On beauty, what it is, what it’s worth, and when it means nothing at all
“Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?”
Richard Rodgers, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella
“No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful.”
Many of my most beautiful friends doubt themselves. I don’t know why, because all I see is luscious, but they shy away from pictures almost obsessively. I would be willing to bet that they pore over pictures of themselves, too, examining them closely, nit-picking at every imperfection they either think they see or actually do.
Of course I understand this. I do it, too. I can’t remember a picture I didn’t ruin in my youth with silly faces or my hair over my face. I seem to be one of those people who can look pretty at one angle and I turn and become like something you’d find if a wax museum was on fire. I’ve seen pictures where I think, “Hmmmm… not bad…” and others where I think, “Oh God, just shoot me now.” It did not help to have a brother who looked like a young god. It helped even less that I am fat. (Caveat: there are plenty of people who do not see fat as a detraction to beauty and I don’t either, but plenty do, and I am human enough to have thoroughly absorbed the voices of social reprobation.)
For most of my life, I was miserable enough about how I looked that it made it hard to move in society – and to some extent, it still does. I am actually waiting to see how people will react to me. Will they see me or will they see whatever collection of imperfections that disqualify me for being treated as if I am fully human. As always, though, I started thinking it through and applying the lens I turned on those I loved to myself. I came to a startling conclusion (although why this is so startling is a very good question). When I loved people, their looks were merely a part of who they were, and wherever those looks landed on the beautimous scale did not matter because their appearance was part of what I loved about them and they simply pleased me.
Well, geez, if I felt that way about people I loved, it did stand to reason that the people who loved me would see me and be pleased with what they saw. They might objectively see that not everything about my face and form was beautiful, but that would be a matter of no import whatsoever. And if that was true, perhaps it was time to stop worrying so much about it.
What a liberation! I would not even dare to say that I don’t have off days when I obsess that I look like the troll under the bridge. I certainly sometimes do. But the rest of the time, I try to assume I am likable as opposed to beautiful and that being likable will trump physical appearance.
But wait, there’s more! It seems to me that physical beauty is highly overrated anyway. People will say “Oh yes, I’m beautiful” as a way of affirming their value, but I believe we need a new paradigm. After all, the reality is that there is an abundance of people who are not beautiful. They are not physically attractive in any way, shape or form. Dare I say it? These folks are ugly. And that means exactly what? Are they less valuable? Is their wit, their love, their wisdom and insight any less wonderful because the face and form that provide the vehicle for this gorgeous soul does not conform to society’s standards? Of course not. Beauty is a genetic quirk just as is being ugly and neither is particularly deserved by the recipient.
I have long had a somewhat different concept of what constitutes beauty. Beauty was the short, fat African American police officer who cared enough to say exactly what would turn teenaged me around. Beauty was the ugliest couple on the University of Missouri campus, dressed in formal wear, dancing in the moonlight, looking at each other as if they had invented love. Beauty was the nurse who stood by me as we lost my daughter’s heartbeat while I was giving birth, so desperate to see my child be born alive, and who literally wept with relief when we found her heartbeat again. Beauty was the friend who caught me when I got the call that my brother was dying and my legs gave way. Beauty is the woman at the rescue place in Puyallup with a tiny, terrified chihuahua wrapped tightly around her, rocking that baby and crooning to her. Beauty is the person who holds the door when your hands are full, who laughs at your jokes, who says you made their day just by being there.
Do any of us look at those who grace our lives with unutterable gorgeousness of the soul and ever even question whether their faces and bodies measure up?
It’s time to define beauty as that loving heart, that soul-filling laugh, that edgy and delicious wit, the profundity of wisdom. That is beauty time cannot steal – beauty that fills the heart far more than it ever will the senses. Perhaps then we will look at our pictures and see what it is others do when they snap that photograph.
This is dedicated to all of us who will never grace the covers of a high fashion magazine.