Monday, March 4, 2013

Some Notes on Beauty, Part 3


I think it’s funny that a few weeks ago, I posted a minor aside on beauty at the end of a post about something else, and everyone commented on the aside, but hardly anyone commented on my two posts fully devoted to “beauty” (Part 1, Part 2). Am I driving my usual male readership away? I’m not sure if most of my readers are actually male, or the males are just more likely to comment (probably?). I’m always surprised when a woman I know or know of (either a friend or a writer I admire) tells me they read my blog, because so few of them ever comment. Anyway, I think “beauty” is a gendered term; though I might describe certain men as “pretty” or “beautiful,” it’s clearly been feminized by the US culture at large.

I like to read trash on planes. I brought Heroines with me for the flight to Boston, but spent most of the time reading the March issue of Allure. There’s a very annoying essay by A.L. Kennedy, a Scottish writer, about her fraught relationship with her own looks. I guess I’m interested in stories of people who always considered themselves unattractive and later found out they were attractive or whatever, by whatever means, but honestly, I think there is something about this chain of events that often leads people to be kind of annoying, at least temporarily. Think about it: the hot girl in college who was “homely” or just dorky in high school, suddenly realizing her power – wasn’t that girl always pretty annoying? Like she always had to tell you every time somebody remarked on her attractiveness? Life tip*: Other people hitting on you = need to know basis, and most of the time, nobody needs to know.

*Also a note to self.

Anyway, this woman recounts how she was short and basic-looking and people always told her she was clever and never told her she was pretty, so she decided early on that looks were irrelevant. Which is all well and good. But then she comes to some suspect conclusions. For example: “Beautiful woman [sic] aren’t funny—unless they think they’re ugly—because they don’t have to be. People like them anyway.” Look, this is the kind of thing only a mean, insecure person would say. You could just as easily claim that beautiful people aren’t nice, because they don’t have to be, or that beautiful people aren’t interesting. But I know this to be false because I have beautiful friends who are also funny, nice, and/or interesting. You could also say that beautiful people don’t have to wear makeup or nice clothes—why would they, etc.! But in my experience, people would rather be attractive in two or three or four ways, if possible, than one. Then, also, there are unlikeable beautiful people. For the record, I also know unattractive people who aren’t funny. Guess what, all the combinations are possible! It’s just that when you start selecting for rare traits (very beautiful, very funny, very intelligent, etc.) it starts to get unlikely that you’ll run across people with multiple “gifts.” That’s not sociology or psychology, it’s statistics.

Then she goes on to talk about some dude she’s dating who is “visually intoxicating—he really is horribly beautiful”—but he doesn’t know it! UUGGHH. The myth of beauty without vanity. Smarty-pants Autumn at The Beheld made an interesting point recently about cognitive dissonance w/r/t beauty—the idea that a woman can experience herself as attractive and have deep insecurities at the same time, and that this dissonance is what the beauty industry preys on, rather than the storied self-loathing. I like and find truth in this idea. The idea I object to is this cultural myth that all women hate themselves and have no idea what they look like. What demeaning bullshit.

A friend of mine told me that, due to various factors in his/her background, he/she thinks non-religious types find him/her more attractive than religious types. This led me to a realization: I always assume that only intellectual types find me attractive, whereas I have limited currency in, say, a sports bar. Which points to that cognitive dissonance—my sense of my attractiveness or lack thereof is always qualified, always followed by a “but.” (Pun intended: One of my most complimented body parts is my ass. (A nice ass is the last refuge of those with flat-chested kitten syndrome.))

BTW, the next article in the magazine was about “pickers,” i.e. people who self-mutilate, who overgroom. (See Carrie Murphy’s admitted addiction to her blackhead extractor.) There was a line about a woman who picked at the inside of her elbow until the muscle showed through. Eczema horror, anyone?? Reminds me of the woman whose head itched so much she scratched through to her brain.

24 comments:

  1. I wasn't totally sure where this post was going to wind up, but I wasn't expecting the macabre twist. Nicely done.

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    1. I was the itchiest kid in the world, so stories like that always hit home extra hard (as did Black Swan).

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  2. Attractiveness is contextual. The context is the rest of the person, the person being "attracted," and the place and time. As well as the implicit standard of comparison. So I look and the mirror and can ask whether I am attractive, but for most people not at either extreme the answer is going to be fairly nuanced. The actress playing the part of the mousy sidekick is gorgeous in real life, but we pretend to see her as the second choice in that particular emplotment. I tend to see a lot of women as attractive, by the way, not just the standard conventionally attractive ones, so I think there is variability in the gaze as well as in the object being gazed at. Not just various preferences, but also a certain elasticity in those preferences for any given person.

    There is rating scale I've heard about. 0 is no interest, 1 is possible interest in an opportunistic setting, and 2 is an interest one would actively pursue. I would add a 3, for an interest one would actively pursue who also happens to be conventionally attractive, 4 for an interest one would pursue, who happens to be one's own physical "type." And 5, for someone who is beautiful whom I am actually in love with.

