First, let me acknowledge that this post is totally inspired by a piece by Jane Devin, author of the memoir Elephant Girl: A Human Story.
She makes the case that it is unhealthy and unhelpful to insist that girls and women are physically “beautiful” regardless of their outward appearance.
According to Devin, reassuring someone she’s “beautiful” when she knows, and society tells her that she is not, does nothing but reinforce the notion that physical beauty is the most important thing in the world. A girl who is teased at school because of her looks is, as Devin points out, often comforted with assurances that she is beautiful, and that the mean people just don’t see how beautiful she is. This response, taken at face value, does nothing to change the perception that being pretty is the real prize in life.
There is much real loveliness, dare I say “beauty” to be found in the damaged and unconventionally attractive. We love the broken plate, since mended, because it has sentimental value. We can prefer the strange looking mutt with the height of a Dachshund and the face of a Pug because its very oddness and vulnerability evokes a protective emotional response.
We can look on the face of a loved one who is not conventionally, physically attractive and find them genuinely, incredibly and stunningly beautiful because we know them. We care not a whit about acne, beer belly, under bite or lantern jaw because what we value is internal.
We find our children, our spouses, our family and friends to be beautiful as a matter of fact, but what if they aren’t, in the objective sense?
What if we aren’t?
We all know that in the great world there are standards for what is “beautiful,” and that while some of them vary by culture or decade, there will always be a place at the table for a girl or woman with clear skin, regularly spaced features and glossy hair.
I grew up resolutely un-beautiful in a place where a high value was placed on physical beauty. I heard people criticized because they were fat, un-stylish, crooked of tooth or irregular of feature. Although my parents always told me I was beautiful, because I was their beloved child, I internalized the messages I received from the greater world.
I knew that I was beautiful to my parents because they loved me, but that I was not a girl who would draw someone’s eye at a dance. All of the niceness, the carefulness, the well-meaning bucking up in the universe could not overcome what I knew to be true: it was good to be beautiful, and I was not.
Every time I was told that I was “beautiful,” not really “thunder thighs” or “pizza face,” it contributed to the sense that I had to overcome not only my lack of beauty, but my selfish refusal to buy into the pleas to recognize my own beautifulness. I felt ungrateful because I could not go into the world feeling like some radiant being whose inner beauty would shine from every pore.
We can and should raise children not to be cruel about the appearance of others, but I don’t know if it’s possible to override every cultural and biological imperative. People are attracted to beauty, and the standards of beauty in our society are set largely by the media.
The thing that needs to be done, as Devin points out, is to make it okay not to be physically beautiful, instead of telling women they are when they aren’t. Physical beauty needs to be put in its place in a pantheon of highly desirable attributes that are unevenly distributed among humankind.
Why not tell a girl that she is brilliant, that you admire her compassion towards others, or that she always makes you laugh no matter how bad things are? Why not explain that she will be able to attract the best kind of friends and lovers because they will get to know her and see beauty that can’t be shown in a magazine spread?
Why can’t we say:
“You’re right. You don’t look like Taylor Swift, but that’s totally okay because not many people look like Taylor Swift. And the ones that do may have an easier time getting people to like them, but it often has nothing to do with their real selves. And even though she’s beautiful on the outside, Taylor Swift still has problems with boys and they aren’t always nice to her.”
Why can’t we be honest with our children from the beginning, and teach them that there are all kinds of beauty, that the physical kind is easiest to see and admire, but no better than kindness, generosity, intelligence, honor, or wit?
It’s too late for me.
I have regular “I’m ugly and I hate myself” fits. If my husband or my best friend responded by saying “you’re right, you aren’t conventionally beautiful, but your wit and goodness make you shine” I would be furious. I want to drink the Koolaid; I want to hear about what parts of me look good, not about my inner wonderfulness.
I take all that “great personality” stuff for granted. I’ve always had it. I’ve never been admired for my looks.
It’s too late for me, but there’s plenty of time to teach our children that physical appearance is just one of the things that counts as “beautiful” in this world. It is undeniably pleasant to look at someone or something that attracts us with its surface, and that won’t change.
It is equally pleasant, though, to be with someone who understands us completely, lets us shout out “Jeopardy” answers, makes us laugh. It’s all beauty, and we should be raising women who are proud, confident and resilient no matter what they look like.
Then we could stop lying about it, and supporting the perception that nothing really matters besides the way our outsides look to strangers.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman