Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Is beauty really all that?

Like many other women, I, too, loved the Dove "Real Beauty Sketches" video on first viewing. My eyes even moistened as I watched the women describe themselves to a forensic artist  in harsh, negative terms. (Is it self-hatred or a culturally inflicted modesty?)

And then the fallout on the Internet began. It was pointed out (on friends' Facebook pages and in online essays) that:

• Unilever, which manufactures Dove also makes Axe, which (you probably already know) offers a stringent ideal of female beauty in its television ads (visualize Tom Wolfe's description in A Man in Full of the female ideal as "boys with breasts").

• That the video is racist because all of the women who talk about the results in the end are white and blonde; the black women shown being drawn early on don't speak about the results.

• That it's sexist because the artist is a man, and their appearance is drawn through a male filter.

• That some women look like the "before" drawings—so how should they feel about themselves? 

At the conclusion of the video, a woman with long blonde hair, who has looked at her before and after portraits, concludes that natural beauty "impacts the choices we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children—it couldn't be more critical to our happiness."

Self-esteem is, of course, important. But the phrasing is ambiguous. Is she saying that not being beautiful can limit our choices in life? This is where I personally must take issue.

I think my horizons widened and my life became more interesting because I was told, sometimes vulgarly, that I was not beautiful when I was a teenager. It became abundantly clear, by the continued harassment/advice offered to me, that I was not meeting the criteria of beauty in the South at the time, which was voluptuous, clear-skinned and submissive (or for those that naturally lacked those attributes, required a daily drag-queen-like artistry I was unwilling to attempt).

Instead I fled a place that seemed to have no place for me, heading to California. I embraced experience. I could walk, mostly unnoticed, through city streets without the burden of "beauty," without being constantly noticed and assessed. I was able to carry myself with an ongoing feeling of liking myself that was not tied to my physical appearance.

Where did I get this feeling of liking myself? It had nothing to do with the soap I washed my face with or the lip gloss I sometimes remembered to wear. I think it came from books, from creativity itself. When I was submerged in a book, or a creative project, I had no awareness of appearance. The important thing was the work, the connection with ideas. I was walking around in my thoughts as much as in a female body, certainly not a female body I was constantly aware of being put on display.

There was still the occasional derisive advice on the West Coast that I'd been met with in the South, but it became more and more inconsequential to me. I realized I really didn't care about the opinion of men who were so focused on superficial appearances and who were mean or stupid enough to share it. I got to the point where I would talk back to them, not in anger, but to ask why they had said what they did. And then I walked on, unflustered, feeling a certain victory in my step.

There is a wonderful beauty in that kind of clear-eyed perseverance. It is the beauty I wish for all young women and girls. God help them—the definition of what is physically beautiful for young females has gotten more restrictive since I was young, and the Internet has amplified what used to be only shout-outs on the street or rude remarks in the school hallway. A campaign for real beauty might work to educate men and women on how ugly/unworthy someone is who engages in such behavior (in an attempt to change them, as well), rather than ultimately just working to sell more beauty products.

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