This two part blog posting is about societal-defined norms of attractiveness, and both our culture's and my own reaction to the presence or absence of this one aspect of my personhood......through various periods of my life.
The increasing self-awareness of adolescence brought about a determination to seize control of my own destiny by working consciously to alter my physical appearance. This happens to most teens, and we do the best we can with what we've got. I came of age in the early 1970's: Even my husband coaxed his own mother to sew him a rust colored corduroy three piece suit with bell-bottom pants. (Which was very cool at the time.) She also agreed to let him grow his hair longish if he cleaned his face often enough to get rid of the pimples. (His family was military and this was a pretty radical thing, long hair: our tv news was full of images of long-haired "hippies" protesting against the government, our military, and the Viet Nam war.) I tried to work my own magic on my appearance: For starters, I didn't have to worry about my weight. I had the fact that there was very little food in my childhood home to thank for that. Naturally inclined to be a tomboy, I spent all my free time during my junior high/middle school years riding horses, climbing trees, walking to and from school every day, riding bikes, swimming, hiking, playing tennis, and water-skiing. So I was fit. As I said, my first act of defiance was to cut off the rear tail of my shag/mullet, leaving my hair short and lumpy, in no particular style at all. I then refused to let it be cut, for the next 4 years, until it was "long".
The second expression of my self-determination was to wear my mother down with daily nagging sessions (aka "arguments") until she let me pierce my ears. In my mom's 1930's mindset, only "fast" girls had pierced ears. Never mind that this was all the style and everyone I knew had them, even "nice" girls. I was so innocent and unwordly that it never even occurred to me to take matters into my own hands and get a gf to just do it at a slumber party one night with a sewing needle. (Which would have produced better results, more than likely.) After about three years of daily altercations on the issue, I finally exhausted my mother's determination on this topic, and she agreed to take me to our family physician, to have it done "medically" in the doctor's office. Why she decided it needed to be done this way, I have no idea, but I do remember mom and my dad discussing the issue, and maybe he put it to her as a sort of compromise. (My dad was often the one advocating for issues on my behalf, such as giving me art lessons when I won a prize at the school art show in 2nd grade.) Our family physician was a fat old drunk who wore a toupee that was an entirely different color from his wild looking 70's style mutton-chop sideburns. With an inebriated squinty-eyed jab, similar to the technique one uses when drunkenly throwing darts, he pierced my ears lopsidedly; they remain that way to this day. Of course, of course, my mother and sister went immediately to the mall, a few days after this, and got their ears professionally, symmetrically, and painlessly pierced at the little mall kiosk that also sold earrings. This mall kiosk had a little ear-piercing gun that just went "pop!" and it was done, kind of like a bedazzler.Their ears healed the requisite 6 weeks (twisting and cleaning with hydrogen peroxide each day until the holes healed up) while wearing small matching 14k gold posts. My ears healed up while I wore large lopsided stainless steel hoops the drunk family physician had fashioned himself from dental wire. Why was I so passive and accepting of all this? Why did't I just go to the mall and replace or redo it? Because I had no money. I was 13 years old and my mother wouldn't let me babysit, do chores for others, or anything to earn extra cash. I was totally at her mercy and whims....for 3 more years.
The third event that altered my appearance came about due to my orthodontist, bless that man, who shamed my mother into replacing the silver tooth crown with a natural, white, tooth-colored one that matched my other teeth. These three things changed my life, in a good way, forever.
