I spent the first decades of my life staring in a mirror. Now I have shattered it.
People used to tell little girls they were beautiful no matter what. My mother continued the tradition, but when I learned the dangerous trick of comparison (surely our original sin) the truth dawned. I concentrated on what was left to me, carefully applying makeup, choosing pretty clothes, compensating for falling far short of the ideal. I was keenly aware that my face lacked symmetry, visible cheekbones, and a chin of any significance, but in time, I made my peace with that, told myself an ample bosom and friendly smile could carry a woman quite a ways.
Only now, with so much life behind me and a husband who loves even what is extra or asymmetrical, bumpy or quirky or bland, do I realize that our various assets and deficits do not matter in the least. That sounds like the hollow reassurance friends give one another early in life, desperate to boost self-esteem. But not mattering is true for a different reason: We are all in this together. Pieces of perfection are scattered through the human race. The point is to recognize them and celebrate them, not own them.
Besides, after a certain age, even the most exquisite face softens into normalcy—or gets pumped into doll-like artifice. At sixty, I can see a woman whose fresh beauty catches my breath and be thoroughly happy that she is on this earth, lightening my gaze. I drink in the same pleasure I receive from a Vermeer or a sunset. I can also watch daring feats of grace and athleticism without any sting of envy or regret, without bemoaning my clumsy heavy limbs or wishing I had joined a gym at twenty. I marvel at other brains, those who see math’s beauty or understand rainbows or know reams of poetry by heart, without wishing my mind worked the same way.
Why did I think I had to check every box?
Maybe I have drifted into voyeurism, something akin to the dowagers who used to watch, through their lorgnettes, young ladies and gentlemen cavorting at a ball. But I am grinning, not frowning. Every talent or grace or joy feels like something we all participate in, because it belongs to our species and our universe.
Besides, sometimes it is more fun to appreciate a gift from afar.
My first apartment was in a nondescript, century-old brick building that faced a stately building with limestone trim, bay windows, and ornate balconies. “Not the pretty one,” I told friends when I gave directions. “The one that faces the pretty one.” At first it felt a little frumpy to live in the not-pretty building—and then it dawned on me that I was the one with the view.
Lately I have been researching the life of an extraordinary woman, a soil scientist who loved nature so fiercely it was like a second marriage, and who dedicated herself to conservation. There are running jokes about Pat Jones showing up at a store or restaurant with her hair uncombed, her farm clothes caked in mud and sweat—or wearing jeans to a cocktail party and hooking her thumbs in the belt loops, clearly uncomfortable, missing her country life. When I found pictures of her at sixteen and twenty, I was startled by how lovely she was, her features finely drawn and clean-boned, her eyes bright, her skin translucent. But even then, her hair was short with bangs, cut for ease not beauty, and she was clearly not “making the most” of herself, as young women have been admonished to do forever. In old age, she asked a friend, “Why do people want to take my picture?”
“Because you’re beautiful” came the reply, that automatic childhood compliment that returns to reassure us in old age.
“No, I’m not,” she corrected, laughing. Scottish and plainspoken, she put far more stock in candor and a sense of humor than in social graces and illusions.
“But you are,” her friend said, this time fully meaning the words. “People want to know you. They want proof that they spent time with you.”
When I ask Pat’s friend what the draw was, she describes how welcoming Pat was, how much integrity she had, how natural she was, free of airs or pretense, curious and intelligent and sure of what was important in life. Beauty can make it harder to reach that place. Girls who are as pretty as our pictures are told who they are, subtly: “You’re gonna be a heartbreaker”; “With your looks….”. When your appearance charms people, they have a hard time noticing the rest of you, whereas if you are plain, you can (you must) figure out for yourself who you are. Beauty’s gift is temporary, an accident of surfaces, and you worry about what happens when it leaves you, like a pro athlete constantly testing their strength. What if nothing of substance lies beneath that hypnotic surface? And the sweetness can quickly turn to poison: In the French crime series Spiral, a young woman is killed and her face then beaten into pulp. “She must have been beautiful,” the pathologist murmurs. “That would explain the ferocity.”
Mercifully, psychopathy is the exception. Most days, beauty opens doors—it makes people assume success and virtue and want to offer favors and opportunities. It attracts. But even that has an endpoint: Studies show that beautiful women hit a glass ceiling even faster. Social psychologist Tonya Frevert has found that beauty can be not only intimidating but isolating: “Attractiveness can convey more power over visible space–but that in turn can make others feel they can’t approach that person.” Mathematician Christian Rudder founded OKCupid then spent a decade analyzing the data; he found that people who were a little quirky or unattractive and unafraid to show it fared better than those others ranked as very cute.
At the extreme, those who were outright gorgeous did better than those so cute they were intimidating. But those with hypnotic beauty spend their time warding off and rarely face rejection. They miss out on the misery, the orgies of ice cream and self-pity that eventually make us resilient and insightful (or at least train us to rationalize failure). Even friends feel no need to cheer up someone who is flawlessly beautiful; they are too busy gnawing on buried jealousy. “You’ll be fine,” they say, and mean it.
In Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano points out how often we misinterpret that envy. I used to see someone who was beautiful and fight down a wave of wistfulness—how lovely to have those clear, thick-lashed green eyes, that perfect nose, that long, graceful neck… What I really wanted, Whitefield-Madrano suggests, was not the individual features but the life such attributes would bring: the confidence and social ease, the thrill of pleasing perfect strangers simply by existing, the reassurance of being admired and cherished.
Pat Jones would snort. You can have all of that just by being yourself.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.