on beauty.

i have this really tenuous relationship with beauty.

in that, most of the time, i feel anything but.

put me next to a beautiful woman and immediately i feel dwarfed her. an impostor.

and yet, as a woman, what i look like is one of the ways in which i define myself.

we all do--it's cultural and biological and darwinian and the full implications so far surpass my understanding it's unnerving.

i was having a heart to heart with my brother recently and we were talking about a particular woman we both know and he said to me, yeah, the average guy is gonna find her more attractive.

oh. huh. hmmm. i responded, lips pursed.

usually my brother gets away with saying things like this because he's honest and direct and there's nothing calculated about what comes out of his mouth. but this one stung a bit. it hit the achilles heel that is beauty--the thing we all care about but pretend not too for fear of appearing vain.

i'm sure there are those out there who would say, no, no, not me, i don't care about my appearance or what i look like or being thought beautiful--and maybe that woman does exist. but my guess is there is a spectrum of caring and we all fall somewhere on it. and if you think you don't then i'd call your attention to the scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep's character absolutely schools Anne Hathaway about her blue sweater. remember that one? oh, it's so good. well this issue is kind of like that one. i'd too would like to place no value on what i look like, but society tells me i should--i must.

my brother, sensing he had hit upon a tricky subject, attempted damage control: look, your hair is in a messy bun at the back of your neck, you have glasses on and no makeup. when a man sees a group of women his eyes gravitate toward the shiny object. and well, the other girl's hair had volume. and volume in the hair, that's a shiny object. he had a point.

i had to admit, he had a point.

is it because she’s thinner than me? i pushed.

no. we [men] don’t usually notice that. (which is so true and why can't i remember that?).

this issue of not as attractive stuck with me. maybe it was the week or the summer heat or some sort of passing funk, but on that particular day the thought crawled under my skin and stuck.

and then there came a day came not long after that i survived simply by filling my pockets with australian red licorice and pulling out small pieces at necessary moments. and at some point, sitting on the floor, a red nub between my fingers, i thought, i bet that girl--that more-beautiful-girl—would never fill her pockets with licorice. and this is not to say this makes me better. or worse. but different. and my particular brand of different—my licorice-filled-pockets is something i quite like about myself.

in fact, i dare say it’s something that makes me beautiful. not upon first glance. and not physically. and maybe not to the average man.  but given enough time and enough perspective it provides a sort of depth to the image.

and then there’s the question of the average man--of what that means--and when have i ever been interested in what the average man thinks? when have i ever been most attracted to the most typically good-looking-guy? so why should i want that the guy i end up with to think me the most typically good-looking woman?

don’t get me wrong, i have been blessed to know and care about some damn fine looking men. but i doubt the average woman would pick them out of a lineup.

i guess that’s the real worry, right—that if the man i care about (or the men i’ve cared about) was to happen upon a table with me and this other woman, he (or they) might be more drawn to her?

ay, there’s the rub--that’s what got under my skin!

average man be damned, i was scared of a hypothetical that would probably, most likely, never happen and even if it did, might very well work in my favor! ah, the gymnastics of the mind!

but i was nonetheless intrigued by this idea of men and shiny objects and their propensity to reach for them. and so i did a little research—which means i asked tom (tom being the most level-headed man i know). and as he explained it, how we as women care for our appearance—the lipstick we apply, the volume we so generously add to our hair, the clothes we choose—this sends a signal to men: ready, willing, and available (for procreation--i told you it was evolutionary). these shiny objects are how we get a man’s attention. but not how we keep it.

we keep it with licorice in our pockets and funny jokes and our brand of wit. we keep it with the things that make us beautiful but have nothing to do with what we look like or how we dress or how poofy our hair is.

i did this play reading a few weeks ago that dealt with the idea of women and beauty and what a complicated issue it is--the expectations made of and on a beautiful woman and the danger of identifying too closely with what we look like.

a play reading is one of the ways in which a playwright is able to work on a new play--iron out kinks and identify holes and get it to a place where it's finished. and so some of the audience feedback was that the contemporary woman in the show--her obsession with what she looked like and her fear of losing her beauty was too small, too unimportant to be dramatized in a play.

but i said to jessica (the playwright): i don't think it is a small problem. it is a question of worth--of a woman's worth. and is there anything larger than that? of am i worthy of love? of courage? of motherhood?--those are big, big questions.

the thing is, beauty is the language in which we speak. we wonder if we are beautiful enough, which is really a question of are we worth enough? but we have been trained and conditioned to think of that in terms of what we look like. we insult other people by saying well she's a cow which while she may very well be fat, what has that to do with anything? what we mean is she's a bitch, but we say she's fat, as if fat explains the bitchiness--as if fat is the insult or even the real problem. when really, no, she's just a bitch (because let's be honest, some people are).

this is all to say, i as much as anyone enjoy dressing up and taking care of my skin and applying makeup--these things send signals about how much i value myself. and that's important. but how much i value myself isn't dependent on these things.

i like licorice and will keep it in my pockets if the mood strikes. i've got a really strong arm and can throw a baseball pretty damn far. i make a mean morning latte and can shimmy a night away with the best of them (maybe not as well, but i'll try nonetheless). these things give me worth. these things add meaning and value to my life. these are the things that when i step out of the shower and look at myself--no makeup in sight, no voluminous hair--i not only think i am beautiful, i feel beautiful.