I don't have to be pretty

Confession time, world: I don't think I'm that attractive.

I think I can be attractive. I can be pretty or cute or whatever, but I don't think I am that pretty in general. I don't have a natural grace about me. I don't have delicate features-- quite the opposite actually. My hands are disproportionately small, I have no discernible chin which gives me less of a jaw and more of a super-neck, and my eyebrows are naturally a mess. I try to tame it, but you know, I'm not as into maintaining that as I could be. I'm kinda fleshy, which could also mean fat or chubby, or just plain fleshy. I have baby hands where, when my hand lays at rest, you don't see the knuckle ridges-- you see dimples in the flesh where the skin attaches to my knuckle tendons. I have a lot of face. I have a lot of thigh. I have a lot of most things.

Me and Jack McBrayer both have that chin that just
turns right on into neck
I have acknowledged the fact that I'm pretty average looks-wise. Maybe a bit above average, but not much. I have never really had a problem with this. Between my sister and I, she was the pretty one and I was the smart one, and as I understood it, that didn't make her stupid, it just made me particularly smart, and it didn't make me ugly, it just meant that she was particularly pretty. Somedays, I would feel totally ugly or gross or whatever, but everyone has days when they feel amazing and powerful and days when they feel awful and terrible. And most of us have a period of feeling awful about our appearance known as puberty. How I look aesthetically has never seemed static, but a spectrum where I just typically have one area of equilibrium.

This is something I have always sort of understood. Apparently though, this is for some reason a radical thought process. People are shocked and indignant by how casually I state that I'm not the prettiest girl in the room or that I'm average looking. "Don't say things like that!" they tell me. Who am I threatening, I wonder, when I state that I don't find myself to be that dazzling a physical specimen of humankind? Granted, I think it is very important to deconstruct ideals of beauty that are very much socially constructed. But I have also never felt uncomfortable stating that others would not find me as physically attractive as someone else. My cartoonish facial expressions, clumsiness, and almost total lack of grace and composure aren't really subjective indicators of hotness or not-hotness. They are objective instances of me being not attractive. And that is totally okay with me (most of the time). Can it be considered charming, or quirky, or cute? Maybe, subjectively, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a way to fit those things under the "attractive" umbrella.

"You should have higher self-esteem," they say cooing over me. My self-esteem is pretty awesome thank you very much. I am smart, funny, witty. I get along well with people in general. I have a high level of conviction about my beliefs. I stand up for others. I'm fun. I am a hard worker. I am generous and thoughtful and helpful whenever I can be. These things all contribute to my feeling that I am a pretty awesome person. But as soon as I say that I find myself to be about average in looks or not as pretty as other people in the room, everyone assumes that I am some poor lost soul who is constantly down on herself.

I am anything but.

See, these people who tell me that I need to find myself attractive in order to demonstrate high self-esteem-- They are assuming that my self-esteem depends upon seeing myself as attractive. And I think it's because that's what they expect. Because that's what we've learned to expect from women. No one is actually making me feel as pretty as the other lovely people around me. They are just re-centering the idea that beauty should be the main factor in my determination of self-worth. That's not the intent, of course, but that's what it is.

I know beauty is subjective. I know it because I make a conscious effort to see what is beautiful in other people. The sincerity of a laugh. The movement in someone's hair. The slope of a collarbone. The vibrance of an outfit. The gravity in someone's gaze. The way someone holds a book. The scent of someone's sweater. These things are all beautiful-- and I feel I can be beautiful. But that doesn't mean I find myself to be attractive on the whole, nor do I have to be to be beautiful. There is beauty in strength. There is beauty in self-awareness. There is beauty in raw emotion. Beauty transcends the physical. Beautiful means a lot more than just pretty or attractive. I think it's important to make that distinction between what is physically, aesthetically, visually attractive/pretty, and what is beautiful.

