I see beauty for what it is: a mirage and a distraction.
Who can forget that famous Pantene commercial of the ‘80s with Kelly LeBrock leaning into the camera, swinging her magnificent tresses, and pouting: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”
I didn’t hate her because she was beautiful—I hated her for bragging about something largely out of her control (makeup and lighting notwithstanding). I hated her for the suggestion that beauty was a commodity that could determine one’s value. I hated that her beauty was up to the observer, that a woman could be given props for an aggregate set of physical features that added up to a pleasing symmetry, most of which she did not choose or buy.
But I can’t blame LeBrock and her beauty for souring my mood; I’ve long had a questionable relationship to beauty…perhaps in contrast to my mother’s stunning good looks (think Cher in her heyday meets Brooke Shields). She worked as a cosmetologist for makeup counters, which meant mounds of tubes and palettes bursting out of drawers and cupboards, as well as at her hand. “Don’t you just want a little eyeshadow?” she’d ask.
I did not.
By the time I was old enough to be in the proper demographic for Bonne Belle’s Lipsmackers soda-flavored lip glosses to appeal to me (about age 8) I’d already begun to feel suspicious of what it all meant. An avid reader since the first grade, already penning ambitious stories about heroic girls who saved worlds, I wanted to be praised for my mind, not my features.
By the time I turned 12, I equated makeup with soliciting sexual attention from not only boys but men, of which there were many around always noticing and remarking upon my youthful beauty—the poet, the plumber, my mother’s second husband who often pointed out how parts of me were so like my mother, his gaze lingering.
I did want to be desired by boys—but at a distance, or in erudite conversation for my bookish ways. When a boy happened to add the sum of my gangly limbs and flat chest up to equal attraction, I often found myself repulsed. Couldn’t he see that I had done nothing to create or earn the shape of my face, the bone structure or particular slant of eye or lip? Couldn’t he see how pedestrian his appreciation was?
My first serious boyfriend in college was the one to begin pointing out ways to reshape and mold myself to meet beauty standards—I ran miles and rollerbladed to work to achieve tone in my skinny legs. Did push-ups to enhance my tiny breasts. Changed my wardrobe to appear more feminine by his standards. All this did was give me a hateful relationship to adornments. I especially hated lingerie, which I perceived as meant to be viewed by an audience rather than appreciated by the self.
When I was in my 20s, I traveled to Europe alone, a fact I now find remarkably dangerous in retrospect. I suppose I took such a risk because I didn’t see myself as a beautiful young girl—I lived so much inside my head. Seated alone outside the Vatican, an Italian man approached me asking for a cigarette. Trained to be vigilant of strange men, I refused and began to walk away from him. He scoffed and called after me, in halting English, “You are…very ugly.” He couldn’t have known this was the weakest insult he could have tossed at me. “You speak bad Italian,” or “you are very stupid,” would have cut to the bone. His were just words.
What’s more, with great fondness I remember much of the rest of my 20s spent in a state of blissful ignorance of the sorts of physical conditions that society shames women for.
One day, my bleached blonde, tanned, waxed coworker at the gym and spa where I worked, took a long look at my backside and asked, “Doesn’t it bother you to wear shorts?”
“No?” I answered. Horrified that I had a misshapen butt or something worse, I went to the locker room and looked at the backs of my thighs. There, I found a surprising number of long black hairs in evidence against my pale skin. Wearing shorts had not bothered me until she asked. It hadn’t even occurred to me; until that moment I had never looked at the backs of my thighs before. A subtle feeling of shame crept in and I started wearing Capri pants that covered the offending hairs.
Soon after, my boss talked me into attending beauty school so he could have a reliable aesthetician on staff. It was beneath the fluorescent lights and suffocating white walls of Zenzi’s School of Cosmetology that the social pressure inspired me to wax my thick German Jewish eyebrows (which I learned the hard way must be kept up or else they become crazy, flyaway weeds). And eventually the pressure moved south to my bikini line and thighs. I still resent the pressure to meet and keep a standard of personal grooming that has never been organic to me.
But my real beef with beauty is the way we are taught to fixate on it at the expense of other things. The year my son turned 2 and stopped breastfeeding, I was 30 pounds overweight and depressed, so I launched into an exercise kick out of desperation. It was very much a case of right timing—my body was ready to shed the pounds and the exercise itself lifted my mood, and so I took to the gym like I formerly had to writing, almost compulsively. I took to it beyond losing 30 pounds of baby- and post-baby cupcake weight and into a new category—thin and toned, dropping several pants sizes. My triceps didn’t flap and I had a teeny-tiny little six pack—it was as though I had finally become the woman I had been told I should be all along.
The consequences? I felt anxious if I missed one of two exercise classes I took every day of the week. I noticed if I gained a single pound. I had become someone very different. Someone who fit into skinny jeans but was no longer writing.
It became clear that I couldn’t have both an obsession with my body and time to write. The energy spent on worrying and caring about what my body looks like took away from important mental energy I need to daydream and brainstorm. I had to choose.
This is not to say that I’m immune to beauty’s allure. I admire the effortlessness of the 20-somethings who come to work out at the gym, no makeup, tousled hair, their very sweat like a cosmetic designed to enhance. I’m also in awe of the 30-something moms with their perfect makeup at the grocery store, hair frozen with spray and sparkling clips, skin smoothed to a perfect sheen beneath foundation. I want to run my fingers along their jawlines. Now 40, with the defining plumpness of youthful qualities whittling away—where I look tired more often than not, and my skin, dry or mottled, where I’m always behind on my highlights or waxing—I’m more aware than ever of the Beauty Gods we worship. I’ve just come to realize that it’s a losing game.
I see beauty for what it is: a mirage and a distraction.
Give me brains any day.
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Make a Scene, Write Free, and the novels Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Dame, Modern Loss, The New York Times, Paste, Purple Clover, The Rumpus, Stir Journal, the Washington Post, Role Reboot and more.