’s lots more people) playing a game where would would spot “hot guys” and accumulate points based on each person’s attractiveness. It was a simple scale, just 0, 5, or 10 points, because we didn’t want to get nitpicky and it was easier to keep track that way. Yeah, I know all of this is pretty childish, but we WERE children, after all. Anyway, my point is that we eventually had to quit because the whole game was a constant squabble about how many points a guy was really worth because our tastes were so different! My 10s were her 0s, and the reverse. It all comes down to personal taste.

    (If you’re curious, she liked “pretty-boy” androgynous types with hipster/emo style clothes. I prefer one of two extremes: tall, skinny, and nerdy or short, broad-shouldered, and aggressive. And any man with a ponytail gets an automatic 5 in my book before I even start to count the rest of him, lol.)

  5. Christin@purplebirdblog responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    I love that I have an extremely diverse group of friends who all look different, talk different, act different, and are differently attracted to one another. Makes it more fun. I’ve been the told by several lovers in the past (particularly really thin men) that they would never have thought have sex with a thicker girl would be so awesome. Makes me sad that they were so biased in the first place, but happy I was able to introduce them to something they might not have tried otherwise.

  6. Alex responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 4:53 pm #

    The other night I was at my cousins birthday party. She was turning 30 and she was still beautiful, tall and blonde. I have black hair, brown eyes, and I look arabic. When I was little I wanted to look like my cousin. Blonde. I used to tell my grandma that I wanted to be “white” so I could be blonde like my cousin. She is gorgeous, but you have a point when you say that the “tall blonde” is normal. My features are severe and when I wear makeup, even more so. I used to think that I was ugly because I didn’t look like the typical wide-eyed American girl. At my cousins party I saw people who I haden’t seen since I was 9. They all told me that I had grown up to be so beautiful. I thought automatically that they were just being nice. Your post made me rethink. I’m staring at myself in the mirror right now and I like what I see. I like my dark cat-eyes, full lips, and olive skin tone. I think i’ll start believing people now.

  7. Lilli responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    @Alex although i’m a lot younger than you, i have a very similar situation: I have a cousin who is tall and blonde (and intelligent and a model to boot) and i’m short and curvy and look almost italian or spanish… i have always felt pretty inferior.

    I’ve pretty much come to terms with how i look though, and there’s nothing i can do to change it anyway, so i may as well embrace it… even if i do secretly wish to wake up weighing 90 pounds with bum length blonde hair and blue eyes :)

  8. Tweets that mention Eat the Damn Cake » Beauty is not a spectrum -- responded on 04 Feb 2011 at 10:31 pm #

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  9. Mere responded on 05 Feb 2011 at 3:09 am #

    I think it’s one of those God-given challenges that we are given to try and overcome. The test is looking on the inner beauty rather than outer. It can be very challenging. I have a beautiful friend who has paralysis on one side of her face which causes people to stop and stare at her, or to shy away a little. It taught me a great lesson because with or without it she is still a great person. Seems unfair that until you get to know her all you see is a paralysed half a face. At the end of the day though we all have bad hair days, bloated hog days, no-one looks elegant brushing their teeth or going to the loo, and gorgeous looking celebs are still breaking up with even more gorgeous looking celebs. Looks might get ya through the first gate but if there is nothing past the gate the horse will bolt. (Sorry it’s late and I’m tired so if none of that makes sense then…next!)

  10. Ophelia responded on 05 Feb 2011 at 7:57 am #

    Another fabulous post – you’re quickly becoming one of my favourite bloggers!

