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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Off Topic: Beauty

I just read a fascinating article in Psychology Today and it is not related to the topic of this blog, but it got me thinking about some things in my life. It is about why beauty is important. The article is a bit intense and I found it kind of shocking, but also made some interesting points.

The Truth About Beauty by Amy Alkon is the name of the article and here are a few key parts:

"There are certain realities of existence that most of us accept. If you want to catch a bear, you don't load the trap with a copy of Catch-22...Yet, if you're a woman who wants to land a man, there's this notion that you should be able to go around looking like Ernest Borgnine: If you're 'beautiful on the inside,' that's all that should count...

...It just doesn't seem fair to us that some people come into life with certain advantages--whether it's a movie star chin or a multimillion-dollar shipbuilding inheritance..."

Men are drawn to beautiful women, no surprise there, and women are drawn to men with resources and status, which also makes evolutionary sense.

The article later continues...
"Just like women who aren't very attractive, men who make very little money or are chronically out of work tend to have a really hard time finding partners. There is some male grumbling about this. Yet, while feminist journalists deforest North America publishing articles urging women to bow out of the beauty arms race and 'Learn to love that woman in the mirror!', nobody gets into the ridiculous position of advertising men to 'Learn to love that unemployed guy sprawled on the couch!'"

Interesting point. Is there a difference? I'm not sure. Giving the message that women don't need to take care of their appearance at all seems like a bad idea, yet we have to find the balance of not killing ourselves trying to reach a standard that's impossible or feeling terrible about ourselves when we are not the most beautiful girl in the room.

The next part of the article gets a little bit into the idea that women who take care of their appearance are not smart:

"Take The Beauty Myth author Naomi Wolf: She contends that standards of beauty are a plot to keep women politically, economically, and sexually subjugated to men--apparently by keeping them too busy curling their eyelashes to have time for political action and too weak from dieting to stand up for what they want in bed. Wolf and her feminist sob sisters bleat about the horror of women being pushed to conform to 'Western standards of beauty'--as if eyebrow plucking and getting highlights are the real hardships compared to the walk in the park of footbinding and clitoridectomy. Most insultingly, Wolf paints women who look after their looks as the dim, passive dupes of Madison Avenue and the magazine editors. Apparently, women need only open a page of Vogue and they're under its spell..."

It's true that I hate when people think that just because I enjoy reading Vogue, that is makes me a slave to the beauty industry.

"...We consider it admirable when people strive to better themselves intellectually; we don't say, 'Hey, you weren't born a genius, so why ever bother reading a book?' Why should we treat physical appearance any differently?"

"...Unfortunately, because Americans are so conflicted and dishonest about the power of beauty, we approach it like novices. At one end of the spectrum are the 'Love me as I am!' types, like the woman who asked me why she was having such a terrible time meeting men...while dressed in a way that advertised not 'I want a boyfriend' but 'I'm just the girl to clean out your sewer line!' At the other extreme are women who go around resembling porn-ready painted dolls."

The article also talks about studies showing that there are universal standards of beauty around the world. Some things are different, but some are the same. Ideal weight seems to be directly related to availability of food, so in places where food is plentiful men prefer thin women and in places where food is scarce, men prefer large women. However, they all like to see a woman's waist, regardless of her size.

There are also some articles in this issue about the differences on the other side, how male beauty is very different and not the trait to cultivate when looking for a woman.

I'm curious to see what the backlash to this article will be.
To speak on this issue from my own personal life:

I have been caught in a beauty trap all my life. I grew up in an area with a lot of hippies who emphasized that inner beauty was the most important thing. Hearing that so much, I felt confused when I was expected to put an effort into looking beautiful. On the one hand, my mother has never worn makeup and told me that I was being vain when I was staring at myself in the mirror at eight years old; on the other hand, she took me to get electrolysis treatments for hair removal when I was twelve (in case you don't know, electrolysis is a very painful treatment involving shooting electric currents into the skin. I had it done on the most sensitive parts of my face for years).

My female cousins in the South are brilliant at clothes and makeup and hair. They know how to use a flat iron and how to apply the most tasteful eye color (neither of which I know how to do). The culture in the Northeast seemed to suggest that women who care about their appearance are shallow and dim-witted and just plain stupid. I discovered just how untrue that is when my beautiful cousin went into engineering in college! Just as the movie Legally Blonde charmingly illustrates, a woman can be both smart and beautiful, can care equally for school and for fashion.