"Charlie's Angels" Jacqueline Smith phase
By the time I reached high school, I had, as they say, "blossomed." I read Seventeen magazine and spent a lot of time with my gfs obsessively discussing the best hairstyles, fashion, and make-up colors of the day, but I didn't feel any different on the inside. "Give me a child from one to six, and he is mine for life," Saint Ignatius said. I kept the same self-concept, world view, study habits and friends. My mother went back to work around this time and I also managed the house and chauffeured my little sister around, too. Did I mention that I also worked 16-24 hours a week, in addition to running the house, my school extra-curricular activities, and studying, this entire time? Supported myself with my own paychecks? I refer to those years as my "perfect girl" phase. But life, as I knew it, had changed, all due to the fact that as I grew up, my appearance changed. Everyone grows out of the awkward early adolescent phase, eventually, but it's very weird to go from being an ugly duckling to a Cinderella at the ball almost over night. You kind of don't know what to do, what to think about it. Do people really like me for me? Or because of how I look? You want to pinch yourself when you look in the mirror. You know people think you are pretty, but you still hope and think they like you for you, which is not always the case. You start to double-think it....You are also oblivious to the things you say about appearance that may hurt others' feelings. You assume everyone responds to your attractiveness as you do. There were times I felt distanced from my own body, as if I were looking down at myself from above, watching what I was doing, and how others perceived me, in their eyes. I could see their feelings in their eyes. "Don't you know," I would think to myself,"that I am this nerdy little girl with the silver tooth, bushy hair, and ugly clothes? Why do you love me so?" I did and I didn't believe the admiration of others was genuine; but I always assumed it was fleeting.
Myths sprung up about me, Gatsby-like : "Did you know her grandmother died, and left her all this money to buy new clothes?" (She did not. I earned the money myself, once I turned 16, to buy them.) "A natural beauty....unaware of her own prettiness." ...."I hear she is a model." (I was, for about 5 minutes, in a very small local way. I did not attend Barbizon Modeling School, which plenty of girls at my high school did. There were also many girls who went on to become Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders - that's the sort of place it was.) I carried on as I always had, studying, working, true to my old friends, but suddenly new people were friendly to me as well; boys chased me, I won awards, teachers smiled at me, - I swear to god, teachers had never smiled at me before, no matter how hard I had worked or how much I had achieved, academically. (Studies have long documented that teachers are in fact prejudiced towards attractive students.) It was an exciting golden time; my social life exploded into a mix between that of young Scarlet O'Hara and Zelda Sayre. I was always worried that the balloon could pop at any moment, but I lived it, baby, I lived it : there were parties, clubs that invited me to join them, dancing in fountains, long phone calls with boys, people came out of the woodwork to be my friend, invitations were extended to social events way beyond my ken, I won an elected school leadership position, received extravagant gifts from admirers, attended proms, teas, dates, had beautiful dresses and beaux beaux beaux- suddenly I was popular. Yet keenly aware that nothing, except the outside, had changed.
Brief stint as a model
The down side of all this is that, at least in my experience, when you are pretty, people also assume you cannot be intelligent, (or as intelligent as a less pretty person with comparable abilities and achievements), hard-working, ethical, or worthy.... that you have not, in fact, worked hard for what you have accomplished. People frequently assume that a beautiful woman is granted many things in life just from being beautiful, and thus that she doesn't need (or sometimes, deserve) to be rewarded for her hard work, diligence, or excellence in other aspects of her life (because she gets enough reward for the physical aspect). I know this because I won academic accolades in events where my physicality was unknown, such as taking a national Latin exam (in a room of 500 people, filling out scantrons) and scoring second in the nation. (Not a random fluke- I studied for that thing, and repeated it next year, at the state level-didn't attend nationals.) At smaller more local venues, awards eluded me. Perhaps society has changed its preconceptions for this era - the late 70's and early 80's - feel free to start a conversation on this topic with anyone you know who fits the bill. I suspect you will find some differences, perhaps, in how our society regards women nowadays, but the entire societal expectation of "beauty" (however that is defined) is so wrought up with its definition of "femininity" or "womanhood" as to be an integral part. I know women who are not blessed with great looks would make the same argument, from the opposite perspective. Society cares way too much about how women look, or "should" look, one way or another, and tends not to judge them solely from their intellectual or work related efforts, or their personal qualities such as kindness, empathy, or good deeds. If you look like Eleanor Roosevelt - bless her heart- you can be respected for all your accomplishments and the demands you make on others towards that end (and I admire E.R. very much). If you look like Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada" you will be regarded as a bitch, a ball-busters, a she-devil, etc.
