PRETTY ~ LIES: Challenging the Skin Deep Notion of ‘Beauty Privilege’
A Femoir by Jessica Bahr
“Know then that the body is merely a garment.
Go seek the wearer, not the cloak.” ~ Rumi
I wrote this years ago after reading a couple of articles on “beauty privilege” – the idea that being attractive is a privileged position that makes life easier. Of course, since then with the #metoo movement and all of the stories of sexual abuse coming out, I think we can see that objectification is not a privilege, and unfortunately we live in a culture that takes someone attractive and objectifies them. I set out to share my experience of “looksism,” in contrast to the articles I read about beauty privilege from the perspective of a woman who has been considered attractive by our narrow cultural beauty standards for most of my life – as expressed to me by others. I wrote it knowing it would likely incite much judgment and criticism, because who talks about this stuff from that perspective? As the authors elucidated in their articles, talking about beauty privilege – or lack thereof – 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 wrote it anyway because I wanted to demystify some prevailing and ‘pro-veiling’ myths about beauty. Hopefully it will empower people, no matter their sex, or where they fall on the beauty spectrum. And as far as the criticism goes, I decided that my appearance isn’t really up for debate and neither is my experience, so I put it out there and offer it here now.
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 or sustainable way, or walk a road paved with spoils, is not my experience or the experience 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 really has it easy in a culture where there is so much emphasis and projection about appearances, especially if you are female.
As a woman, you really can’t win in this arena, yet you’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 – yet who wants to be invisible either? The projection and deflection of beauty or lack of beauty often keeps a person’s real story from being told and reduces their multi-dimensionality to the one-dimensional. All the 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, around 7 or 8 years old. My mom had some friends over to the house, and this friendly lady who smelled really nice said to me, “You’re so beautiful.” I didn’t know what she meant. I was confused as to what IT 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 I could care less about being beautiful and I didn’t appreciate the burden. I had more important things to tend to like playing with my Legos or working on my next water color ‘masterpiece.’ Suspended in time in my confusion, I felt her intention was good, but I also felt somehow accountable for this new projection of “beauty.” Finally, one of the adults in my life ushered me to say thank you for the unsolicited compliment. So I did, which confused me even more, because I didn’t feel grateful for it, but 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,” etc. that it would have landed more comfortably in me, because those are things I could relate to in terms of meaning and context. 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, and then other times later in life when I went all out and put a lot into my appearance to prove myself worthy of what society valued – and 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, ego boost, but it also led to stress and feelings of emptiness and at times isolation and alienation.
When I was in high school and very focused on looking good, an incident occurred at my best friend Marissa’s (not her real name) house. She and I were looking at a fashion magazine, when her mom came over and said to me out of the blue in a very stern, accusative manner, with her hands on her hips, “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, and I had the condescending fashion magazines, the scrutinizing male (and female) gaze, 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 equated to power, the world would be run by gorgeous women – and most of the gorgeous women I know are hardly in positions of power. I myself 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. And I’ve had my share of traffic tickets, which contrary to popular belief my appearance did not get me out of. 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. In fact, I would argue that 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 game. 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; street harassed; not being taken seriously in the work place 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 both unattractive or average-looking 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 the people 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 50’s decided he needed to let me know that I was beautiful and my body was “just right” as it was and that 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 would never see him again after that trip. Needless to say, I thought he was a creep. I was embarrassed and pissed off and it taught me a thing or two about the entitlement men have when it comes to women’s bodies, their dictatorship over beauty fueled by an assumption that we are here to please them. There would be an infinite number of stories to follow regarding projection of my looks and the implication that my very 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, because you’re shamed if you do look good and shamed if you don’t. We make credible the good-looking based on appearances alone and we discredit them for the same reason. Our tabloid media is infamous for this – one week worshipping and putting someone’s beauty up on a pedestal to sell their rags and the next week attacking and exploiting those same people with unflattering images – 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, had an acne breakout or wasn’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 sexes 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). I’ve had boyfriends who wouldn’t give me a compliment about my appearance for anything and the ones that did were quick to remind me of how beautiful they thought 5,000 other women were, in various ways at different times (especially after the wooing phase was over). Not what you want to hear from your lover. I have my own theories on the psychology of this, but that’s for another article.