    I have always defined myself by the spectrum – I suppose because I have always told myself that society is right. I’m not allowed to chose my own path, I have to follow the one that society thinks is the best – high powered career, perfect figure, happy-go-lucky personality, marriage and kids, etc, etc

    I know that some guys don’t find me at all attractive, and some guys think I’m stunning. Everyone has different tastes. But because I know my beauty would never be universally acknowledged (eg Megan Fox), I think the guys who find me attractive are either stupid, desperate, or wrong…

  11. Liz responded on 05 Feb 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    I think “beautiful” is defined both culturally and by the media, but that we all have our own individual preferences. For me, someone becomes more beautiful (or not) after I’ve met him/her. If they are kind, funny, witty, intelligent, unique, passionate, or good-hearted their beauty explodes in my mind. If they are catty, boastful, arrogant, pretentious, rude, or a copycat they take a serious nosedive in attractiveness in my mind. I think some of the most beautiful people are not “traditionally” movie star/model gorgeous on the exterior and that someone who embraces their uniqueness is extraordinarily beautiful!

  12. Mandy responded on 05 Feb 2011 at 1:44 pm #

    Interesting. When I think of what attracts me in a man, it’s always emotional/intellectual qualities: kind, funny, supportive, generous, wise, a lively sense of the ridiculous, confident, patient… The packaging always seems to take second place–or is attractive mainly because of the person’s good qualities.
    In this respect, I have to agree with Liz. I can have a physical attraction to a man, but it will remain nebulous unless I actually meet him. At that point, if he’s sweet and a nice guy, I’ll think he’s attractive. If he’s overbearing, or mean-spirited, I’ll find him ugly, no matter how physically pretty he is.
    I think society and science tend to discount the non-physical in the way they judge beauty. It’s what animates the body and face that gets me going, not the body itself, because without it, the body is just…empty.

    Un-roast: Today, I love the way I look in purple. “…In purple, I’m STUNNING!”

  13. Emily responded on 05 Feb 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    I’ve always been a relationship addict and that has resulted in many many crushes and quite a few dates and relationships. If there was one thing that I learned before I finally settled down with the perfect guy (who people tell me looks a lot like me) it is that I don’t have much of a type, but I never can get much of a crush on “standardly” good looking guys. When I say standard I mean the guys who make their way to television or modeling, but also the guys who make their way to the popular table in highschool. All the cheerleaders want to date this guy. He is tall and muscular. It doesn’t really matter what color his hair is, but it’s probably cut short and styled into the latest trend. He wears clothes from abercrombie and fitch.
    I have gone on a few dates with guys like these, mostly motivated from an unfortunate desire bump up my own self-esteem. They always ended after one date because I simply am not attracted to the type (and often the constant positive attention they have received for their looks has made them hopelessly deficient in other areas that I find more important).
    This on its own has made me quite convinced that there is no linear standard of beauty. What I have discovered is that I am attracted to guys who share physical features with me. Definitely not a racial thing, but things like similar facial features, or the same pink-toned skin highlights. It’s not surprising that the most average looking people get tagged as the most attractive (imagine a system where people voted for their favorites- the distinct people would get voted for by everyone who relates to them, but the average people will have features in common with many more people). Then you add societal preferences like the current taste for skinny toned bodies, and you get our beauty standards.

    For me, I can never decide who is the most beautiful. I don’t think of it like that. There are SO MANY WAYS to be beautiful. But then I don’t have a favorite color, band, song, or food either. There are too many ways to see beauty in things. Not just saying that. And honestly, now that I’ve found the man of my dreams and don’t have to worry about attracting a mate, I find so very many ways to find myself beautiful and strong and awesome. Beauty doesn’t have to be a thing that is always hanging just out of reach. It can also be a way to express yourself.

  14. Lauren responded on 05 Feb 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    Well, I must admit that I find nothing more attractive than stereotypical Jewishness. I love noses (the bigger, more crooked and more interesting, the more attractive). My very first boyfriend had the biggest nose I have ever seen in real life, and since then it has just been a nose-addiction trend.

    Personally, the Brad Pitt’s and Angelina Jolie’s of the world do not do it for me. I love people that are a little quirky, a little more individual. There are plenty of blonde and tan girls with lots of make-up, there are tons of guys with short hair and buff arms. I just cannot get into that look at all. I love dark, long hair on men… pale skin, androgynous. I even think the Phantom of the Opera would be sexy, with the allure of his mask! I love women that look edgy, with wild bangs and glasses. I like to think that I have an advanced aesthetic (but it could be because I look like Boticelli’s Venus and that is not exactly the in thing this century).

