Sunday, April 1

Who's Beautiful?

Like it or not, how we look affects our interactions with the world around us. Anyone familiar with the site Fametracker - http://www.fametracker.com/ - with its Fame Audit link - http://www.fametracker.com/fame_audit/? It's been a while since I looked at the site, but I used to enjoy reading their celebrity audits: detailed descriptions of all sorts of people, with the wrapup declaring what the current level of fame is and what it should realistically be. For example, in 2000 they declared Ben Affleck's level of fame to equal that of Johnny Depp but that his deserved level of fame should be on a par with Omar Epps. What can I say? Sometimes we writers will surf all kinds of strange places in the service of procrastination.

I think beauty can be just as subjectively ranked. We've all known people who were objectively beautiful and who couldn't get a date, perhaps because something about their personality made them unattractive; or, conversely, people who others think are plain and yet who never suffer a lack of romantic attention, again because they're projecting something to the world beyond their own physical package - they have a charisma or joy in life that shines through.

For myself, in terms of where I fit on the attractiveness continuum, I've long been fond of saying that while no one has ever asked me to put a bag over my head, I've never been asked to model for any magazine covers either. In fact, I've liked saying that so much, some of my characters have said similar things. Imagine my surprise, though, being as ordinary in the looks department as I am, when I happened to spawn a daughter who is stunningly beautiful.

From the moment she was born, literally, there were signs the world was going to find J a great beauty - she was born pink! And for her first two years, everyone made a huge fuss about her looks. I told myself that of course I thought she was beautiful, but other people were just being nice. After all, no one would ever say, "Ooh, look at your ugly baby!" But then came the day we joined Gymboree. Hard to believe it, but that was the place where the writing was written on the wall. A famous actor/director – no, I won’t name names! – had his two young twins, a boy and a girl, enrolled in the same class as J. Usually, their mother or the nanny brought them, but occasionally he would. I can distinctly remember sitting in a circle on the floor, all of us with our legs stretched out, holding our precious treasures perched upon our knees, preparing to commence that wonderful classic, the one you just can’t hear enough times in your life, “The Noble Duke of York.” The famous actor/director couldn’t keep his eyes off J. After a long time with him just staring, he uttered the words I’d already heard uttered so many times, by so many other people: “That’s the most beautiful little girl I’ve ever seen.”

And that’s when it hit me: for, while it might be the usual course of events for other people to say, “Oh, what a pretty baby,” people weren’t referring to her as the most, they weren’t using a superlative just to be polite…certainly not when their own children were present! It was as if they couldn’t help themselves, it was as if they were almost involuntarily giving in to something that was, quite simply, empirically verifiable: J, my daughter, was the most beautiful little girl that any of them had ever seen.

This makes me worry about her future. (Of course everything makes me worry, but since we're talking about beauty today this makes me worried today.) I know from having been friends with some extraordinarily beautiful women in my life, that this comes with advantages but also disdvantages. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that, when you’re extraordinarily good looking, people have a tendency to make assumptions about you that have nothing to do with who you are. Come to that, people make assumptions about people based on what they look like, no matter what they look like!

“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” Indeed.

We have a tendency in America, I’ve long noted, to scorn the very ends of any spectrum, preferring to hew towards the middle, meaning that most people don’t want to be either the smartest or the dumbest kid in class and that while surely no one wants to be the ugliest, there are definite downsides to being the most attractive too: people who think you’re stuck up, an overabundance of people making passes at you, loneliness.

“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” Indeed.

I find myself hoping that it will be to J's benefit, having a non-fashion mother, a mother who only pulls out a tube of lipstick on rare occasions, like in the winter when her lips get so chapped she runs the risk of passing for Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Having a mother like me is, I think, good for J, because while I tell her she’s beautiful every day – how could I not? – I am far more likely to place emphasis on things that are inside her than on things that are on the surface. Yes, she’s dressed in clean clothes every day – sometimes, they’re even pretty clothes – but we spend more time playing and telling stories together and just plain living than we do worrying about what matches or if our hair is messy. We live and we love and we have fun.

