March 17, 2013

Breaking Apart the Beauty Myth. ~ Jessica Bahr

Beauty should be an expression of the healthy relationship you have with yourself.

“Know then that the body is merely a garment.
Go seek the wearer, not the cloak.”

~ Rumi

I recently read a couple of articles on “beauty privilege,” from respected feminist writers Autumn Whitefield-Mandrano and Hugo Schwyzer, each giving their unique take on the role physical appearance plays in their lives.

In contrast, I want to share my experience of “looksism” from the perspective of a woman who, as expressed to me by others, has been considered attractive by our narrow cultural beauty standards for most of my life.

I’m sure it will incite much judgment and criticism, because who talks about this stuff from that perspective? As both Whitefiled-Mandrano and Schwyzer elucidated in their articles, talking about beauty privilege from a personal lens opens you up to the kind of ridicule that interrogates with “Who do you think you are?” types of questions.

Knowing this, I write because I want to demystify some prevailing and “pro-veiling” myths about beauty privilege.

Hopefully it will empower people—no matter their gender or their place on the beauty spectrum. And as far as the criticism goes, my appearance and experience isn’t really up for debate.

Perks, pitfalls and profits

This is not a “woe is me” perspective; I don’t have an issue with my looks or beauty in general, but I want to dispel the erroneous myth that the pretty people get all the perks.

My experience is that when it comes to pretty, pitfalls seem to be just as prevalent, if not more so.

The myth that beauty is true power (and we are talking about external beauty here), that attractive people are privileged in any real way or walk a road paved with spoils, is not my experience or that of most attractive women I know.

So, I want to brazenly talk about the all-too-often hushed backlash of being considered attractive. I also want to remind people that whether you’re considered ugly, beautiful, or anything in-between, nobody has it easy in a culture where there is so much emphasis on appearances…especially if you are female.

As a woman, you really can’t win in this arena.

Yet, we’re taught it is the only game in town worth playing. Beauty is an area where, in the long run, there are no winners (except of course the CEOs of beauty companies and other industry profiteers).

You’re damned if you’re pretty, damned if you’re not pretty—and if you’re somewhere in between, you might be lucky enough to go unnoticed.

The projection and deflection of beauty or lack thereof often keeps a person’s real story from being told. And, it reduces their multi-dimensionality, while keeping people striving and engrossed, a.k.a. consuming, in an effort to reach unattainable ideals that represent hollow rewards.

My beauty baptism, confirmation and guilt

The first memory I have of being told I was beautiful was as a child—I was around seven or eight years old.

My mom had some friends over to the house and a friendly lady who smelled really nice said to me, “You’re so beautiful.”

I didn’t know what she meant. Was it important? And was I supposed to do something with this? What was my responsibility here? What does it mean?!

I felt it was somehow important to her, but couldn’t care less about being beautiful. I didn’t appreciate the burden. I had more important things to tend to—like playing with my Legos or working on my next watercolor masterpiece.

Suspended in time in my confusion, I felt her intention was good, but also felt somehow accountable for this new projection of “beauty.”

Finally, an adult ushered me to say thank you for the unsolicited compliment. So I did, which confused me even mor,e because I didn’t feel grateful for it, but apparently was supposed to.

I can’t help but think that if she would have said something like, “You have a beautiful spirit,” or “nice personality,” “great style,” that it would have landed more comfortably in me, because those are things to which I could relate.

The other seemed like an empty projection and I later learned why. (There is still a part of me that cringes every time I hear a stranger or an acquaintance tell a girl she is beautiful).

Over the years, my appearance would morph and so would my relationship to it; I had a love-hate relationship with beauty and all its implications.

There were times when I made myself unattractive and unfeminine (being a tomboy helped this) so as not to deal with the projections. Other times, later in life, I went all out and put a lot into my appearance to prove myself worthy of what society valued.

Plus, I wanted boys to like me and I learned that this was their main criterion.

Now, I do neither.

Beauty (always a subjective term) provided a quick hit, an ego boost, but it also led to stress and feelings of emptiness, isolation and alienation.

When I was in high school and very focused on looking good, an incident occurred at my best friend Marissa’s (pseudonym) house.

She and I were looking at a fashion magazine, when her mom came over with her hands on her hips, and said to me in a very stern, accusing manner, “You know Jessica, you’re not more beautiful than Marissa!”

