Around this time last year, I nearly published a post about beauty. I had known almost intuitively and from a very young age that, at least in matters of love and romance, a woman’s primary value lay in her physical beauty. In one of my earliest memories, dating from about age six, I told my mother that, based on everything I had learned from television and movies, men fall in love with women because they are beautiful. My mother, probably seeking to realign my priorities and perception, said, “No, Meggie, people fall in love with who you are, not how you look.” Stubbornly, I insisted, “Okay, fine– but they don’t get to know who you are unless they like the way you look.”
I spent my childhood playing with (and occasionally beheading) blonde, blue-eyed Barbie dolls. In my favorite books, the blonde, blue-eyed sister was consistently held up as “the pretty one” (Mary in the Little House on the Prairie series, Amy in Little Women), and so I daydreamed of adulthood and the hair dye and color contacts it would enable me to procure. As I grew older and became the perpetual fat kid of my elementary school classes, I began to understand that, to many people, fat=ugly, and I despaired of ever being beautiful.
My post last year, though, wasn’t about any of that. It was written in anger, not despair. Sometime in mid-adolescence, I had come to terms with the fact that society’s standards of conventional beauty were, in all likelihood, beyond my reach. What made me angry was that I had been told, falsely, that it didn’t matter. Cultivate your brain, your sense of humor, your talents, the adults in my life told me, and the way you look will only matter to shallow people, people who are beneath you anyway.
It seemed for a while that that was true. I hit my stride in college, and I dated people who cared about my wit, my jokes, my politics– people who never mentioned my hair color or my waistline. I wore clothes that pleased me, not necessarily ones that flattered my body, I never learned to do anything at all with my hair or to skillfully apply makeup, and I really believed it didn’t matter. I abandoned a career in theater because I had the wrong body type to be an ingenue, and I moved on to the legal world, and later to the rabbinate, looking forward to being evaluated on the merits of my mind. I met a man I thought I would marry, a man who loved my dedication to our shared faith, my humor, my intellect, my enthusiasm.
Then, about a year and a half ago, that man walked into our home and said, “I love you. I love everything about our life together. You’re as smart as I am, and I love our conversations. You make me laugh. You understand the difficulties of my career and support me. We’re incredibly sexually compatible. You’re everything I always dreamed about finding in a partner. But it’s important to me to have all of the trappings of success, and that includes a wife other men will envy. I know intellectually that other men see your beauty, but I can’t. I know you’ve looked like this since we met, and I’m so sorry. I’m not proud of this, but a few inches of subcutaneous fat are standing between me and happiness.”
Yes, that’s a direct quotation. A speech like that stays with you.
In the aftermath of that breakup, I became obsessed with appearance. I dieted, I bought a curling iron, I spent hours watching makeup tutorials, I purchased a new wardrobe I couldn’t afford. I read study after study and article upon article detailing all the ways that appearance determines success in every facet of life, especially for women. What jobs you get, how trustworthy you seem, what friends you make, what bars you get into, what you pay for a car– everything, it seemed, turned on being beautiful. The beautiful was co-terminal with the good. I felt misled. If I had listened to my own instincts, and to the messages of the media rather than to my parents and teachers, I might have devoted the time necessary to become as attractive as I could be. I had wasted so much time, and I was so far behind.
A year later, I am still angry. But my frustration is no longer directed toward those who claim that the world is other than it is. Instead, I am angry at society itself. Argue the evolutionary biology all you want, blame the subconscious, decry the media’s focus on appearance, but this focus on beauty is completely out of proportion. What I want is an end to the idea that you must be beautiful to be worth anything.
Imagine that a woman is asked to describe herself. She says, “I’m intelligent, I’m funny, I’m generally happy, I’m short, I’m religious, and I’m loyal. I’m impatient, I’m clumsy, I’m ugly, I’m a terrible listener, and I’m not a dog person.”
Did you feel sorry for her when she called herself ugly?
It is okay not to be beautiful. That woman doesn’t necessarily have bad self-esteem. She may not hate herself. Why do we feel compelled to say, “Of course you’re beautiful!” or even, “Every woman is beautiful!”? Is every woman a good listener? Is every woman patient? Does lacking one of those qualities immediately devalue her as a human being?
For that matter, more than beauty should matter. How often do we dismiss a supermodel’s intellect because all she needs is beauty, and so anything else doesn’t matter? In response to the beautiful actress Olivia Wilde playing a journalist in a new film, a writer in GQ declared the casting unbelievable, writing, “With that tush, who’d need to be literate? Who’d want to?”. How much are we missing out on because we tell beautiful people that developing their other gifts is superfluous, that they should just sit there and look pretty?
Look, if you want to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that’s fine. Some people like Bauhaus architecture and some are into obese men. Great. And, for that matter, everything is relative: in a room of people who can’t string together a sentence, President George W. Bush could be a good public speaker; I’m short in the company of 20 Norwegians and tall when surrounded by Jews; compared to endive, romaine lettuce is sweet. And, of course, standards of beauty vary across cultures and time: 11th-century Frenchwomen used special devices to give themselves double chins, Chinese foot-binding yielded deformed but tiny feet, the 1980s had that shoulder pad thing. But it is not such a silly thing to look at the standards and tastes of one’s own time and place and say that someone is not beautiful.
When my ex-partner told me that I wasn’t beautiful, he wasn’t saying anything that I hadn’t thought about myself. But I was so shocked and so deeply traumatized because I had internalized the idea that his love for me would make him think that I was beautiful– and that if it didn’t, he didn’t love me. I didn’t expect that loving me would fool him into thinking I was a good dancer, or very humble, or thrifty. We readily accept that others can love us despite our flaws and weaknesses, but the idea that we could be ugly and beloved, the thought that beauty could be just one trait among many rather than a necessity for being a valued partner, is alien to us.
It is a serious flaw in my ex-partner’s character that my beauty deficit could outweigh (no pun intended) all of the things he valued so highly in me– a very specific combination of attributes not fully listed here that he acknowledged would be virtually impossible to find in another partner. I understand it, though, because even as I write this, I know how heart-wrenching it would be for me to live my life with someone who did not think I was beautiful. My heart twinges, just as yours did, when I read the woman’s description of herself as ugly.
This is what I want to change. I don’t know how to make it happen, but I want to live in a world in which beauty isn’t the trump value, in which beauty is no more or less than one trait among many that make up a human being. I want to be able to hear someone say, “I just don’t get your sense of humor” and “I just don’t find you very pretty” and have them pack the same punch. I want to get a job based on the relevant skills, not because the interviewer finds me more attractive (and, according to many studies, thus thinks I am more capable) than the other candidates.
I don’t want to see the end of beauty; that would make the world a poorer place. I want a richer world, where beauty is one color in the tapestry of a life and not the loom that determines that life’s shape. The cloth can be whole and valuable without that one strip of color.
Please stop equating the beautiful with the good. To be ugly is not a tragedy, not a disaster of fortune. You can be ugly and valuable. Ugly and happy. Ugly and worthy.