In one of my books published for adults, A Little Change of Face, a novel about an attractive librarian's ambivalence about her looks, I concluded that there are no easy answers. We all want to be judged for who we are and we want to be found beautiful.

Beauty is a blessing. Beauty is a curse.

Someday, when I send J out into the world, I will not be sending out Just Another Pretty Face, not just another face that can launch a thousand ships, though she is certainly that. I’ll be letting loose the girl who, even at a very young age, showed astonishing compassion for other people; who when she was two, upon seeing a baby’s distress, approached and said in her stilted toddler voice, “Little Baby, why are you crying?”; who the first time she ever saw me sad, said, “Don’t worry, Mommy, I’ll make you feel better”; who used to get reprimanded in preschool for being too nice, because she always wanted to hug every kid goodbye when she left; who always forgave even her most difficult friend any transgression.

When I let J go, I’ll be letting loose someone who is bright and funny and resilient, not to mention a great storyteller, and who is so much more than the sum of her most beautiful external parts.

That's my loooong story and I'm sticking to it.

QUESTION FOR THE DAY: WHAT DO YOU FEEL YOUR OWN FAME AUDIT WOULD BE IF WE FOCUS ON PHYSICAL BEAUTY? ARE YOU HAPPY WITH IT? DO YOU THINK IT MATTERS?

As always, take care and don't forget to write.

12 comments:

Wendy Toliver said...

Hi Lauren,

Your post reminds me of a TV documentary I once watched. They did a bunch of tests to try and come up with a definition of beauty that held true all over the world and for all time periods. One of the tests was putting a bunch of pictures of various people in front of babies. The portraits that the majority of the babies looked at the longest (and cooed and smiled and other such affectionate body responses)were further studied. People who the babies deemed most attractive tended to have lighter hair; ligher, brighter, bigger eyes; smoother skin; and that's all I can remember for sure. But what rang true in all their testing (besides just the babies) was that attractive people's faces are highly proportional. They super-imposed graph-lines on the faces of people considered attractive, and sure enough, a vast majority had straight lines from eye to eye, their noses were straight, etc. Kate Moss was one of the people that passed the test.

This is such an interesting topic, and I, too, explore it in my novel, The Secret Life of a Teenage Siren, where a plain Jane becomes Lindsey-Lohan-eat-your-heart-out gorgeous on her sixteenth birthday. Now wouldn't that be nice!?!

Thanks for another fabulous and thought-provoking post, Lauren!

~~Wendy

Lee said...

Lauren the question of beauty has been on going since the caveman noticed his woman beyond being hairy.
I was born one of those baby's not to brag, who was deemed beautiful, even now, in my older years, I still hear it. It hasn't done me a lick of good. When I finally started to like me beyond my looks, that's when my life changed and I changed, beauty is internal, outside is only a minor side attraction.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Wendy, I remember that sudy!

Lee, you're a wise woman and that bit about the caveman is very funny. :)

Jennifer Lynn Barnes said...

I took a class in college on biological imperatives in human nature, and one of the things we studied was the science of beauty- the kind of things that Wendy mentioned that seem to be universally (or near-universally true). Symmetry is a big thing- from the animal kingdom, right up through humans, symmetry is considered a sign of fitness and is highly sought after.

For women, what we perceive as "beautiful" oftentimes ends up being traits that are linked to fertility- even though we don't know that's WHY we like them. So, for example, there are certain waist to hip ratios that are considered the most attractive across cultures (the size of the waist and hips changes depending on the culture, but the ratio stays pretty constant), and- wouldn't you know it- women with this ratio seem to be, on the whole, the most fertile. Many of the other traits we find attractive in women are indicators of youth (which is one of the biggest predictors of reproductive success)- that's why we like big eyes, smooth skin, and large lips. Other features are related to important hormones.

Studying the science of beauty is funny, because it makes you realize that the reasons we may find certain things attractive may not be all that relevant to modern day society! Our world is so different from the world in which these standards became biological imperatives, and yet, there they are today!

