Sunday, December 02, 2012

On Beauty and Worth

This is a post I've thought about for many months. Actually, for well over a year, really. I think it may even be one of the reasons why it's taken me so long to write something on this blog. I've been mulling it over in my head, trying to figure out exactly what I feel about this, and how I can best articulate those feelings.

Let me start with an experience I had a bit over a year ago.

Women in our area of Utah County were asked last year to provide a choir for the General Relief Society Broadcast in September. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. For one thing, I got to sing with my sister (of whom I could write the most superlative things, and they would all be true), who also lives in this area. For another, the director of the choir was a woman who was possibly one of the most engaging personalities I've come in contact with. She managed to make every member of the choir feel as though best-friendship were an absolute possibility, if only there were enough time to spend with everyone individually. She was funny and wry and really, really loved us. Or, at least, loved us inasmuch as it was possible to love a room full of people that you didn't really know, but sort of knew because you were all Mormons involved in a really cool musical experience together.

Yep. It was awesome.

There was one event that troubled me though, just a bit. And it wasn't so much that I was troubled about the motivations of our director, more just what it told me about what we believe as a society in general.

Towards the end of our rehearsals, we were, naturally, doing pretty well, but still nervous that we would get up to the Conference Center and forget our notes, come in at the wrong time, or scratch our noses just right when the camera zoomed in on our faces. So, our director gave us a pep talk. It was, like her, funny and spiritually uplifting, and heartfelt and touching.

And she, like many people who are trying to help women to feel better, said to us something like, "You are all beautiful. You are all beautiful daughters of your Heavenly Father." (And you'll forgive me if my memory sort of...doesn't remember the exact wording. But that was the gist of it.)

Many women around me cried, and smiled through their tears, and I...felt troubled.

I so appreciated her effort to make us feel good about ourselves. I could feel that she did love us, and I felt that she was, really, connected to divine love, hooked into it and transmitting real charity. (Which is the only way you can, in my opinion, feel a deep and genuine love for a bunch of people to whom you have never actually spoken one-on-one.) I believe she expressed that love in a way that she felt would make us feel good. And I think it did work for most people.

But here is what troubled me: why should we need to feel beautiful in order to feel loved? Why does being acknowledged as attractive (and, really, isn't that what 'beauty' means?) make us feel valuable and valued?

I'm reminded of the many times (and I actually haven't heard it a lot in my current ward, which is kind of awesome, I think) when I've heard men get up during fast & testimony meeting and, during the course of their testimony, express their gratitude for their beautiful wives.

It's great, and we all feel good, and I'm sure the wives are aglow with the warmth of their husbands' regard, but...

But wouldn't it seem kind of strange if a woman got up to bear her testimony and said, during the course of it, "I'm so grateful for my handsome husband," or if women were instructed in the General Relief Society broadcast to be sure to tell their husbands that they are handsome? Because every man needs to be told that?

Not that I'm actually trying to argue from a feminism angle (although that wouldn't be a bad thing, just not the angle I'm choosing at the moment). It's more that I feel uncomfortable with this idea that feeling beautiful equates with feeling worthwhile.

There have been times when I've expressed to friends or family members that I don't really feel particularly beautiful. And, truth be told, I'm really not. I'm overweight, I have an oddly upturned nose (with pores the size of potholes), and my lips are kinda pale and weird (and let's not even talk about my ankles). These friends and family members have reassured me that no, I really am beautiful, and it's not external beauty that is important, it's inner beauty, right? And I do appreciate what they say, and the love with which it is offered.

And I believe what they say for a half hour, or maybe less. But, then, the belief fades, and I recognize the reality that I'm really not beautiful. Not that way.

Because guys, not everyone is beautiful. And I feel like that should be okay. A woman who has scars from years of horrible acne may not be considered all that beautiful. A man who's been burned, or is missing an arm, or teeth, may not be considered attractive.

(And I feel tremendously guilty having written the above examples, as though I'm denigrating the worth of these individuals, when in reality, I'm trying to free them from feeling as though they need to be beautiful in order to be loved. Or maybe, I'm trying to free myself.)

'But wait,' you may say. 'These people are beautiful on the inside. They're still beautiful. Everyone can be beautiful.'

That is very true. But I wish we wouldn't use the language of physical attractiveness to describe the goodness of a spirit.

Beauty draws us in. It is engaging. There's a reason why we call beautiful people 'attractive.' They pull us to them; we want to be near them. And I think it's wonderful if people are beautiful. It's fun to watch beautiful people on TV and in movies. It's fun when folks get dolled up and look all lovely for a dance or a date or a night on the town. I don't want to suggest that beauty is bad. I don't even want to suggest that men and women stop telling each other they think they're good looking.

I just want it not to be connected to our sense of worth. I want women to say, when they are reassuring other women, "You are all good and kind and worthwhile daughters of our Heavenly Father." I want men (and similarly women!) to stand up and express thanks for their spouses with phrases like, "I'm so grateful for my loving wife, for her dedication to the gospel, for her service."

And I'm trying to do my part, too.

But most of all, when I don't feel particularly beautiful, when I feel like the ugly duckling who grew up to be an ugly duck, I want to still feel of value. And worthy to be loved.