That said, I don't have to find myself attractive to feel great about the type of person that I am. I don't have to find myself attractive to be a "good feminist" or the have a healthy amount of self-worth. Sure, feeling great about how one appears is never a bad thing in itself, and it can even be a radical thing, if one does not conform to the oppressive standards of beauty that society has laid out, but as important as it is to breakdown and deconstruct these socially constructed ideals of what makes someone attractive, there is something to be said for realizing that being attractive isn't everything. As women not only are we expected to measure up to these ideas of what attractive or sexy looks like-- we are also expected to heavily depend upon our physical appearance for our sense of self-worth. I think the second bit is something people aren't working hard enough on.

So let's take this idea of centering one's self-worth on a single aspect, and see how ludicrous it is when applied to other aspects of a person.

I am pretty funny. Other people are more funny. Some people are less funny. While senses of humor vary, we can all agree that some people are more funny, and some people are less funny--less funny people have moments when they are hilarious, and funny people will have moments when none of their jokes land-- but we can all agree that some people are funnier than others. But when someone says, "I don't think I'm that funny" or "I'm not as funny as anyone else here" no one suggests that they shouldn't be so down on themselves or that they have low self-esteem. No matter how subjective humor is, no one suggests that one's self-esteem depends on how funny they are.

Same with intelligence. And while we have metrics like IQ (just as attractiveness has some quantifiable metrics like symmetry) you can meet people who score high on exams but don't understand how to handle social interactions or problem solve in real life. You can meet people who can work out advanced physics problem sets but cannot for the life of them remember the name of any given artistic movement of the modern era. You can meet someone who speaks eight languages and can't do high school calculus. If you call yourself stupid, most people will point out the intellectual strengths you have, but upon calling yourself not the smartest, or average, no one will jump to conclusions about how awful you consider yourself to be.

Maybe I'm contradicting myself, but I would tell someone who called themselves ugly about the things that make them beautiful. I think very few people are ugly in appearance. People can be very ugly in spirit, but I think most people are average, and maybe a little below average on the looks scale. Maybe that doesn't make sense statistically, but I was pretty poor in statistics anyway. And I'm sure we've all met our fair share of pretty girls who were just plain ugly, as if their long-lashed eyes and symmetrical faces and high cheekbones just exuded a toxic aura. But I digress.

I'm not saying I wouldn't accept a compliment about my looks. I'm not saying you shouldn't feel good about finding yourself attractive. I'm not saying you shouldn't work to deconstruct traditional ideals of beauty. I'm not saying you should feel guilty about trying to make yourself more attractive.

What I am saying, is that whether or not I feel pretty isn't the only thing my self-worth is based off of. Maybe we should start working towards not only breaking down oppressive beauty standards, not only working to make peace with how we look, not only finding the beauty in others, but toward decentering beauty as a virtue, a value, that we judge women on, and that women judge themselves on. I wish the expectation wasn't there that when I call myself average-looking, people immediately assume I have low self-esteem. I don't have to be pretty to feel like a worthwhile person. I wish more people would recognize that.
Share

3 comments:

  1. Beautifully and clearly written. Love this, and I think that it's 100% true. You go girl!!!
    For the most part, I don't care at all what people do with their own lives. But things like Miley Cyrus at the VMA's really made me mad because you would never catch a guy doing what she did while dancing, and it continues people's ideas of women as sexual objects and nothing else. And it makes it seem like beauty and sex appeal are the only things that women have to offer. And that's simply not true.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Personally I think that she had every right to assert her sexual independence. It was tasteless to do so in the way she did though. On top of her performance generally being a mess, she asserted her sexuality at the expense of black women's sexuality. There's a really great essay on it here: http://www.racialicious.com/?p=31308 It's a fantastic read.

      I don't think every woman has to represent all women. I think forcing that burden is unfair since no one man is expected to bear the weight of representing their sex, but I do agree that there are definitely women out there who make it harder for the rest of us to be taken seriously. Especially when they are very much in the public eye.

      Delete