Please note: This essay is not an invitation to comment on my physical appearance. Any such comments will be deleted, even if they are complimentary, because that is counterproductive to the point I’m trying to make.
When I was a teenager, it was very clear to me that it mattered very much how I looked.
And I looked all wrong. I had an awkward phase that lasted years and years, complemented by having a mother who took no interest in physical presentation. So I didn’t know what clothes to wear that would flatter me. I didn’t know how to take care of my hair, or how the right haircut could make a big difference. I learned everything I knew about makeup from Seventeen and being in the theater. The style of glasses at the time was unfortunately large.
Eventually I figured most of these things out. I got better glasses. I started getting my hair cut and learned of the wonder that is conditioner. A few female friends in college went shopping with me and taught me about non-baggy clothing, and I began to develop my own sense of style.
I recently read Justine Musk’s post about the perception that women tend to be vain, and it struck a real chord with me. She goes on to say: “Even today, in 2014, the culture transmits the message to girls and women that there’s a direct correlation between looking good and being loved – or at least not being openly mocked.”
A few years ago Lisa Bloom wrote about how difficult it can be to refrain from complimenting a little girl on her appearance at the beginning of an interaction. She makes the effort, engaging girls about their interests and thoughts instead, because “teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.”
I’ve been taught since I was quite young that a real part of my worth is in my appearance. How many movies have I seen where the awkward nerdy girl gets a makeover that consists of tossing her hair around and pulling off her glasses? And then suddenly she’s worthy of attention and love and respect. The Princess Diaries. She’s All That. My Big Fat Greek Wedding. If the Shoe Fits. Grease, Mean Girls, and The Cinderella Story sans the glasses part of the equation. And let’s not forget The Breakfast Club. If we look at the quintessential Cinderella fairy tale, sure, Cinderella is patient and good and virtuous. But she needs her fairy godmother’s help with a makeover in order to win the heart of a prince. (The class implications of many of these makeover stories are fascinating as well. See Pretty in Pink.) The theme of transformation can be a powerful one, and an outer change can act to highlight an internal change, but the message is still clear: you are judged by your external appearance.
At the same time, women are criticized and called vain for caring about their looks. It’s a Catch-22 in which the “right” physical appearance is supposed to come naturally and effortlessly. We are not supposed to care about how we look, and we’re certainly not supposed to be aware of how we look (that would be conceited), but we are taught that our looks are paramount. And thus thinking we don’t look the right way leads to all kinds of psychological problems.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimenting with personal identity by having a makeover (or several). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expressing who we are through our physical appearances. And how we hold our bodies can affect both how we feel about ourselves and how we are perceived. For better or for worse, the art of personal presentation, or style, if you will, can deeply affect how others see us.
But when we teach that physical beauty is the main path to love and worth as an individual, we are teaching shame. We are teaching people to hate their bodies, to be uncomfortable, that they are in some essential way not good enough. We are creating impossible situations. Would we prefer to be vain or unattractive? Must we fall into the small band that our society deems to be traditionally beautiful in order to receive respect? And what if we can’t?
And so we put on a tightrope act. I think of physical presentation as a kind of game, and I’ve learned enough of the rules and conform to enough of the standards that it’s no longer such a painful one. I usually know what rules I can get away with breaking, and I can get away with it because of the ways in which I already conform and the place where I live. Not everyone has these luxuries. Meanwhile, unplugging entirely from the game can come with its own consequences, not least among them having to live with the general consensus that it’s okay to make negative comments to someone else about their appearance.
For myself, I try not to confuse vanity and conceit with confidence. Having confidence in yourself, which includes your physical body, and becoming comfortable in your own skin is not something that is wrong or shameful. As Theodora Goss says in her post with advice about how to be photogenic: “You must believe you are beautiful.”
Yes. Yes, we must.