Saturday, September 24, 2011

On Beauty, Part One

When I was eleven, I caught my sister smoking in her bedroom with her friends. We already knew she smoked, and my parents had leveled creative punishments in an effort to make her stop. I knew if I told my mom, the house would be filled with big stormy arguments and my sister would be in big, big trouble.

"Please don't tell on me, Veronica," she said, her eyes wide and pleading. "Please?"

My sister has beautiful eyes. Big and melting brown. I remember thinking, as I promised not to tell, that I would find it easier to reject her plea if she had beady little snake eyes.

Beauty is persuasive. It appeals to us. It moves us.

It has become normal in our culture to speak of beauty strictly in sexual terms (it's a greater compliment, apparently, to call someone "hot" than to call them beautiful), but, as significant as sex is, portraying beauty only in sexual terms trivializes its power. Beauty moves us in many ways that are not sexual.

I remember coming home from seminary once and catching my breath when I saw my mother. She and my dad had raised four kids, and seen the youngest leave for college and then get married. For the first time in twenty years, my mother could buy clothes for herself before she bought them for someone else. She wore a neatly tailored red dress that showed off her long, lean frame and short, dark hair, and she looked beautiful. I felt proud of how she looked. In its own way, that dress reflected well on  us kids: it meant we had grown up and learned independence and mom was free to take care of herself instead.

"My beauty is for my husband, " I have heard conservative women say, usually as explanation for a shapeless dress and unstyled hair. (And why the unstyled hair? Even if their sect teaches that women should not cut their hair - is lankness also a religious duty? I don't understand.) But they are wrong. They have accepted a sexualization that assumes the only response to beauty is desire. They are rejecting the way my sister's beauty moved me to pity (even if misplaced), or the way my mother's beauty moved me to gratitude.

The reality is that beauty is for everyone who looks on it. My children are beautiful, and the joy I take in their strong limbs and sparkling eyes has nothing to do with desire. Beauty is profligate; she offers herself to everyone who can see (and the blind too, who, I am sure, find beauty in the sounds and scents and touch of the people around them). I have prayed for a lonely friend, and been rewarded with the blush on her face after she has fallen in love. I have agonized with a sick friend, and been refreshed by the glow of good health in her skin after a successful round of treatment. Our eyes hunger for beauty, and few things bring us more joy than finding it.


  1. Love and have missed your writing. Thank you for this beautiful piece.

  2. "They have accepted a sexualization that assumes the only response to beauty is desire"

    Truth. I've struggled to figure out how to say exactly this for years. Thank-you for saying it so well.

  3. This - well, just thank you. I was raised with parents who were incredibly uncomfortable with my appearance. Okay, fine, i will say it: my beauty. They thought I was beautiful and they hated it. They thought I would get pregnant. They gave me more rules than they gave my sisters. They made me feel ashamed and stupid, like there was no way I could make good decisions about what to wear, where to go, who to be around.

    I sympathise that they didn't want me to be sexually active at a too young age. I don't want that for my own children either. They somehow made this about sex and about my character. I learned to "under-dress" for all occasions to stay out of the line of their fire - and out of the line of any male gaze, even were it simply appreciative and friendly.

    I still pay the price. I'm still figuring it out - how to make myself look as beautiful as I might like without having to feel terribly guilty inside. I wish I could enjoy dressing up to go out for dinner. I'm trying.

  4. I feel similar to Karen; my parents wanted me to be as unattractive as possible. It had a backfiring effect.

    It affected deeply the way I see myself; I can't leave the house without makeup, for example. I can't walk by a mirror or window without checking my reflection.

    I love the way you write.

  5. Anonymous9/26/2011

    Yes. I can appreciate my friends' beauty without there being even a hint of sexuality. I hate how our culture oversexualizes everything. But of course, we are not the only culture to do this, or the worst.

  6. Anonymous11/24/2011

    Its nice to hear from other people who can see this, its been bothering me alot lately & probably from my own amazing insecurity with screens and billboards surrounding us all the time with glowing perfect faces & bodies. The obsession with sex I'm beginning to see, drags everything down to a base, animal level; its making us dumber & meaner & ironically enough- uglier.

    Witness the rating of people- men & women- on a hawtness scale of 1-10 for basic human worth.WTF, is this still high school or something? I'm beginning to hate the very word 'hot'& the amateur darwinists who defend it as somehow natural. Its sleazy & shallow, like a junkyard mutt sniffing out a pleasing scent so it can have its fill.

    Beauty has a higher dimension (spiritual?)to it, it can be more vague and difficult to grasp than sizing up facial symmetry & various bodily curves; there is much beauty in things our hallowed mainstream judges un-hawt but the rub is a person has to be of a certain level of insight & depth to grasp this. Sadly alot of people don't seem to be there.

    In our reductionist, survival of the fittest mindframe, everything is a binary of hawt/not and its lunacy to compress something as complicated & vast as life & beauty into such a limited box unless you were focused soley on hedonistic sex.