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, fulfillment and satisfaction, yet they find themselves still looking as if there is something they’re missing, something better – when often what they’re ‘missing’ isn’t 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 and it is heart-breaking.
It’s simple sociology (the reason I don’t believe this is biologically-driven is because it leads to all sorts of incompatibilities and there is nothing “natural” about the contrived beauty that has become the standard and desired): the culture and the media conditions, programs and entitles men to want something “more” and different – confusing stimulus with satisfaction. It conditions women to strive towards unrealistic, if not unhealthy ideals to please those men or societal ‘norms.’ Although over time they may start to think they’re doing it for themselves, because they are now looking at themselves through another’s lens (“the male gaze”). Both sexes then over-value and over-emphasize female looks in a way that is leaving both dissatisfied. I call this the Futility Model and it’s actually a brilliant business model. It keeps people consuming and trying, and spending and wasting…and at the end of the day, nobody is fulfilled and are often left feeling estranged.
We are playing smoke in our own mirrors
I remember reading an article some years ago in which a very famous supermodel was being 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. And it showed me that even those considered the “most beautiful” felt lonely, insecure and rejected…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, so chasing after it is like chasing a rainbow with no pot of gold at the end…when 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 the 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 – and for millennia, one of the only ways it was and is still, to a large extent, acceptable for women to “shine” or express herself is by her appearance (or couched with her appearance). [Historically for women, beauty and sex were their only form of currency and 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 anxiety in a beauty-addicted society; pushers on every street corner. It’s one of the things we can control – with fashion, restrictive undergarments, make up, hair styles, toxic beauty and “personal care” products, plastic surgery, diet pills, 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 was remiss for how much time and money I have wasted on such endeavors, and I didn’t even go to extremes.
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 appearances, it is our relationship to appearances; the attitudes that serve to undermine and oppress women and men. At the crux of all of this is what is conveyed in the subtitle of Naomi Wolf’s book, Beauty Myth, which is: “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 about our appearance (our own and others’), so we could authentically take pleasure in our physical form through self-love, connection presence? 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 towards educating and deprogramming people about the ways in which they are being manipulated and coerced into thinking beauty is the end all to be all. Billions of dollars are spent to make us think a certain way, to define and forge our relationship to beauty, and putting attention towards countering those messages opens up channels to reclaiming our own hearts, thoughts and minds; our authenticity – the real beauty.
The inside job puts the outside in perspective
I’ve learned over the years not to take physical appearances 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. I like compliments like most people. 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 kind and giving someone else that job (in a dysfunctional culture) 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 would require a little time and effort to get to know someone and/or ourselves, as well as a confrontation of the ego that wants so badly to project onto others in hopes to find a sweet spot of comfort in one’s own skin. Not to mention, it would take a major de-programming of the cultural conditioning around looks, and a steady and pro-active disengagement from the media and the beauty empire, which is tied to the sex (objectification) industrial complex…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 with a partner who isn’t interested in sex, unfaithful, porn addicted, or distracted altogether with other things. These women are living examples of the myths about attractive women. Sure they might get waited on first at a bar, or let over in traffic, etc., but these niceties just keep perpetuating the myth that there is something more waiting for them beyond those gestures, when most of the time there is not. Beauty really is in a vacuum; its ‘privilege’ highly conditional.
I don’t think there is 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 in-turn, to 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…every one 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 we’re all dished heaping helpings of things we didn’t ask for in a culture that is trying to control all of us no matter where we fall on the feigned beauty spectrum.
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; from the most subtle to the most overt. Let’s not let the myths of beauty and beauty privilege estrange us from one another any longer.