Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Beauty is our ugly little secret


I'm not a big fan of romantic comedies or "chick flicks," but one I have enjoyed enough to watch multiple times is John Tucker Must Die. The movie's protagonist is Kate, a high schooler who's grown up watching her serial dater mom jump from guy to guy, only to pack up and move both of them to a new city once the relationship inevitably sours. Needless to say, Kate's a bit jaded -- not just when it comes to dating, but her own self-esteem. She's insecure and prefers not to draw attention to herself, presuming that the students at her various new schools only see her as the unimportant new girl, if they even notice her at all.
Everything changes, of course, when Kate meets John Tucker, the heartbreaker of her newest school. When all four of his girlfriends (that's right, four) accidentally find out about one another, Kate agrees to help them get revenge on John. The plan? She'll get him to fall for her, then mercilessly dump him, breaking his heart just like he breaks hearts on a regular basis.
As much as I love this movie, there's one thing I couldn't help but notice that sort of bugs me about movies in general. Kate, the self-proclaimed invisible girl, never before worthy of male attention, is actually very attractive. When John's exes team up to make her over, all they really do is straighten her hair. She goes from being a pretty wallflower to a slightly more pretty wallflower with different hair.

It's not exactly a secret that the majority of film and television actors are attractive (including Brittany Snow, who plays Kate). And whether we want to admit it or not, most of us, regardless of our own looks, would rather see an attractive person play a character who is supposed to be unattractive than see an unattractive person on screen at all. No matter how many Beauty and the Beast retellings we get, no matter how many times we hear "don't judge a book by its cover" or "it's what's on the inside that counts," our brains are wired to only accept things that we see as beautiful.

I recently read a book called THE REPLACEMENT (which, on a side note, is really good and should be read by anyone who likes dark fantasy). The book takes place in a small town called Gentry, which seems normal enough on the surface: Kids go to school, parents go to work, and everyone comes home at night to their nice little houses with the white picket fences. But Gentry has a dirty little secret: Underneath the town is another whole world, a secret society of creatures that steal one of Gentry's children once every seven years for a ritual sacrifice, replacing them with their own creatures, who aren't used to a life above ground and usually die rather quickly. Because their children are replaced, even though they're clearly not the same children and they almost always die young, the residents of Gentry are content to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is going on. When a child dies, it's an unfortunate tragedy. They know that these children aren't really theirs, but they're so afraid to challenge these creatures that snatch their children that they go on with life, pretending nothing is wrong while their children are being snatched and murdered.

I guess I wanted to blog about beauty because it's sort of like our culture's version of Gentry and their changeling children. We pretend that looks don't matter, that our daily lives aren't affected by them at all. But they are. So, so much.

When I was in junior high, I was the most socially awkward, self-conscious, nerdy wallflower you could meet. Instead of being tormented by the proverbial populars, I was mostly ignored. I tried to dress nice and look good, but somehow I just couldn't manage to be confident in my appearance. Instead, I focused most of my attention on reading, homework, band (yeah, I was a band nerd) and spending time with the friends and acquaintances who did enjoy my company.

In high school, things started to look up. I switched schools the summer before freshman year -- the perfect chance to start over. I didn't transform into a social butterfly overnight, and I was never anywhere near most popular. But I did start to transition out of my awkward phase and become more confident in my appearance. I also joined more school activities, which helped me connect with people I had things in common with and make a lot of good friends. I wasn't ultra gorgeous -- never have been, never will be -- and I had plenty of days where I just wanted to crawl into a hole. But I was much happier, both with my appearance and life in general.

It's still a struggle sometimes. For the most part, I'm relatively okay with the way I look. Some days I feel like a million bucks. Other days I'm afraid people will mistake me for Elmer Fudd. But I think that's normal.

For most girls (and I'd imagine for a lot of guys too, but I'm not a guy and won't even pretend to be an expert on them), our self-worth is based an awful lot on our looks. There are a lot of other determining factors -- our jobs, how much money we make, how much people like us, etc. None of these things, of course, should matter one iota when it comes to determining our value as human beings. But sometimes it feels like they do. And for me, looks are the hardest to deal with. As a girl, one of my worst fears is having someone tell me I'm unattractive, or finding out that someone thinks that. It's never happened, but I don't know if I'd be able to handle myself if it did.

Looks are important. They're not the most important thing in the world, but they do matter. There are all sorts of studies that suggest that attractive people get better jobs or can get away with crimes easier or are presumed to be generally good people. They may be mostly true or partially true or complete BS, but they're out there for anyone to see. Every time I go out in public feeling like I'm not looking my best or I get another rejection letter or just get ignored or feel put down in general, that little nagging voice in the back of my mind starts running its mouth:

"You're never going to be good enough. Nobody pays you any attention and you'll never get anywhere in life because you're ugly."

And then there are the inspirational sayings designed to make us feel better: "All women are beautiful." "It's what's on the inside that counts." "If you believe you're beautiful, others will too."

But when it comes to us talking about our own looks, it's a lose-lose situation. If you claim to think you're ugly, people think you're whiny or fishing for compliments. If you claim to think you're attractive, they think you're vain or arrogant.

Looks have always mattered, regardless of time period or culture. Good or bad, it's just the way things are. And I'd be willing to bet money that someone will see this blog and send me a message saying, "But Mary, you're beautiful!" Or maybe someone will send me a message saying, "Mary, you're hideous and you should just learn to live with it. Best not to waste your time getting your hopes up that you'll ever be attractive or get anywhere in life." When it comes to my own beauty, I'd rather nobody tell me anything. If you tell me I'm pretty, I'm going to think you're just being nice, and if you tell me I'm ugly, I'll think you're being unnecessarily harsh.

I guess the beauty really does come from within.

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