Ring Around

In a lovely conversation with my lovely therapist this afternoon, we got to talking about weight loss (how the medical and corporate complexes get it pretty much entirely wrong, and how no one will ever fund research into whether very slow–say 10 lbs. a year–weight loss might be able to re-set the hypothalamus, or slip by the scarcity-panic-button in the lizard brain) and it turned, inevitably, to how oppressive standards of thinness and beauty are for woman–maybe one of the last weapons of the patriarchal hegemony that will be put down.

All of that is true. The bit about how no one will ever fund research on the effects of slow weight loss is pretty much as depressing the whole beauty-thinness-patriarchy nexus.

But I got to thinking this afternoon about all the women I know who are not conventionally beautiful (i.e. thin and big-eyed) and who do, in fact, find love, have healthy babies, stay married to awfully nice men, have richly textured lives, and don’t spend much of their time trying to conform to the agonizingly impossible standards The Culture sets up and rains down. It’s a large number. It’s maybe even a majority of humans.

Sure, conventional beauty is attractive–and, well, beautiful (most of the time–I can think of a couple of famous models I never got…). It’s also, much of the time, high-maintenance, fragile, expensive, a function of dumb genetic luck (or surgery), and not infrequently burdensome. As difficult as it is to be invisible in a crowd (I have a brilliant beautiful friend who never quite understood my assertion that I was often invisible until she watched a famous essayist for The New Yorker not hear a question I asked and turn his back to me to talk to her–the question was about a poet he’d just given a talk about and with whom both she and I had studied extensively. We will pass over both his name and my opinion about how many of his insecurities he thereby revealed–particularly because he’s a very fine writer when he’s not pouring those insecurities out in the form of a kind of snobbery only The New Yorker and a couple of other publications seem to find charming any longer.), I think it’s also difficult to be ultra-visible. Well, for most sane (and sane-ish) folks, anyway.

But my point is that, complexities aside, the plain, the plump, the goofy, the awkward, and the quirky do find love. The real kind that sticks. Even the Brains manage it more often than not (in spite of eHarmony believing that the higher the IQ, the tougher the person is to match–which may be true for all I know–it makes a sort of sense in terms of numbers, I suppose). The Offbeat Bride website is full of folks who look normal getting themselves unapologetically hitched. As near as I can tell, that old saw about there being “a lid for every pot” is pretty much true. And speaking purely for myself, I didn’t “settle.” I married pretty much my ideal person.

I have another friend who is very wise about humans and romance (it maybe comes from her being a Jersey Girl). She maintains that she can find pretty much anyone of any age/shape/means a romantic partner PROVIDED that the person goes into the search with a list of requirements that’s got NO MORE than 3 traits. I’ve never been sure whether or not I agree with her (I had a loooong list and got most of it ticked off when I took up with my husband), but she’s certainly seen a bunch of her friends manage to find partners in a town that’s notorious for being tough romance-wise. Now, whether keeping your list down to 3 items is “settling” or not is an interesting question. I think she’d argue that keeping the requirements list down to 3 really crucial traits is more of a matter of opening yourself up than closing yourself down, which I pretty much agree with.

In any event, “pretty” is thin ice on which to walk the journey of a marriage. Maybe those of us who don’t have it to work with in the first place are forced to look for deeper traits? I don’t know. Certainly, attraction is a mysterious business, and the role of attraction in a long-term relationship is a complex and evolving one.

Cripes, even a person’s own sense of his or her attractiveness is an awfully layered and tangly thing. I know certifiably gorgeous humans who don’t have any sense of themselves as shiny, and certifiably plain people of both genders who attract like honey. I know that in my 20s I had a juicily dual sense of my ugliness and my hotness–100% of both pretty much 100% of the time. It’s a wonder I could get out of bed (or, I suppose, into it). I don’t think it’s all that unusual.

So there are the undeniably scary and damaging cultural messages about beauty and worth out there. They’re real. They’re very noisy. They do real damage. But there is also another set of (maybe survival-driven?) largely unarticulated messages out there suggesting that the rest of us are perfectly functional/viable/loveable, thank you very much. Thank God.

Besides, in an evolutionary sense, if narrowly defined BEAUTY were an important trait, the not-beautiful (yes, I know this opens up a whole fascinating discussion of whether humans are the only creatures who think in terms of beauty–especially interesting in these days when we’re busily revising our understanding of how many critters are sentient and what sentience consists of…) would have presumably died out long ago, right? Demonstrably, Nature likes variety. Thrives on it, even within species. It’s amusing to ponder the question of whether buzzards have beauty standards. I wouldn’t put it past them, though it might well be that we’re the only critters who have the luxury of worrying about something so muzzy as an idea of beauty. And I am highly suspect of human exceptionalists–they seem to me to be both theologically and environmentally threatening. I don’t knowwhether evolutionary biologists are even close to knowing about other beings. Somebody would have to come up with a scientifically workable definition of beauty in order to even ask the question.

Which brings me back to the fact that most of us who don’t look like Christy Turlington or the young Albert Finney (the two prettiest people I can think of at the moment) do manage to have lives. Messy, busy, human lives filled up with and mucked up by and tangled up in love. From what I can gather, so do some of the pretty people, too. I hope so. I like looking at them in much the same way that I like looking at great scenery or great art and am inclined to wish their skinny selves well. Even the genetically gifted among them have to work for it. Not to mention the photo-shopping…





6 thoughts on “Ring Around

  1. Annie says:

    I just want to say again that you are awesome. James and Tom and I went to the Portrait Gallery in DC and visited the portraits from their competition. You would love them! They are beautiful, in the deepest, least standard, most human sense, especially the first place winner — a video in extreme close-up of an ordinary woman that blew my mind.

