The other day I was staring into a young woman’s face, when I became distracted. She was so beautiful. I told her so, which surprised her. It also surprised me. Why should I be so struck by her beauty?

Although babies respond to symmetrical faces, and the fact that our tastes may be rooted in evolution, a fair amount of brainwashing is involved.  Think about the difference of the 1950s potbellied Marilyn Monroe versus the 1960s top model Twiggy.   Or the more serious example of African American children in a 1940s study.  When given the choice between a black doll and a white doll, black children chose the white doll.  Furthermore, they associated negative concepts with the black doll and became agitated when asked to identify the doll they most looked like.  Significantly, the notion of “black is beautiful” became entwined with the black power movement of the 1960s.

Why is the female form exalted over the male form, when in nature nearly all the males forms are the center of attention?  Male turkeys strut, puff out their waddles, and their faces may turn a brilliant blue.  In the old TV show, Seinfeld, Elaine explains that the female form is good naked, but the male form, bad naked. This gender bias goes back to the days of the Venus De Milo. Or does it?  Consider Michael Angelo’s David.  Everyone is trained to admire women, just as young girls are trained to abhor crawly things and focus on the cute.  Male beauty, albeit a short time, took me a moment to realize. The discovery that a man’s skin could be soft and nice to touch, as opposed to shoe leather, came with my first boyfriend. He was an Adonis. He had olive oil skin, a crown of dark curls, and ridiculously long eyelashes. He was a black belt in Taekwondo and possessed a deliciously muscular body. I relished watching him practice his Katas, his choreographed routines, in bleached white briefs. He did not have a particularly high I.Q. For a while, who cared? In turn, he was attracted to me.

For a small period in my life, I pulled off beautiful. I never believed in my pulchritude. I always considered it a magic of hair, make up, clothes, and flirtatiousness. For many woman that is enough.  Princess Diana was transformed from a ruffle-bloused baby-minder to the tailored, straight-lined fashion icon.  Few women look good in sweats, sans the trappings of eyeliner and Versace or Sasoon.  Few, except maybe Elizabeth Taylor.  My sister is such a creature.  A friend and I visited during my sister’s brief stint in the army.  My envious friend took one look at her in fatigues and blurted out, “She really is gorgeous after all.  I always thought it was just the glitz.”

Surprisingly, I handled losing my youthful ability to turn heads with a modicum of grief.  Not like the French ingénue, Leslie Caron, who on turning fifty found herself reflecting into the bottom of a bottle.  What I have not handled as well is invisibility. The first time I experienced it was at a writers’ conference.  People no longer vied for my attention or seem to value my opinion as much. The beautiful, constructed or not, receive better treatment, more consideration and garner a certain amount of power.  My father-in-law, a political science professor, slyly noted at the beginning of each semester’s classes,  that he shared with the majority of American presidents.  Namely, that they were over six feet tall.

A physical therapist once told me, I could not possibly have pneumonia, I was too strapping of a girl.  Would I receive better treatment from doctors, if I were more diminutive, young and pretty?

After the recent tragedy in Tucson, the networks aired photograph after photograph of Gabrielle Gifford.  I caught myself thinking, Not her!  She’s so attractive. Fortunately, I quickly became aware of my wrong-headed thinking.  No one should be so assaulted, ugly or not. Yet it made me wonder.  How often are we unaware of our prejudices?  Would the out-pouring of attention have been as great if Gifford were old, ugly or infirm?

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2 Responses to “Beauty”

  1. Kristina Says:

    I have often thought about these same prejudices. In our society, physical beauty in some ways has become a ‘cure-all’ type of perfection. An example being, a girl I went to high school with was severely injured in a car-wreck involving a drunk driver, as was her brother. This girl was a cheerleader with a full scholarship to IU and quite pretty, her brother was somewhat less attractive or involved. The tragedy was mostly center around what a loss this was to such a “beautiful girl with such a bright future ahead of her”, rarely was it mentioned/acknowledged that her brother had also suffered future-altering losses. The focus was on her potential as a beautiful person.
    Your reflection mirrors several points I have come to hold as truths in recent years; Intelligent, level-headed people are not immune to society’s influence regarding the importance of beauty, perpetuated in large part by the media then transformed into prejudices, sometimes hidden, within our consciousness. What happened to the old saying, “Never judge a book by its cover?” Has this sentiment not withstood the test of time?

  2. Barb Says:

    How unfair life is for some to be born with brains, beauty, health and wealth. How easy it must be for many of them to slide through life with constant rewards and seemingly nothing every striking them down. Why are some living a tortured life while others have everything. I suppose the answer is really quite simple. Luck.

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