I can remember vividly the first time I was told I was beautiful*. I was about eleven years-old and at the ballpark for one of my brother’s games and a mom of another kid on the team stopped me midway between the concession stand and the stands. She told me that I was growing so fast and that I was so beautiful. I thought, “Who? Me?!”
I was not a pretty child. I had black and bushy eyebrows, a gap in my teeth, and a boy’s haircut. I was often told that I was smart, and skinny, and funny, and highstrung, and passionate. I don’t recall being told that I was beautiful. As a teenager I was okay looking, but awkward and still figuring out how to live in my own skin and it showed. Actually liking how I look is a recent event. It was really easy for me to forget that this is unfortunately pretty normal. But then on vacation, a friend of mine was really touched when she walked by a couple of bellboys and one of them said to his friend “She’s beautiful!” Now this friend is stunningly beautiful. She looks like a Greek goddess. That we were dressed to the nines for a night on the town probably didn’t hurt either. Still, when we got back to the room she told us that was the first time someone outside her family had called her beautiful**. What. the. hell?
People talk a fair amount about “real beauty” and about the need to combat unrealistic expectations conveyed through the beauty and fashion industries and through advertising. England, for example, has gone so far as to ban some ads, such as a Lancome Ad featuring Julia Roberts (See About Face’s commentary). Stateside there’s the much-celebrated Dove Campaign for Real Beauty***. I wonder if acting like everyone is beautiful just the way they are is effective. I mean, I didn’t wear makeup until my twenties, but there were other things, like my eyebrows, to contend with. Natural though they were, I started getting made fun of when I was seven. The school bus is where I learned that I wasn’t pretty.We can celebrate “real beauty” all we want, but what qualifies as “real beauty” and who gets to decide that? And does any of it matter when you’re being told you’re not it?
All of this was on my mind every time in the last year or so that someone in my family brought up my sister’s growing unibrow. I remembered how much it hurt to get teased and how much I hated my eyebrows for years. But when my sister insisted that she liked herself the way she was, I thought that was worth listening to. I mean, she’s 7 years old.
BUT, I can also vividly remember the first time someone said something positive about my eyebrows. I was in show choir and a stagemom was helping me put on my makeup and she told me that I had such beautiful, dark eyebrows and that stuck with me. Over the years, I remember fondly the small handful of people who praised the part of my face that I thought stood out like an ugly, sore thumb. Hmmm…my eyebrows could be beautiful? The color I never changed, but over the years I gradually figured out how to shape my eyebrows and they became one of my favorite facial features.
So on a “Sissy Night” (a girls-night-in when I babysit), I asked little sis if she wanted me to wax the bridge of her nose. I promised her it was her decision and that she was beautiful either way. I offered to show her pictures of Frida Kahlo. Suddenly Dove’s “Onslaught” ad was all I could see. Was I helping my sister by attempting to prevent the teasing I suffered? Or was I just introducing her to just one of many ways beauty norms will pressure her to get her body under control?
My sister let me fix up her brows. It took two seconds. She was excited and her face lit up when she looked in the mirror. I wonder how she will look back on that moment? I emphasized that all we did was enhance her natural beauty, and that she was beautiful because there was no one else quite like her. Mostly, I feel conflicted about it all.
So, I kind of love it when someone like Lea Michele stands up for unconventional beauty. Don’t get me wrong, she’s gorgeous, but part of her beauty is that she isn’t a cookie-cutter pretty. Right? I’m happy that her beauty became a storyline on Glee and that she has publicly (repeatedly) talked about the pressure she’s faced to get a nose job and how, actually, she likes her nose. Good for her.
How big is the difference between grooming and other forms of beauty “adjustments”? How do we balance looking our best in such a way that we can navigate through the world without our appearance detracting from our social interactions? Just because we shouldn’t have to worry about these questions doesn’t mean they aren’t a real part of the way people interact. What can be done?
At the end of these ramblings, the only thing I can think of is to keep telling my sister that she’s beautiful. And to keep telling my friends that they’re beautiful. And to praise the parts of their beauty that break the mold.
*At least by someone who wasn’t my mom. I’m sure she told me, but I don’t remember. No offense, Mom; you’re the best.
**False! I say, we told you that all the time, my dear!
***Which sells personal care products by taking aim at the beauty industry. Hmm… By the way, my favorite is Amy, which, sure is sort of heteronormative and all that, but mostly I think it’s kind of sweet.