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…