April 16th, 2013

You Will Never Be Beautiful Enough

Fuck Beauty

Have you ever noticed how often women are qualified by their beauty? Daughters and wives are described as beautiful or lovely or pretty – rarely brilliant or athletic or talented or just “Susan.” “This is my beautiful wife and my gorgeous daughter.” Listen. You’ll hear it, often. As a culture, we’re telling women  – and especially impressionable girls – what’s important about them with every word choice, the priorities we emphasize and what we steer them toward and away from.

Whether or not you or your daughter is pretty isn’t what matters. People tell you it matters, but that’s a distraction, meant to sell products to this competitive demographic. Don’t be sold this idea.

It’s on the cover and within every page of almost every magazine. People have derided the expectations created by retouching since retouching began. “Perfect” skin and bodies are retouched to be “more perfect.” Those unending runways full of size 00 models – where no one looks like anyone you know. They wear things you’d never wear.

And right there girls begin to feel like they’ll never measure up. Fuck Beauty. Seriously.

The Dove “Real Beauty” Campaigns aren’t challenging whether or not beauty is important – they pretty much stick with the assumption that it is. After all, they are still selling product to that market. But they do hook into the psyche of women who are pummeled by the culture (and weary of it) and challenge how critical we are with assessing ourselves. So we can just be. They assure us that more of us are more beautiful than we think we are. Here’s their latest offering:

It’s a poignant campaign about how we see ourselves. Their research showed that 6 in 10 girls stop doing what they love because they feel bad about their looks. That statistic would be a travesty if it was 1 in 1000. But it’s 6 in 10. Because of how they feel about how they look.

Having our priorities out of whack sucks away our resources that would better serve us elsewhere.

I know what my weight was at every stage in my life. Is that true for you, too? When I was in that relationship, worked that job, bought my house, reached that milestone, traveled there, celebrated that birthday – I weighed __. And I’ve made a conscious effort not to care about such things (short of not owning a scale and avoiding knowing it altogether). Truth is, weight is a piece of data and I like to know the data of my life, but I also like it not to matter. And the fact that my brain is storing this info so precisely tells me that it still has some significance because the culture has influenced me against my will – and even my own logic has not eradicated it completely.

Losing weight is no longer a goal. Looking a certain way to conform to a cultural norm is no longer a goal. Being healthy (which I am) and cultivating the ability to do the things I (physically) want to do is the only goal that matters. My focus has shifted over the course of my life – and I wish I shifted it sooner.

For the most part the people that agree/align with this cultural obsession with looks end up being the most superficial, insecure, undervalued, hypersensitive and unable to cope. The ones that buck this trend end up being focused, accomplished, authentic, happy and admired (for all the right reasons). Even when you’re in the latter group, there are people who will try to make you wear their version of “you should be insecure because I would be, let me attempt to force it upon you” even when you are not. I observed this in the media/internet frenzy when I used Twitter to ask Target about labeling a plus-sized dress Manatee Grey while their standard-sized dress was Dark Heather Grey. Did you hear about that non-story that spread like wildfire? I’ll have more to say about my observations on that frenzy soon – in the form of a social case study. But for now I’ll just say it brought out droves of people who were unable to resist a comment box and blinking cursor and saw it as their mission to point out how unhappy, ugly and fat I am – without a single fact to back them up.

Our culture chugs along, discounting women and girls if they don’t dress fashionably enough, don’t have the correct shaped body, don’t wear the appropriate amount of cosmetics (at first I typed costmetics, which seemed an appropriate typo) – all designed to appeal to male sexual preferences (as varied as those can be). Many men seem all too willing to share with impressionable women and girls just exactly what it’s going to take to be worthy of their attention.

I recently got an email (if two words can be called an email) from a potential suitor: “nice face.” Seriously. This is what amounts to discourse for some people. When a man (in a dating context) leads with a compliment about my looks (especially when that is the only communication from him), I gather a couple of things about him. He is assuming that I’ve bought into the cultural notion that this is what matters about me and he can assuage my insecurity by expressing his preferences. He thinks his superficial preferences are so important that I must know them. I immediately lose interest when he shows me that this cultural upside-down priority is his leading strategy and motivator. I prefer a person who craves conversation about much more important topics than what a person looks like and expressing whether or not they approve of it. Not capable of that simple human interaction? Move along.

My wiser self pleads with everyone – cultivate everything else about you. Shrug off cultural notions about what you should look like. You’re never at your best when you should yourself.

How would it feel if you didn’t know (and agree with) what you were supposed to look like? If you didn’t know or believe an hourglass figure was considered more attractive than a straight one. That a tummy bulge is to be avoided at all costs. That in the present day western culture, thin is in (for women). If you didn’t know clear, smooth skin is preferable to pimples or wrinkles. If you didn’t hate your freckles while everyone who knows you would miss them if they were gone.

What if you didn’t know your best physical features. If no one had ever commented on your appearance or anyone else’s? What would change, then?

Would you:

  • wear makeup?
  • color your hair?
  • buy new clothes or shoes?
  • wear high heels?
  • buy or wear jewelry?
  • workout as often as you do?
  • starve yourself?
  • skip meals/dessert?
  • pass on that thing you love to eat?
  • spend more time considering how you look than how you feel?
  • spend more time primping than learning?

Can you go to the store without makeup, styled hair or “cute” clothes? How about to work? Or on a first date? Are these the things you are trying to impress with? Or is it the content of your character, they way you invest your time, the causes you care about, how you are trying to make a difference, your empathy, humanity, authenticity and kindness?

What would happen if you cared primarily about everything else except outer beauty? How much of our resources (time, money, attention) are tied up in what we look like? My male friends can come back after a workout, take a 5 minute shower and be back in life, ready to go out to dinner and have fun. I calculate the time it will take to wash, condition, dry long hair, apply makeup, dress and it’s 30 minutes if I am efficient. I’ve made it a practice now to let my hair dry in its “crazy waves” and to go to the store without makeup on. I have a friend with the most beautiful silver hair who set aside hair dye several years ago. Are you confronting a culture of shoulds in your own daily life? How does that show up in your life? What does it cost you to focus on appearance and what are the costs of not focusing on it?

Feature . Feel