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    1. Yes, attraction in practice is mostly contextual, nuanced, subjective ... but "beauty" is often taken out of those practical, everyday, one-to-one contexts. There's the kind of beauty that's used for entertainment and marketing, which often has little to nothing to do with sex. I'm interested (intellectually) in that side of beauty too, where we make judgments on how "attractive" people are even though there is no question of whether or not we are actually attracted to them, like do we want to mate with or even talk to them, often a moot point anyway.

      I've never heard of that 3-tier system! It's kind of appealingly simple.

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    2. Well that marketing and entertaining aspect is even simpler, right? The standards are much less elastic, much more stylized and uniform. Even small departures from that seem worthy of comment in that context.

      That is one of the contexts that affects notions of everyday attractiveness too.

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    3. Yes, very narrow, and thus in a sense less subjective. Everyone likes to say that beauty/attraction is totally subjective, but there's this huge industry telling us, all the time, that it's not. I guess that was my point.

      It's good that human civilization hasn't skidded to a halt with everyone holding out for a mate who meets TV levels of attractiveness. But then, we do have kind of a population problem...

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    1. Did you read the article?

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    2. No, I haven't. But the image you shared was enough and also, it reminds me of trichotillomania, which I found out about when I was a teenager and has always freaked me out. A girl I knew had it and she would pull out her eyelashes all the time.

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    3. I knew a girl whose eyelashes all came in an eyelash curler. Not the same, but horrified me enough that I stay away from them, which is fine because I think my eyelashes are curly enough.

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  4. Maybe I'm falling into the trap of men and those who commented on your previous piece here - but interesting that your male readership comment more.

    My experience is the opposite!Though it could be my subject matter.

    On A L Kennedy, she's really okay you know and whilst sometimes one isn't in the mood to listen to 'how I found love and discovered I was beautiful' stories (second only to dreams in the tedious topics for conversation stakes) I'm always slightly lifted up by a happy ending.

    No ifs no butts - not even yours (charming though I'm sure it is).

    Yours ever

    The Perfumed Dandy

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    1. Yes, I've noticed that the perfume blogosphere seems to be mostly female, though the men perhaps dominate on Basenotes and maybe even YouTube?

      Ha, other people's dreams are the worst!

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  7. It's super easy just never to read my blog. HOT TIP

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  8. Because of the huge pervasiveness of corporate ideas of "beauty" in the world right now (i.e. cosmetic looks, success in business and certain professional fields, various types of competitiveness, etc.), I'm highly suspicious of any notions I have of what "beauty" is, at least when we're talking about people, either women or men.

    When I think about this whole very large subject, one of the things I think sometimes is that in order to perceive beauty, or any sort, -- i.e., to perceive something or someone as "beautiful" -- it's necessary to perceive from a standpoint of (for lack of a better word) innocence. I'm using the word here maybe in something like the same sense in which William Blake used it in his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (though I don't pretend to be any kind of Blake scholar or authority).

    To perceive beauty, it's necessary to perceive (as much as realistically possible) without preconceptions. This is a very hard thing to do in a society and culture that tries as hard as possible to instill all manner of preconceptions in us, for all manner of political and economic reasons (generally related to making a profit in one way or another).

    I feel like I'm kind of circling around the edges of what you're talking about here, not really addressing it head-on. This is as close as I can get at the moment.

    *

    I did make it to Boston for AWP. Didn't venture outside much, especially on the blizzard days, though truth be told it wasn't really that bad if you didn't mind sideways-blowing snow in your face.

    Went to some really good panels (a centenary celebration of the work of Muriel Rukeyser; a panel on Nazim Hikmet that was standing-room only, the audience flowing out into the halls; and a good one on Adrienne Rich; among others).

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    1. My strategy against the weather was to drape my scarf over my head in such a way that it shielded my eyes, which kept the snow out, but also prevented me from seeing. Sorry I didn't bump into you this year!

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  9. I find that the "I'm funny because I wasn't pretty" stories are actually more people's own origin myths than anything. Honestly, being a "beauty blogger" of my ilk has meant that the more I've thought and learned and listened, the less any of these kind of maxims turn out to hold much water at all. For, as you point out, ALL COMBINATIONS HAPPEN! Maybe we just don't want to admit that life is unfair enough to give some people beauty and brains and humor while some poor folks are left not only schlumpy-looking but dull too, so we construct these stories.

    (If there's any kind of algorithm that can predict how many comments a post will get, I've yet to discover it. My most-read post has hardly any comments. Why? Who knows.)

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    1. Huh. Sometimes it seems like comments beget comments, and if no one comments within a certain window, everyone else is afraid to be first. Or something.

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  10. Elisa, I think I commented on your 'minor aside' post and maybe one of the other Beauty posts, said something to the effect that I wondered if status and beauty don't get confused. In that regard, I like what Lyle says above about the perception of beauty as it relates to preconceptions.

    With regard to your question about commentary on the subject, I don't know. For me, it's probably just a matter of time and attention. I don't post/reply much to begin with. But I enjoy reading your blog when I get here. Best,

    tpeterson

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    1. When I talk about beauty, it's always in quotes, natch. The construct of beauty. (I didn't mean to sound accusatory.)

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  11. You didn't sound accusatory at all, Elisa. I hope I didn't imply that. I was just responding. Best,

    tpeterson

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