So, are you beautiful, or are you merely pretty?
If you are like most women my age, your answer is, “Neither.”
Maybe I thought I was beautiful once, but I lost it somewhere along the path of maternal urgings to be modest, of Christian teachings that the meek were the ones who would inherit the earth, not the boastfully beautiful. Compliments were to be met with self-deprecating responses so I wouldn’t seem conceited.
I know my daughter thought she was extremely pretty when she was little. She would pose for herself in the mirror, beg her stepfather to take her photo. Until one day, she stared in the mirror and saw some flaw. Maybe it was a pimple; maybe it was some remnant baby fat. But it became all that she saw in her reflection. And with that transition, she joined women everywhere.
She joins a sorority of women who get a massage to deal with stress, and then find themselves worrying that the massage therapist is repulsed by the layer of fat over the muscles he’s kneading. Of women lured by the resurrection promise of a makeover, who apologize to the makeup artist for how they look. One makeup artist spoke at TED about how her clients invariably say they’re sorry for their nose, or their skin. The only ones who sit unapologetically in her chair have the kind of perspective that comes with facing down an adversary like death or cancer.
But somewhere before that showdown comes the in-between.
The aging that adds another insult to shaky self esteem. The sagging, drooping, where-the-hell-is-my-Spanx slide into un-pretty and un-young. Rare is the middle-aged woman who can stare her unmade-up face down in the mirror and say gravity be damned, she is beautiful anyway.
At best, they may say, as my friend Nikki Hardin writes, that they have a “patina,” a surface change that comes with age that’s usually considered of great value.
But the issue isn’t how we look. It’s how we see.
Another friend, author Laura Lippman, challenged her followers on Facebook to post self-portraits, un-retouched and unmade-up. She said that, after a while, the way she saw the pictures changed. It’s not that her friends were becoming more beautiful with each post, it’s that her eye had adjusted and the plain faces became plainly lovely.
This fits with a study that showed that people exposed to images of plus-sized models for only 60 seconds began to judge beauty based on those images and rated slightly larger models as ideally beautiful when asked, at least immediately after the experiment. The eye learned a different definition of beauty.
My daughter is still lovely at 24. I have no objectivity, I realize, but I am stunned at her sparkling eyes, and graceful movements. My mother, even in her deathbed at 72, left me breathless with her beauty.
As for me? I still see the flaws first when I look in the mirror, but I’m working on it. At least now, if someone compliments me, I can stop with a simple, “Thank you.”
So, I ask the question again. Are you beautiful? I hope you say yes.