We all know that men face similar issues as regard their looks, but not nearly to the same degree. A wide range of CEO's, lawyers, politicians, doctors, dentists, engineers, authors, educators, businessmen and other (non-media related) male professionals are attractive, as well as unattractive, or even neither, just sort of middling - and they can be equally successful. The topic of attractiveness never even enters the equation of their relative merits. The bar is set lower for men, and the exclamation is more often "smart and handsome to boot" rather than the other way around.
High school graduation
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolfe was yet to be written, but I had some interesting experiences from this era of my life that would appear to support its central premise. I came of age before feminist theory was widely studiable, at least in the corner of the globe where I lived. When I was a sophomore and 16 years old, I dated a senior boy, 18 years old (also an AP student, like myself) who took a serious ribbing about dating a "soc" (a "social", a popular girl) from his nerdy slide-rule wearing buddies. His reply was ,"She's smarter than me and if you'd talk to her, you'd know it." (Thank you, Randy Farber, for the witty come-back and for standing up for me.) My high school guidance counselor told me -without ever once looking at my transcript or inquiring about my SAT scores - that I was too pretty and not smart enough to apply to a seriously challenging academic university. One of my high school honors English teachers hated me because I didn't join the pep squad (my mother refused to let me consort with "floozies and bimbos", her words, not mine) and also because I had contempt for this teacher's lack of knowledge in her subject matter. I knew more, had read more, understood more, and was a better writer, than she was. My chemistry teacher told me that I'd never get into "x" university (her own alma mater, a very prestigious college) "because I just wasn't a good enough student" ......When I did get accepted into her alma mater, one of several stellar colleges that accepted me, I said nothing about it to her. That would have been unkind.
When I showed up at my chosen college (same one as my h.s.chem teacher) for freshman orientation, I was told repeatedly by other students and by some members of the faculty that I was "only accepted because I was pretty" and that "the campus admissions office was merely trying to diversify the student body by admitting a few pretty girls too". None of these people ever bothered to inquire about my grades, my SATs, or my college application.....They never knew that: a) I was in the top 10% of my graduating class (from one of the top 3 most rigorous high schools in the state), had an SAT score that qualified me for membership in MENSA, and had won numerous national and state awards in Latin, UIL English Ready Writing, and Jr. Achievement (business club) as well as other killer extra-curricular leadership experiences. and b) my college application did not include a photo of myself. I had several room mates while at this prestigious university who told me they "read over my essay that was lying around" and that "it wasn't very good" .....yet I somehow managed to earn, once I turned it in, an "A" on it. Whuzzup with that, homie? Several male profs in my major told me repeatedly that I wasn't a strong candidate for graduate school, but a female prof who was my mentor told me that I was. Where did the truth of any of this lie? What conclusions should I draw?
The fact is, people project their own insecurities, worries, inadequacies and fears onto you, ugly or pretty, smart or stupid. It's rarely truly about you.
I don't bring all this up because I think I am "all that." I bring all this up to let you know that the belle of the ball phase was but a brief fun interlude in the long trajectory of my life. I kept my good looks throughout my 20's, throughout my 30's, even after two pregnancies (the second of which nearly killed me), and in spite of a whole host of increasingly serious health problems. As a charter member of the "disease of the month club" I have pretty much been ravaged by health problems over the course of my life, My 40's were fairly cruel, as I lost my looks before many of my gfs and peers (Now, as we are all working towards 60, they are starting to catch up to me. Not the kind of "leader" anyone wants to be.) Over the course of my lifespan, my external outward appearance has been seen by others first as pretty, then ugly, then pretty, then ugly. I have experienced life from both sides of the "the beauty gap". I'm here to tell you that life ain't easier on one side than the other; and either way that society categorizes you ( "pretty" or "ugly") attempts to label you and confine you to some predetermined, stereotypical flattened out version of your self. It's up to you to decide how you will regard your self; in my case, my self concept was formed as the quiet, smart little girl with a silver tooth and bushy hair who read a lot of books, liked to draw, and had true-blue nerdy friends. I will be that person till I die.