    So, keep doing what you’re doing. You’re a hot girl. I hope that more ladies and gentleman out there will start to do their own thing (accept their looks, pale or tan, black hair or blonde, big nose or small). =)

  15. Michelle responded on 06 Feb 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    what I love the best about looks is that it is not only do we have different perspectives than others- but our perspectives change over time. I think my ex-husband looks a lot less attractive now that when we got married- even though not much has really changed. Plus. I cant believe how my current husband who I have been with for 5 years gets HOTTER and HOTTER!! So much goes into this- thanks for your take!!

  16. monika hardy responded on 06 Feb 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    i can’t help relate this to school. beauty is learning.

    you can’t be captured, you can’t be rated, you can’t be conveniently categorized.
    it’s so easy to see in this post. i wish we believed it for beauty. i wish we believed it for learning, for life. the differences are the beauty.

    i love this Kate:
    I don’t see differences, I only see how we’re all united by our gorgeous souls

  17. Wei-Wei responded on 06 Feb 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    I really always just find myself asking the same question: “Who makes these standards, anyway?” Instantly, the world stands up, slams the table with their hand, and gleefully cries NOT IT! So who DOES make these standards? Who DOES come up with the “food chain”? I thought we were all civilised here.

    Unroast: I love my tendency to have random outbursts. I also kind of dig the way I manage to resist the urge to giggle straight after my outburst.

  18. monika hardy responded on 06 Feb 2011 at 11:48 pm #

    Nic Askew’s soulbiographies are amazing, addicting.
    if you haven’t seen them, this one in particular is fitting for this post on beauty:

  19. Dawn responded on 07 Feb 2011 at 2:30 am #

    The conventional standard of beauty made me feel inadequate for years. I just don’t have any bones that poke out anywhere. And then I became a young grandmother. One day, my granddaughter saw my behind.

    This is what she said: I see your hiney. It’s BEAUTIFUL!

    My whole world changed. I became a Goddess.

  20. Louise, aged 15 responded on 07 Feb 2011 at 3:55 am #

    I never really feel pretty. I’m a pale redhead with a massive nose; who was recently told she wasn’t the prettiest girl but not the ugliest either. I took it as a compliment to be somewhere in the middle. If I was my mum, I would have slapped the boy who told me this. But then again my mum wouldn’t be told this because she’s absolutely stunning.
    I’m not sure if I’m the only one who feels like the need to be ‘pretty’ is constantly shoved down my throat.
    My first unroast: I love the way I can sit on the bus alone and not feel bored because my mind is filled with random thoughts!

  21. louise responded on 09 Feb 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    The man I am marrying is blond and blue eyed but I tend to like men who have dark hair and are mysterious. The man I am marrying next month DOES have glasses like me, which has been a constant with all men I am attracted to.

    I remember a girl in 5th grade asking why my mom and I have big noses. I do remember the boy who made up a song about how flat chested I was in 7th grade. I do remember the guy who called me a dog in high school, and when I decided not to accept his friend request on Facebook more than 10 years later.

    But I will say this. I do pin-up modeling as a hobby (weird, right?). I’ve been told I look like Dita Von Teese. I have found that being involved with pinup and burlesque has made me realize that no, not everyone likes how I look — which is the most base thing to decide about someone — but lots of people DO. And those people have nice things to say about the art I was a part of creating. And at 31, I care a lot less about what other people think and a lot more about doing what makes me happy — whether it has to do with my looks or not.

  22. structure « Cooperative Catalyst responded on 12 Feb 2011 at 11:53 am #

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  26. Lezley responded on 21 Mar 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    This made me cry. (In a good way.) I relate so much to what you said. Thank you for putting into words the scattered thoughts that have been floating around in my brain for years!

    You’re an inspiration, and I’m very glad that you blog about body image.

  27. Inderjeet Kaur responded on 19 Jul 2012 at 7:18 am #

    I have linked this on my Facebook Timeline.

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