I was interested in makeup as a teenager, but I was the only one of my friends in high school experimenting with it and if I wore it to school I got teased by my own friends, or given looks that suggested they thought I was from another planet.

Every time I start feeling good about how I look, I bash myself back down again with negativity in my mind. I feel guilty for caring, feel shallow for loving clothes, feel vain for loving my hair.

I'm the kind of person who always wants to make everyone else feel good and be happy. I'm afraid to go for my true beauty potential in case I make other women feel inadequate. Which is odd, because I really do believe that 99% of women are gorgeous. And imperfections are so easy to hide, there are thousands of little tricks out there so that we can all look and feel like the models in the magazines. I have yet to see an ugly woman. They all have at least one feature that is achingly beautiful.

The other thing this article briefly brought up is that we trick ourselves into thinking that the quest for beauty is a Western thing, when of course it is a human thing. Every culture has a standard of beauty, and there are actually some universals, like an hourglass figure, which is said to be a visual cue of fertility to men. As the last post showed, while in America we strive for tanned skin to give a "healthy glow", in many parts of the world extreme measures are taken to look paler. I think there does need to be a certain amount of loving what we have. We need to see that there is beauty in a wide variety of natural human appearances.

You can probably tell from this blog that I have a hard time doing things without evidence and support from others. That's something else I am still working on understanding and exploring. It isnt' enough for me to believe something, I seem to need support from others.

It's hard for me to make the decision to enjoy my quest for beauty without backup from a magazine article that has studies in it. I want to show it to people who tell me that I shouldn't pay attention to my own appearance or to the appearances of the people I date and say, "See? Appearances do matter. And they should. It doesn't make the world a bad place that appearances matter."

I do have a suspicion that, despite where I started out, I could be quite beautiful with a little effort. I have some cousins who have the same coloring as I do and are very beautiful. I think it wouldn't be too hard to look like them. I am also encouraged by the website Before You Were Hot, which shows people's ugliest awkward teenage years picture along with how lovely they look now. It makes me smile to know that I'm not the only one trying to go from sweatpants and a uni-brow to head-turningly beautiful!

Okay, sorry for the aside! The talk about skin color and beauty from the last post got me going in this direction and this blog is mostly a self-analysis, so I found it very useful to explore and think about these things in writing.

What do you all think about beauty?


  1. I think "attractive" is a dangerous thing to strive to be, because "attractive" is something that's so culturally-driven, and so unattainable, mostly because it's subjective. It's also superficial, both in terms of physical attractiveness and also personality. Part of what it is based on is what society sees as a desirable position - nowadays people are rail-thin, exfoliated and tan, because it's desirable to have the leisure time to exercise a lot and afford to lay around the rest of the time at the spa. Rewind to the Victorian era, when women tight-laced themselves into corsets if they could afford not to do physical labor, and had lily-white skin to prove their social standing. Rewind even further to the Renaissance, when plumpness was the thing to strive for, because it meant you could afford to eat all sorts of fattening foods.

    And so on. "Attractive" is what society tells us we need to be to be seen as successful. That's not to say that it's not somewhat valid, because all species that use some form of sexual reproduction also have physical characteristics that attract mates (hello blue-footed booby bowers and beautiful plumage in male birds), but human beings are thinking, reasoning, feeling creatures, so it's up to us to look bast those basic physical needs and see deeper, because ultimately what we're looking for is more than the physical.

    Now, beautiful? That's much more difficult. Because where someone can work to appear "attractive," beautiful is what you find when you dig deeper, and get to the core of a person. Someone who may not be traditionally attractive can be beautiful, because beauty is made up of more than just how symmetrical your face is, or how witty you are at parties. Beauty is what you are in your core. (Or at least that's what my mom always told me, and I still believe it.)

    Those are my ten cents.

  2. Certainly, humans are thinking creatures. But what about initial attraction? Is it shallow to try to make oneself attractive to potential mates in your own society? Not objectively attractive, but with an eye to what your hoped-for mate would be initially drawn to? It does seem like relationships start with looks and move on to personality later.

