27 March 2007

a reflection on female beauty. in two parts.

being beautiful. growing up i thought i was ugly. i was very thin, with knobby knees and generally funny looking legs. my lips were very full and i hated my smile. my hair was first straight as a stick and blah in color and then, after puberty, thick and so wavy i didn't have any idea how to manage it. my face was long and seemed totally uninteresting. my only good point was that i was naturally thin, though that had the downside of meaning i was also naturally without much in the way of curves.

when i was 17, my conviction of my own ugliness cracked for the first time. i broke my arm, and in the emergency room they taped a fashion magazine around my arm as a splint. when the doctor cut it off, he told me i was lucky--the models like the one on the cover of that magazine usually had to inject their lips with collagen, but my lips were naturally full the way they wanted theirs to be. that doctor was simply trying to distract me from the pain of a broken bone. but his casual comment shed a whole new light on my own perception of myself. it had never occurred to me that one of my most hated features could actually be considered beautiful.

in spite of that momentary flash of insight, i was 22 or 23 before i ever thought of myself as attractive. and it took a couple more years to believe i was beautiful, and that only happened in moments. and it only happened after cutting all of my hair off, rejecting many beauty conventions (including wearing make up daily), and refusing to dress myself according to trends unless i liked them for themselves and unless i liked them on myself. i'm very comfortable with my appearance now. physically, i think that i am generally a plain woman who is sometimes pretty and occasionally beautiful. i know how to dress myself. i know how to use make up and i wear it when i feel like it. i love the silver that has been showing up in my dark brown hair for a long time now. most importantly, i've learned that my beauty comes from my mind and my soul and my laughter.

in large part, i have my mother to thank for both my childhood/teenage opinion of my own beauty (this is not a criticism of my mother) and for my current acceptance of my own body and beauty. my mother never stressed being "in style," though she likes pretty clothes and bought us pretty clothes. she was not tapped into trends and didn't shop for particular brands or in certain stores in order to ensure that we were dressed stylishly. she didn't interfere in our own particular tastes. and she herself aged with grace and beauty. i also have my father to thank, because he always made it abundantly clear that he found my mother beautiful and sexy--not in spite of, but because of her gorgeous grey hair and her curvy body which bore seven children. my parents' honesty about physical beauty and their lack of concern for the beauty myths promoted in our society made my own open attitude about beauty--both my own and others'--possible.

selling beauty. this morning, 'day to day' aired a story about dove's new 'pro-age' ad campaign. photos taken by annie liebowitz of women over 50 posing nude. no air-brushing. with the tagline "beauty has no age limit." the ads use a variety of women--mostly white, but a couple of african-americans and at least one who looks mediterranean. and all of them beautiful, though not all of them beautiful in necessarily conventional ways. some are immaculately toned and fit. others are not. all of them show the marks of age in one form or another--grey hair, wrinkles, age spots. and they are not professional models.

part of me is bothered by this. advertising and marketing can get under my skin. i recognize that the majority of the women in this campaign are toned in a way that the majority of american women are not, whether they are over 50 or not. and a photographer of annie liebowitz's caliber can capture beauty in a subject that many people would have a hard time seeing in the live subject. dove is still selling a myth of beauty in some ways. and that is deeply troubling.

but another part of me loves this campaign. i think it's wonderful that dove is not touching up the photos. and it's so very vital to send the message that age is not the enemy of beauty. that beauty is not about matching some platonic ideal of the female form and face. that one needn't tuck and lift and snip and squeeze in order to be beautiful. and the fact of the matter is that in american society, beauty is bought and sold. not just the products that we use to make ourselves beautiful, but the idea of beauty. more than anything else, it is magazines and television and films that provide us with our ideas of beauty. if dove can sell an idea of beauty that is more realistic than the idea sold on the runways of new york, london, and milan; if they can create an ideal that embraces age and experience rather than pre-pubescent blankness; if they can show a beauty that is real rather than imagined, i'm all for it.


  1. I love this post! I wish I had the same feelings about my looks as you do but I guess with time I will hopefully overcome my own stereotypes! I guess I find beauty in my personality but am trying to see some sort of physical beauty. I guess I am a masterpiece in progress!

  2. Twice. That is, two times I have had profound experiences that made me aware of my physical beauty. Otherwise, I have just felt "average".....not necessarily beautiful, and not ugly.....just average....(whatever that means!)

    the first time I saw myself as beautiful.....pregnant with my fourth baby! About to get in the shower.....and I was VERY pregnant!

    The second time.......40 years old on my first cruise with my husband! Perhaps, I had prepared myself for all the skinny swimsuit models I *thought* we would be traveling with......and found I fit that description more than most of those we traveled with.

    ANOTHER trick that works for me. SMILE even if you don't feel like it! Smiling changes attitudes. Smiling makes me *feel* happier ESPECIALLY, when I force myself to make eye contact and smile (instead of looking away) to complete strangers. SMILING works wonders in building confidence too.

    There is a magic in smiling....I don't know how to explain it - it is just there. (really, it is too late and my brain hurts....just returned from my wirlwind trip to New Jersey....10 hours of flying, 6 hours of business, too little hours of sleep and back home....total = 28 hours!)

    Bon Nuit!

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  4. i don't tolerate disrespectful responses to other commenters on my blog, either. again. you know to whom i address myself.