Friday, February 8, 2013

Some notes on beauty

Most of the comments on my last post addressed the postscript at the end about beauty standards rather than the stuff about games. I guess beauty is inherently more interesting than games? Or at least amateur beauty theory is more compelling than amateur game theory.

First, teens in Southeast Asia start getting "black market braces" to signal status and affluence. Now schoolgirls in Japan are getting fake snaggleteeth. I've got a natural snaggletooth. It's not a bug, it's a feature! My teeth are mostly quite straight from having braces from ages 12 to 14 or so, but the incisor next to my canine on the top right has gone slowly haywire. By college it had rotated enough to occasionally catch on my lip. My ex called it "the fang."

There are features that one convinces oneself no one notices. Three or four people had to comment that they found the snaggletooth cute before I started to think of it as one of my "things," though I'm still not really sure how salient it is. Some people fetishize quirky teeth (Chris Tonelli once told me he loves Patricia Arquette's). Chris "I like you unconditionally" Starkey once called it "my flavor." I seem to remember he physically touched my tooth with his finger when he said it. I sometimes wonder, do most people not notice it? Do some people notice and find it secretly gruesome?

By the way, I found that snaggletooth link on The Beheld, the marvelous blog of Autumn Whitefield-Madrano. Her weekly link roundup does for beauty what Fritinancy does for branding/wordnikhood.

The night I met John, he was wearing a navy sweater with a big toothpaste stain on the front. I remember noticing the stain and thinking, "I really, really approve of that." (That's a line from a Tao Lin story.) You see, I thought it signaled nonchalance. Like, "I'll wear a sweater with a stain on the front to a birthday party, I don't give a shit." Later I found out he didn't know it was there when he left the house. He noticed it in the bathroom mirror and was mortified.

Another thing Chris T. said once: "Amy King's crotch is like great architecture." Can I repeat that? He meant in jeans, from a distance, nothing pornographic.

Have you seen the movie Beautiful Girls? It came out when I was in high school, I remember, but I only just watched it this week. Timothy Hutton plays a struggling piano player from NYC going back to his small hometown for his high school reunion. Most of his old friends still live there, blue-collaring it up (a couple of them drive snowplows) and drinking a lot of beer. They are all afraid to grow up and variously unsatisfied with their girlfriends who don't look enough like supermodels, etc. Hutton's character is sort of in love with the 13-year-old girl who lives next door (played by Natalie Portman). There's a cartoonish scene (the one pictured above) where all the guys are hanging out in the local inn and Uma Thurman, playing the bartender's cousin, walks in. They go all ga-ga and gooey-tongued when she talks to them. In my experience, men never really act like that. Much in the same way that women are trained to pretend they don't know they're attractive, I suspect most adult men learn (when in mixed, polite company) not to reveal how attracted they are (or are not) to women. I even see elements of "pickup artist" culture, where men are vaguely hostile to attractive women, though it's more common that they simply appear indifferent. Of course, this could be regional, my own blind spot, etc. But I find it difficult to believe that Uma Thurman (in a universe where Uma Thurman is not a famous actress), dressed in regular old street clothes, would really turn every head in the room and cause jaws to spontaneously drop open. I've just never seen that happen in the real world, and I've seen some very beautiful women.

Have you seen that project where celebrities are made to look like normal people, i.e. fatter and with worse hair, makeup and clothing? Beyonce and Jay-Z look pretty cool anyway, but in general I think it illustrates how much of beauty or at least "hotness" is about style and perception and stuff you can buy.

Sort of relatedly, I always think it's weird when a character in a TV show is supposed to be super-attractive, like so much so that the other characters are sitting up and taking notice and talking about it. Because everyone on TV is attractive! It breaks the fourth wall in this weird way. Like I'm supposed to believe that in TV land, people can distinguish and agree upon the difference between this actress who is incrementally more attractive than all the other actresses (a 9.1 as opposed to a 9)? Please.


  1. Some hysterical observations from David Foster Wallace:

    Suffice it that Meredith Rand makes the [...] males self-conscious. They thus tend to become either nervous and uncomfortably quiet, as though they were involved in a game whose stakes have suddenly become terribly high, or else they become more voluble and conversationally dominant and begin to tell a great many jokes, and in general appear deliberately unself-conscious, whereas before Meredith Rand had arrived and pulled up a chair and joined the group there was no real sense of deliberateness or even self-consciousness among them. Female examiners, in turn, react to these changes in a variety of ways, some receding and becoming visually smaller (like Enid Welch and Rachel Robbie Towne), others regarding Meredith Rand's effect on men with a sort of dark amusement, still others becoming narrow-eyed and prone to hostile sighs or even pointed departures. [...] Some of the male examiners are, by the second round of pitchers, performing for Meredith Rand, even if the performance's core consists of making a complex show of the fact that they are not performing for Meredith Rand or even especially aware that she's at the table. Bob McKenzie, in particular, becomes almost manic, addressing nearly every comment or quip to the person on either the right or left side of Meredith Rand[....]

    1. This seems pretty true to my experience: "even if the performance's core consists of making a complex show of the fact that they are not performing for Meredith Rand or even especially aware that she's at the table"

      Had to look the name up to see that this is from The Pale King, which I haven't read. I thought it might be from The Broom of the System, which I read years ago (I've forgotten the characters' names).

  2. I often think to myself that the male response to attractive women found in all media (you described it so nicely in Beautiful Girls) really fucks us up. It can be awfully easy to believe that a man isn't attracted to you unless he's salivating over you.

    1. Definitely. There have been a number of times that I found out second hand that such and such man-dude-guy was attracted to me, when from his outward bearing I had no idea he had ever noticed me at all.

  3. You're right, men rarely act that way, and I don't like it. I always want to ogle--not in an insolent way, but in a groveling, worshipful way. But usually I have to bank my fire. Never put on a hostile or indifferent mask, however. I dislike that kind of behavior.

  4. >Sort of relatedly, I always think it's weird when a character in a TV show is supposed to be super-attractive, like so much so that the other characters are sitting up and taking notice and talking about it. <

    Argh YES. It's the reverse of the Liz Lemon thing, where everyone has to point out how not-sexually-attractive Liz is because Tina Fey is obviously the opposite. I like Tina Fey enough to give that a pass, but in general it's like, c'mon, do you think you're really fooling us if you just tell us who is and isn't attractive in your universe? And yet--it works. It's not just the words used that signal how a character is supposed to be read; it's these other sort of signals, like how Cherise (?) on "30 Rock" is blonde and young, so we understand her to be hot.

    But to what your larger point is here, I'd never thought about it before, but no, people totally don't sit around and point out how good-looking people are! I once worked at a place with one woman who was a real, honest-to-god knockout, as in it practically hurt to look at her, she was so beautiful. But it was an office, and a good office at that, where people respected one another and acted in an office-appropriate way, so nobody said anything--until the whole office was laid off in the great layoffs of 2008. We all proceeded to get shitfaced that night, and someone said, "Now can we finally talk about how gorgeous [redacted] is?" (She wasn't there.) And really, that's one of the only times I can remember a group of people really sitting around talking about how gorgeous someone is except in a passing way.

    (And thanks for the shoutout! I love Fritinancy's stuff too.)

    1. Ha, awesome story. I actually get this kind of illicit pleasure from sitting around talking about how attractive people are, especially women, but obviously feel conflicted about it because I'm not trying to objectify people, don't want to be objectified myself, at least intellectually I don't, blah blah. But there's something so freeing about just coming out and saying, DANG THAT PERSON LOOKS GOOD

      But, as noted, sometimes when I do I find out that my taste apparently doesn't line up with the universe's.