I was shocked and embarrassed; I thought, What the hell is she talking about?!

She was putting me in my place, making sure I didn’t get too big for my britches, especially at the expense of overshadowing her insecure daughter—who she’d been primping and priming with beauty ideals since she was a child (projecting her own insecurities no doubt).

All I could say in response was, “I know! I never said I was!”

Perhaps she momentarily forgot I was a teenage girl who was battling my own ever-present insecurities and a hurdling identity crisis.

I wasn’t off the hook any more than anyone else—I had  condescending fashion magazines, scrutinizing male (and female) gazes and the brutally critical and warped media to remind me.

Filling up on empty promises at the beauty buffet

The idea that beauty makes you powerful is a myth laden with contradictions—it may make you popular, but not powerful. If beauty equaled power, the world would be run by gorgeous women—and most of the gorgeous women I know are hardly in positions of power.

I have not landed some dream man or dream job to date—even when I was in my “prime.”

Every promotion or raise I got, I had to ask for. I’ve had my share of traffic tickets, of which my appearance did not get me out.

Maybe I haven’t been “working it,” but what an incongruity: wielding power (contrived power at that) is not the same thing as power/empowerment.

It’s the opposite—a decoy that undermines authentic power.

Have I been chosen over others? Perhaps, yes. I’ve also been rejected over others and passive aggressively punished for my looks…and/or led to believe that even at my most beautiful, it wasn’t good enough.

Talk about a mind fuck.

I know I’ve gone unscathed in many situations compared to my “less attractive” counterparts; but for every beauty win, there has been at least an equal number of undermining losses. Here are just a few examples people may have overlooked as they were busy projecting how good I’ve got it:

Being hit on by “entitled” men; being harassed on the street; not being taken seriously in the workplace or in interpersonal relationships; being sexually harassed in the work place; losing female friends to jealousy (I have literally had friends “break up” with me because they thought I was too pretty); being treated badly by men and women who project that they think I’m too good for them or that I’m “all that;” older men think they own me; older women think I’m going to steal their husbands; “nice guys” are intimidated by me; boyfriends who decided that nit picking my appearance would keep me from getting a big head; and a wide spanning spectrum of sexual objectification.

Meanwhile, all of this misses who I am and what I have to offer. Alas, the irony of how unseen are those who possess coveted appearances.

The dictatorship of beauty and the beauty fascists

There have been plenty of people who have complimented me who seem to think they have ownership over how I look—as if paying me the compliment has bought them something in return. They are usually those who take first dibs on criticizing me if I don’t measure up.

When I was 18, my family and I took a rustic sailboat vacation in the Bahamas with a small group of strangers.

A man in his late 40s/early 50s decided he needed to let me know that I was beautiful and my body was “just right” as it was. He said if I so much as gained one pound, I would be crossing over to the chunky category [cue horror music] and it would all be downhill after that.

The compliment was packaged with a warning.

Who the hell did he think he was? And what was his stake in my body? As a self-appointed “steward” of the female form, he thought he’d do his duty to make sure the attractive stay attractive—for the benefit of whom exactly?

I never saw him again after that trip. I was embarrassed and pissed off—it taught me about the entitlement men have when it comes to women’s bodies, and their dictatorship over beauty.

It’s fueled by an assumption that we are here to please them.

There are an infinite number of stories that followed regarding the projection of my looks and the implication that my appearance could make or break someone’s comfort level and/or approval of me.

Contrary dictions and the double-edged scalpel

I’m also keenly aware that a culture or a person who tells you you’re beautiful can take it away as fast as they give it, which is to say: Be careful how far you internalize a compliment or a cultural projection.

Hugo Schwyzer speaks to this in his article; he was named “Hottest Professor” for a publication, after which he was ridiculed and belittled. You’re shamed if you do look good and shamed if you don’t.

We make the good-looking credible based on appearances alone and discredit them for the same reason. Our tabloid media is infamous for this—one week it’s worshiping someone’s beauty and the next week it’s attacking and exploiting those same people with unflattering images.

It’s as if to say to the audience, eat your heart out on the unattainable (digitally manipulated) beauty and then feast your ego on their repulsive humanness!

Either way, they are hitching your projections to their distraction wagon.

This push and pull tactic is used by the media to keep audiences co-dependently hooked. It creates a sense of deprivation, which keeps people anxiously provisioning for their next beauty fix.