Society's perceptions of me (who I was, my depth, my worthiness) based on external appearances always felt such an oddity. I could "see it", I knew I was pretty, as an abstract concept, and I could feel the magnetism that this entirely random happenstance created within others around me, but it felt like like something that could be taken on or off, like a dress. The way others looked at me from the outside was at some curious phenomena, as if it were happening to someone else, not actually related to me. I still feel this way, back on the other side of the attractiveness equation.
After baby #1 early 30's After baby #2 late 30's
Old habits die hard. Even today, I attempt to do the best I can, with what I have. I dress as nicely as I can afford and practice good hygiene. The results aren't great, but could be so much worse. Why can't I age like Sela Ward? Right now, I just wish I could look as sassily good as Judy Dench. If you've ever wondered whatever happened to Kathleen Turner of "Body Heat", well, she has similar health problems as I do. Some of them. I do take care of myself, but am not obsessive about it. I am still the same person on the inside as I always was. I still have the same old friends, and new friends of the same sort, As you age, and especially when you are considered by societal standards to be less physically attractive, especially if you gain weight, others make assumptions about you that are just as baseless as their assumptions were when you were young slender and beautiful.
I have been told by friends and strangers alike that I "need to join a health club or a gym" (my weight gain is actually due to my health issues, medication I take, and the fact that I can barely walk; literally, have been almost crippled for years now.) I don't discuss my health situation much because I don't want them to become me. I want to be who I am,without them as the core of my identity.
The weight issue is truly interesting to me, as a sort of one-person sociology experiment: I have been treated / had comments made to me as if I were uneducated white trash, a denizen of a lower socio-economic order, because I am over-weight. It is a truly bizarre and striking phenomenon. I am by any definition you care to consider none of these things, People's first assumption if you have gained weight is that you are lazy, and that exercise and diet will fix it. From there the logic that seems to follow is that if you are over weight, you are lazy; if you are lazy, you are uneducated and shiftless; if you are ignorant and have no drive, you must be poor as well. People freely give me handy tips, such as I should shop at Walmart or Sam Moon; they just heard of a "new" _______(fill in the blank: vitamin, hand lotion, diet, pill, exercise plan, superfood, etc) that will help you lose weight. Or a new hairstyle, brand of clothing, etc that will make you appear younger or thinner. Old friends who know you won't bring this up, but strangers and casual workplace acquaintances start with these assumptions and build their concept of you from there. The assumption, if one is overweight or less attractive, is that you are not aware of it, and just need some help. This goes back to the underlying notion that fat people are stupid.
25th high school reunion
I was once called "fat" (by an @$$hole) when I young and lithe and beautiful. At 105 pounds at 5' 5" I wasn't over weight at all (in fact, at that particular moment, too thin) and I knew even then that the comment wasn't really about what I was, or wasn't. It was about the other person's desire to hurt me in some way, to attempt to control or confine me through his skewed view of what a woman should be, should look like. As a beautiful young woman, I always felt damned if you do, damned if you don't, and everyone thinks they have the right to voice their opinion on your appearance. Why do people think they have a right to comment at all, one way or another? This dress : too slutty? Too prudish? Too boring? Too colorful? My hair: flattering, or not? These shoes: trashy, or demure? Do these pants make my butt look big?
Of course, it goes without saying, that I really don't care what others think. At all. That's the best gift that middle age confers upon you. you simply do not care. You care very little about things you used to care about quite a bit, and you can't muster the energy or desire to care about new trivialities that rise up. You know that none of this really matters. (Oh yeah, I care about other, more important stuff: global warming, our current political situation, the future of literacy, the war on women, what sort of world are we leaving our children? - but not about appearances.) My core self-concept was formed at that earlier stage in my life, Nowadays, if I am often treated as if I have been a fat nerdy girl all my life, and thus share the expectations and experiences of one of those girls, I laugh, I still think "I am the cutest little trick in shoe leather" and behave as if I am the belle of the ball- self-confident and flirting with men - which really throws people for a loop.