  3. No, not shallow, just not the ultimate end. A good mate will see past that first impression and (hopefully) fall in love with what's underneath.

    I just think that society, by and large, puts a whole lot of emphasis on developing the outer appearance and not as much on what's inside.

    I also think that if you're thinking about hot to attract the ideal mate, then you are thinking about what goes deeper, or at least you should be. If you think superficially, you'll attract people who look for the superficial, although everybody is initially attracted by the superficial (I fell in love with my husband the first time I saw him because he has amazing long hair, and I just go nuts for stuff like that), so don't completely disregard it. Just don't drive yourself nuts trying to perfect it.

    It's just wise to remember the distinction between "attractive" and "beautiful," and that there's a logical progression from one to the other as you get to know someone. That's all. Well, that and "attractive" is really really subjective, and it fluctuates, but beauty is a constant for the person who sees it in you, and therefore a lot easier to keep up.

    (It is important to note that I am never happy about my weight, or where my hairline sits, or the clearness of my skin, or the bags under my eyes, etc! Sometimes beauty is something I use to make myself feel better about not feeling attractive.)

  4. if the article available on the net?

    if so , can you post the link?

    i did a google search, didn't find anything.


  5. I think the key, as with most things, is balance and measure. Not making ourselves crazy over imperfections that really only we see and not giving up completely.

    It does seem like some level of attrativness is needed for relationships and I'm beginning to think that's not a bad thing. It's evolutionarily there for a reason. And then other stuff becomes more important, certainly.

    The other thing about beauty is that I've noticed that it makes me feel great, regardless of men. When I put on clothes that look good and style my hair, I go through the day with my head held high, feeling confident and happy with life.

  6. Basu, I have not been able to find it on the net, I'm afraid. I think because it is the newest issue of the magazine, the article isn't available on their website. I'm sorry to reference something that is not easily accessible to people! Hopefully in a month or two Psychology Today will have it on their website.

  7. i think this isssue has been one of the struggle for spiritual communities and people for thousands of years.

    in hinduism we are taught that we have a spirutual body and a physical body. the spiritual body is the eternal one, and so should be the focus of our attentions - to develope and advance ourselves so that we can eventually reach moksha/liberation.
    the physical body is just the vessel, the path that allows the spirit to travel further towards its final destination. its supposed to be the focus of our attentions - only for the advancements of our spiritual selves... we should feed and cloth and decorate it - but only for spiritual purposes .. and outward appearances really mean nothing in the face of eteranl spiritual advancement.

    thats the theory any way. In reality - we also have another ''self'' - that of base instincts and animal nature.. its that part of ourselves that gives us the drive to reproduces, that allowed us to evolve and advance and to survive and overcome plagues and disease and deformity..

    and unfortunatly - in this age of kali yuga - it this nature that is the ruling one..
    we have to accept that on a level - we are a slave to our physical bodies - we need to feed and clothe it - and even the most pious and spiritual monks and swamis cant help but smile at a pretty face... as humans - we like attractive things - and attractive women - unforunatly mean attractive babies and ones more likely too survive disease etc .. its hardwred into us and we can no more separate ourselves from it - then we can seperate ourselves from the need for air or water ..

    i think ultimately the key is self awareness and balance balance balance .... to understand where and how we can excersise control over our base emotions ... but i dont think its easy by any means - and i think its something we will still be struggling with in another 5000 years time..

    and as for a personal level - well i think the only thing we can do is to associate ourselves with people who are at least striving to see people as more than just a physical body.. and to remind ourselves as many times as day as possible - by chanting or meditation or pujas - of our true selves and reason for existance ..

    one thing i really did learn in the temple i go to as well is that beauty and light can be found in the most ugliest of things and darkest of places - if only we choose to see with the right vision...

  8. I think it is a matter of not being removed from the world. Even though our focus should be on the subtle body, the spiritual body, we still operate within the play of the world and as part of our role in it, we take care of our bodies.

    I always liked the metaphor of the body as a temple, taking care of it and treating it well because God lives in it.

    Good point about the right vision. Your perspective on something is everything. It reminds me of the story of the wise man who comes across a dead donkey in the road. It is rotting and being eaten by flies, and his comment is, "What lovely, perfect teeth it has."

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