No one is safe under the scrutiny of the public eye, and using appearances is the cheapest (yet ironically the most lucrative) shot they’ve got.

Even though I am not in the public eye, I have seen the disappointment in people’s faces if I put on a few pounds, have an acne breakout or aren’t looking as good as the last time they saw me.

People come to have an expectation of attractive people, both that they are not allowed to be unattractive, and if they are, something must be terribly wrong.

It isn’t long before a pity party commences, because after all, what could be worse?

It’s funny to watch how easily people’s lives get disrupted when their favorite pretty person appears defective. How dare we betray them!

Beauty addiction renders both genders junkies

It’s also a fallacy that if you’re beautiful it will safeguard your love interest from desiring or gawking at other women, becoming addicted to porn, cheating, not paying attention to you, etc. And it doesn’t matter what you do to improve yourself (although it doesn’t stop people from trying); Hugo Schwyzer tells the ugly truth of this dynamic very well in this article.

I’ve had boyfriends who told me I was beautiful, gorgeous and stunning—and were also quick to remind me of how beautiful they thought 5,000 other women were. It’s not what you want to hear from your lover.

Women aren’t the only ones caught in the beauty myth booby trap. Many men have been ensnared to think that the way a woman looks is going to bring them a certain level of happiness, status and fulfillment, yet they find themselves still looking as if there is something they’re missing—something better.

Often, it’s not missing at all.

It’s right in front of them, but they are too distracted looking for their next fix. I’ve seen many men in this feeble scenario. It’s heartbreaking.

It’s simple sociology (I don’t believe this is biologically-driven because it leads to all sorts of incompatibilities. There is nothing “natural” about the contrived beauty that has become the standard).

The culture and media programs and entitles men to want something “more”—confusing stimulus with satisfaction. It conditions women to strive toward unrealistic, if not unhealthy, ideals to please those men. Over time, they may start to think they’re doing it for themselves, because they are now looking at themselves through another’s lens. Both genders then over-value and over-emphasize female looks in a way that leaves both dissatisfied.

I call this the Futility Model—it’s actually a brilliant business model. It keeps people consuming and trying, spending and wasting.

At the end of the day, nobody is fulfilled and many are left feeling estranged.

We are playing smoke in our own mirrors

I read an article some years ago in which a very famous supermodel was interviewed about her break up with a well-known actor. She, a woman who became a multi-millionaire based on her looks alone, admitted feeling insecure that her ex-husband found someone younger and prettier. Her inferior self-image was a main theme in the article.

I was shocked.

This was a woman I had idolized for her beauty when I was a teen, before I became consciously aware of what I was idolizing and why. I wanted to find her, shake her and tell her that it had nothing to do with her appearance. It showed me that even those considered the “most beautiful” feel lonely, insecure and rejected, and like they are never good enough, even if their paycheck validates that they are.

Simply put, this form of power is about as sustainable as keeping water in a sieve.

There will always be someone more beautiful and young.

Chasing after it is like chasing a rainbow with no pot of gold at the end; all the while, we could have been mining our own inner “gold.”

So why do so many of us buy into the image game? Why is cultural conditioning winning over our better judgment and, in an alarming number of cases, costing us our health and sanity?

Women want to be seen, recognized, and received—we all do.

For millennia, one of the only ways it was acceptable for a woman to “shine” or express herself was by her appearance (or couched with her appearance). [Historically, beauty and sex were women’s only form of currency and a bargaining chip for survival.]

It’s what we run to first, it’s what we know, what we’ve been trained for since we were little girls—it is what will be noticed and validated.

And we are taught that it will bring us what we prize the most—love.

Subsequently, there are a myriad of ubiquitous ways to mollify this in a beauty-addicted society—pushers on every street corner.

It’s one of the things we can control—with fashion, restrictive undergarments, makeup, hair styles, toxic beauty and personal care products, plastic surgery, exercise, etc. As if the more we put into it, the more we get out. Yet the payoff is a shallow one if any at all. I am remiss for how much time and money I have wasted on such endeavors.

The appearance of appearances

The perils of living in a beauty- and youth-obsessed culture are too numerous to mention. But the issue isn’t in appearances, it is in our relationship to appearances—the attitudes that serve to undermine and oppress women and men.