Caprene said...

But that's like me wanting to finally find a guy who appreciates my mind. That's what I've always wanted. I've gone through the many stages of, discovering intelligence, dealing with shielding off the criticisms and toughening up when not fitting in because of it, then eventually hiding from it because of the insecurity it caused, and not accepting it, but still holding it back hoping that the compromise will in some way be beneficial. But it isn't what I find yet. While I definitely take care of myself so that I feel good about myself and my appearance, I'm not in need of guys attention to my appearance, I do believe that it is the full package that matters. That doesn't mind I'm a total nerd when it comes down to it. I know it is what I look for in a man, and I am waiting to find the one who feels the same. You can now delete this after reading, as if in some way, it will self destruct in 3 seconds.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

This post gave me a lot to think about. I want to comment on it in depth, but I think I need to chew on it a little while first.

I love you, Bethy.

Heidi said...

I think this hits a very important idea right on the nose. It reminds me of a post I read years ago somewhere (I know...I'm so not a librarian...) where I woman wrote about how it seemed strange to her that people practically fell over themselves to say, "No you ARE beautiful" if she said something that she felt like was simple fact (something like, "Welp, my hair is grey.")

And how it made her realize how strange it is that we equate goodness with or at least with the rhetoric of physical beauty.

So, I love this post. I think it's truth.

Michelle said...

This came at a perfect time for me actually as I've been equating how I feel to how I look lately. Thanks for the well stated thoughts. I love reading your blog because you write so well.

Joanna said...

I’ve been thinking lately about how often I see only my own weaknesses and only the strengths of others. I don’t think I’m the only one, and I think women are more inclined toward this way of thinking. It’s easy to look at someone else and see all that they do and all that they are, and then compare back to the worst part of ones own self.

Whenever anyone compliments me, I feel the need to retort back with all the reasons why their compliment is wrong. “So you think the blanket I knit is beautiful? Here, sit down so I can point out all the mistakes I made in it. If you look really closely they’re not hard to see.” This has been especially true lately when someone tells me I’m a good mother. I want to make sure they understand how imperfect I am. “You should have seen how hard it was for my preschooler to get up for school that morning because I was too busy wasting time on the internet to bother to get him to bed on time the night before. Or the night my husband came home from a long tiring day to find that we were having cold cereal for dinner. Or when nobody was listening to me to clean up the house and brush their teeth and I totally lost my cool all over the place.” So when someone tries to say something like, “You’re beautiful,” my natural response wants to be, “But you don’t see the stretch marks in all the hidden places, and you must not have noticed the hairs growing out of this particular mole,” and so on. Maybe if I get to live a very long life I will learn that when someone says something nice about me to me I should just smile, say “Thank you,” and even better, give myself three seconds to let the niceness of what they said sink into my soul.

The other thing this post made me think of are those National Geographic (or similar) photographs from around the world. My first impression when I glimpse a black and white picture of an elderly woman from Mongolia or someplace is, “Wow, what a beautiful photograph, and what a beautiful woman.” If I really stopped and looked, I would see a wrinkly old woman, who looked just as much like a wrinkly old Mongolian man as anything else. It’s really not beauty in the first definition of the word. But there’s something there, something that really amazing photographers can capture, something that speaks of the soul of the subject, and the life that they’ve lived, and the influence that they’ve had. And “beautiful” becomes the adjective I put on it. I guess we really just need another word for whatever “it” is.

rachfishop said...

Hi Elizabeth, I just wanted to say that I'm glad you're blogging again! I read your blog for years when you worked at KMA and kind of worried about you when you disappeared off the radar:-) Hope all is well in your life! Rachel

Hannah Bartholomew said...

In the particular instance of the music director, she _was_ talking to a group of people about to have cameras pointed at them. Physical insecurities do come up at such moments. But yes, there is an underlying equivalency between beauty and goodness.

Joanna, I'm with you on the receiving compliments. 'Good mother' compliments especially. My mental comeback is "how would you know? You are in my vicinity for less than 3 hrs a week. You've no idea how I behave at home." Which really seems to have some justifiable basis.

Though, now that I wrote it out, I can also see the argument's flaw. And that is that the fruits of unseen relationship dynamics/work show. Sort of like the WWII radio 'fists,' or transmission patterns, that allowed the British to identify individual operators even though they couldn't break the coded message. Relationships have 'fists.' Is the concept behind red flag behaviors. So good mothering should have indicators that someone could notice.

Which thought leads me to another basic qualm about compliments. They often seem to ascribe qualities, declare labels. It seems the adult equivalent of 'your so smart.'

Accepting a complement of "such and such was well done" is much easier than accepting a "you are good at such and such" or "you are such and such." It's probably my internal obstiance objecting to being defined by outside source. But that doesn't seem all bad. Maybe I shouldn't have to feel guilty for not getting a happy glow to bask in when given such a complement.

Though, denouncing a complimentor for complimenting in an unpalatable way is probably not helpful. The polite way might be to decipher what action brought the compliment, and answer as if it had been praised. Or (as that's often not possible without long thought/analysis) asking "why do you say that?"

Anyway, it's late and I think my brain has stopped working now. Thank you for giving it something to mull over.