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot–but especially lately, because I know Someone Who’s Seeking Love (mostly online right now) and not having a lot of luck. Bear with me while I pontificate! 🙂

    The SWSL is not totally beautiful, but she has enough of a certain set racial/cultural markers or shorthands for beauty that I’m not sure it matters: that is, she’s athletic, thin, of a favored color scheme, with fairly visible breasts and moderately regular features. She doesn’t look like a supermodel, but she’s verifiably what the young call “hawt”, especially for her age. Her non-negotiable starting criteria are someone who’s very active (she genuinely loves exercise and activity), someone with whom she has “chemistry” (she says she knows within a couple of dates whether it’s worth going further sexually), and someone who’s got a certain minimal level of education. Just three, right? It ought to work out.

    Except it isn’t working out. How can a hot woman with moderate criteria, online, not be finding someone? As I’m confident you have deduced, I have theories.

    For one thing, SWSL’s hawt-ness draws a lot of interest online, but not, by and large, of the interested-in-who-she-is kind; and if she wanted my advice, which I’m pretty sure she doesn’t, I’d suggest she start by taking down her photos. I know–heresy, right? If you’re hawt, why not show the goods? But so many trollers do their trolling based purely on pictures, without even reading the criteria, that she’s getting a lot of people who don’t give a damn what SHE wants. Pulling the pics would force people to read her profile, and weed out the shallowest of the trolls in the first round. The pool would shrink a lot, but it’d be made up entirely of people who want more than looks.

    However, even if she did, I think criterion #2, chemistry, would still be a problem. In the dating economy, the unwritten rule seems to be that if a person has X degree of conventional beauty, one can then demand some similar degree in a partner…and people often do just that. That’s part of what “chemistry” is generally code for: a certain level of conventional attractiveness, which is often (though not always) to say a certain body type. I think my friend is not-totally-consciously limiting her search to a relatively narrow range of body types…and I think that’s a HUGE reason why it’s not working out. Three huge reasons, actually.

    One is that someone who’s compatible with her in other ways, especially education, may or may not have one of the few right body types to produce “chemistry” (because the range is, yes, NARROW, in several senses of the word.) And if they do? Plenty of other people like the looks of that someone too. Now, suddenly, it’s a competition instead of a conversation…problematic at best.

    The second is my personal faith that chemistry can in fact develop. Over time. With liking, and, yes, sometimes with effort. In asserting the “I know if I want him by X date” rule, I don’t think SWSL is giving that a chance to happen–narrowing the pool still further and throwing out some potentially strong candidates with the chemical bathwater. Moreover, we have Althusser to remind us that while we may think we “just like” a certain set of qualities, period, much or most of that “chemistry” is culturally constructed. It’s NOT just coincidence that most of us date and marry people of similar race, education, economic class, and, yes, body type to ourselves. It’s NOT just coincidence that a lot of white people tend to favor blue-eyed blonds. But what’s constructed can be interrogated…if we’re willing to try.

    But the third, and it’s a big one, is that the higher people’s conventional beauty quotients go, the less inherent incentive they have (at the start, anyway) to either develop their characters or pay attention to other people’s, because there’s generally someone to desire them no matter what they’re like (short of worshipping Hitler or running over kittens in public…maybe.) That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of deep, kind, smart, conventionally beautiful folks out there–you and I both know some. But in the absence of other deepening factors–like good education, or an innate sense of compassion, or experience with anguish or abuse–the starting position is that the conventionally beautiful don’t have to be as deep, or kind, or smart, or interested in other people, as the not-beautiful in order to be liked and desired. And if we limit a search to that relatively small group of sought-after conventional beauties or semi-beauties (or even just thin people), I think we’re also raising the odds somewhat that the people we find may not appreciate US. Even if we too are conventionally beautiful, or thin. Quite a lot of beautiful people just aren’t very nice…and most of us have “nice” as a criterion in there somewhere.

    Long story long: I think the corollary of your point that there are lots of happy, well-loved non-beautiful people out there is what I’m (re)learning from watching SWSL: that conventional good looks actually don’t necessarily help in the brutal economy of the dating market (metaphor used advisedly.) And while I wouldn’t’ve believed it when I was young, maybe, sometimes, they even hurt.

    • fatmatters says:

      Yes to everything you said.

      That being said, I think my Jersey Girl Dating Guru would say that one problem your friend has is that her 3 criteria are VAGUE. Chemistry, shemistry. If you love hiking and Joss Whedon and liberal Republicans best of all, those should be your criteria. Vague gets you no where. Also, if she’s on Match.com, she should switch to eHarmony or Jdate (if applicable), and if she’s on eHarmony, she should switch to Match. If she’s on OKCupid, then (while I know of one marriage that happened because of them) she’s mostly trolling the wrong waters.

      And I think you are especially right about liking preceding chemistry in the best of all possible worlds. Chemistry ought to be a nice surprise, not a timed test.

  3. Bazinga on (and word to) the “nice surprise, not a timed test”! 🙂

  4. Seamus Duggan says:

    A fascinating, typically brilliant exchange! Many, many thanks to both of you. — Seamus

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