At the crux of all this is what is conveyed in the title of Naomi Wolf’s book, Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women.

What if instead of futilely trying to change our appearance, we tried to change the attitudes, ideas and projections (our own and others’) about our appearance?

In other words, instead of spending so much time and money on beauty, which will yield so little in return and be detrimental to myself and society, what if I allocated some of it toward educating people about the ways in which they are being manipulated and coerced into thinking beauty is the end all and be all?

Billions of dollars are spent to make us think a certain way, to define and forge our relationship to beauty. Putting attention toward countering that opens up channels to reclaiming our hearts, thoughts, minds and authenticity—the real beauty.

The inside job puts the outside in perspective

I’ve learned over the years not to take physical appearance too seriously (mine or others’).

The way I look is a part of my life, but it’s not the whole of my identity, even though the culture has always told me otherwise. Like most people, I like compliments. I like to be told I’m funny, smart, that I write well, have a nice smile or a good singing voice, pretty eyes, etc.

It feels nice when someone compliments my appearance—the ego likes flattery—but I know it doesn’t really mean anything. Nothing of great importance hinges on it. It doesn’t hold a charge for me anymore; it no longer hooks me into a story, mine or theirs.

There is immense freedom in choosing not to put stock in something that has so little return on investment—contrary to the myth—and instead investing in something meaningful and fulfilling.

Self-worth is the best and most sustainable investment.

Giving someone else that job is a dangerous and self-deprecating proposition.

It’s not to say don’t be beautiful. But rather, shift the emphasis to health (emotional and physical), financial stability, finding and living your life’s purpose, expressing your creativity and broadening your definition of beauty beyond society’s narrow interpretation.

Beauty should be an expression of the healthy relationship you have with yourself, not a compensatory commodity we use to try and forge that relationship with ourselves or others.

I dream of a day when people realize how trivial and peripheral appearances are compared to a person’s character and the many other attributes within them. But that requires a little time and effort to get to know someone and ourselves, as well as confronting the ego that wants to project onto others in hopes of finding a sweet spot of comfort in one’s own skin.

It also requires a major de-programming of cultural conditioning regarding looks, and a steady and proactive disengagement from the media and the beauty empire, which is tied to the sex (objectification) empire. One can hope.

The road to beauty is paved with cold

Sadly, I personally know dozens of gorgeous women who are also really smart and kind, but who feel unappreciated by men and society as a whole for all of these things. They are either without a partner, or are with a partner who isn’t interested in sex, is unfaithful, porn-addicted or distracted with other things. These women are examples of the myths about attractive women.

Sure they might get waited on first at a bar, or let over in traffic, but these niceties just keep perpetuating the myth that there is something more waiting for them beyond those gestures. Most of the time there is not.

Beauty really is in a vacuum; its “privilege” highly conditional.

There isn’t anything wrong with the appreciation of beauty, but there is a difference between appreciation and idolization.

The latter is a projection, and normalizing the idolization of the attractive is to in turn normalize the vilification of the unattractive. The projection onto one automatically casts a shadow onto the other. Neither is accurate.

Ani DiFranco sums it up perfectly in her song 32 Flavors:

“God help you if you are an ugly girl, course too pretty is also your doom…everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.”

So before assuming/projecting that an attractive woman has it made, try to remember she might just be the loneliest person in the room.

She may be walking a fine line between being seen and being actually and authentically seen.

Beautiful people need a friendly smile and a willful ear as much as someone considered less attractive. We’re all human after all, and in a culture that is trying to control all of us no matter where we fall on the feigned beauty spectrum, we’re all dished heaping helpings of things we didn’t ask for.

It’s important to remember the implications of projection. Projection leads to objectification, objectification leads to de-humanization and de-humanization leads to all forms of mistreatment and disenfranchisement.

Let’s not let the myths of beauty and beauty privilege estrange us from ourselves or one another any longer.


Jessica is a freelance writer who writes about subjects she is passionate about, including gender, conscious relationships, media literacy, healthy sexuality, grounded spirituality and integral psychology. She has been published in various online publications, including The Good Men Project, Spirit of Maat, DailyCoudt.com, VividLife, Rebelle Society, and elephant journal. She recently won the “The Summer of Love” essay contest, hosted by In The Garden Publishing, and is currently working on her first book on the media’s impact on gender relations. She can be reached at [email protected].





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