As for the question you posed at the end of your blog, there were a couple of years in middle school where I couldn't go anywhere without someone commenting on the way I looked. I was a really shy kid, and I hated it, because how is a twelve year old supposed to reply to a total stranger who feels compelled to tell her mom how beautiful her daughter is? The worst part, though, was that adults never seemed to get that singling me out in a group to say something about the way I looked was a VERY BAD IDEA, because then the adults went away, and I was left with a bunch of girls who then felt the need to convince me that I was, in fact, hideous looking. So for every random person who'd come up to a group of us in the mall to gush about how "pretty" I was, I had three or four "friends" dead set on making fun of every aspect of my physical appearance, from my height (too tall) to my hair (freakishly thick). Eventually, I became really self-conscious about the way I looked and just wanted people to stop talking about it- good or bad. I never wore makeup. I used to fight with my mom when she even suggested I roll my hair or even wear chapstick.

Flash forward a decade, and now, I'm much more average, but I feel much better about the way I look than I ever did when I was "beautiful." And- more importantly- I don't feel like the way I look actually matters nearly as much as everything else.

Sheesh. Long comment. Sorry! Great post, Lauren!

Erica Orloff said...

Great post . . . I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease twenty years ago, roughly. I was on chemo-type drugs, lost a lot of my hair, ballooned up 60 pounds in less than three weeks . . . and a litany of other side effects as they tried to save my life. I had never felt conventionally pretty--but when I was essentially disfigured by medications, I sure realized that all along I had been "beautiful" in some fashion. And then the real hard work began--to weigh my beauty in terms of the inside because the outside was a mess. Now I'm in remission, totally back to normal in terms of my appearance, but I sure carry those years of fighting the disease with me--and the lesson I learned. I "own" my beauty--in and out--now.

E

bevrosenbaum said...

Such an interesting topic! You know, despite all those symmetry studies, I've always thought that looks had very little to do with popularity. The most popular girls at my high school were not necessarily the best looking, but the ones with the most confidence. My own social life improved by leaps and bounds as I grew older and became more self-confident, developed my own sense of style, and generally became more comfortable in my own skin... Great post, Lauren!
Bev

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Jennifer, no worries about the long comment - it was a long post to comment on! :)

Erica, I'm sorry you had to go through that but you've obviously done so with grace and style. Yea, you!

Bev, it's amazing how as we grow older so much of this stuff falls away. And yes, the best bet is focusing on our inner selves because that's what really attracts others and that's also what endures.

Kelly Parra said...

Great post, Lauren! I believe in varying degrees of beauty, and that someone could be good-looking but his/her personality is the deciding factor for me if someone is beautiful. :) :)

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Definitely, Kelly! I (briefly) dated a drop-dead security guard in high school - people used to call him Clint because he looked like a young Clint Eastwood - but stopped because behind all his prettiness there was just no there there.

Kaethe said...

1) I don't think my Fame Audit would be affected by the inclusion or exclusion of looks or anything else; I'm average at best under any criteria.

2) I am much happier than I ever imagined I would be when I grew up. No doubt that's because I've got two kids who are smart, and very well-behaved, and spit-take inducingly funny. And a husband who loves me.

3) I think beauty is very important in a certain narrow range of careers (modeling, acting) and I don't think it matters at all otherwise. Average-looking people have no trouble finding partners, fulfilling work, or anything else. I'd be willing to wake up beautiful one morning, but not if I had to give up anything else.

That said, my offspring are not so beautiful as to illicit comments from directors, but adults are just as stupidly prone to single them out for other reasons (height, skin tone, eyelashes, curliness of hair....) Being beautiful does have its advantages: people smile at you more, they are more helpful, they pay you more in every field. Nice perks, but even the Beast managed to live happily ever after despite them.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Kaethe, hush your mouth! I would never describe you as "average at best." In all the criteria I know of, you are extraordinary. I am lucky to know you.

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