I was watching something while folding laundry yesterday and there was this commercial for the Dove campaign for real beauty. I like this campaign; I don’t like Dove products, as I’d prefer products that do less damage to the earth, but if I were going to buy commercial soaps and creams, I would probably by Dove products, simply due to this campaign.

Many women grow up and continue as adults feeling inadequate in terms of their bodies or faces. We speak today about the constant onslaught of the media, the airbrushing, the dangerous eating disorders, etc., but while these particular attacks on our self-esteem are new, the issue is as old as gender-based division of labor.

As far as I know, we are one of the few species where female “plumage” is expected to outshine male plumage. It’s yet another aspect of women being all things to all people.

Later, I went to a meeting at my son’s school. We saw a young woman there, a good friend of my son’s, of whom I’m very fond. She’s one of the most high energy people I know, but she’s not giggly or flighty. She works her tail off, takes the hardest classes regardless of how she’ll perform, because she just “likes to *really* learn new things”, and she has a huge group of people who truly admire her and enjoy her. She’s far, far more popular than she realizes.

I asked her mom how their summer had gone. She told me, to my surprise, that her daughter had had surgery.

“Really? What for?”

I know this young woman has some congenital health issues, and I was concerned.

It was for correction of cleft palate surgery that she received when she was young. I noticed that this young woman looked different, but the difference hadn’t really registered. When she fills my mind’s eye, she’s just beautiful – she has luminous eyes, beautiful hair and a strong, lovely body that is never still. She exudes health, strength and her amazing personality. And I happen to know that a fair number of young men (and possibly women) were already perfectly smitten with her pre-surgery.

Her mom explained that the surgery became really essential to her daughter. Apparently, her daughter had felt “less than” due to the still-visible cleft palate. The whole surgery issue was huge for her mother, who’d always seen her daughter as others tend to, and her daughter, being more of an active, roughhousing kind of girl, had never seemed overly concerned with her appearance.  Her mother told me that, much to her amazement, her daughter was now more bubbly and happy than she’s ever been. Her new face was really important to her.

For me, it will take some getting used to. I’ll comment the next time I see her – I wasn’t prepared the other night.

Thinking of her situation while doing yoga this morning, I thought of my own reactions to my inadequacies at her age. I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, and while I was generally within normal weight ranges with a few, brief dips into overweight, I’ve always felt “fat”.  In high school, past mid-Freshman year (the last of my “dips”) I maintained a classic 24″-36″-24″ frame and while I didn’t have the greatest legs, I was deemed pretty attractive.

I was from a family, though, with parents who had started off from working class Boston and Jersey City and in the atmosphere of shimmering Manhattan, they were of the school of “you can never be too thin or too rich”.  While they weren’t real advocates of the latter (being long-term Leftists) the thin mantra was huge in our house.  My father, particularly, scrutinized every bite that went into my mouth.  He even maintained that my drinking ice water at a restaurant before the meal was served would expand my stomach and as a result, I’d eat more than I should.

Not only did this start an unhealthy relationship with food, but with men, as well.  As soon as I discovered my power over boys my own age, I was keen to exploit it.  I wasn’t particularly promiscuous – I was actually quite frightened of touch and deathly afraid of getting pregnant – but I was definitely a serial monogamist, and the more boyfriends, the better.

Also, due to other issues in my childhood, I always went after the guys who were the oddballs, the shy ones, those who probably didn’t have a chance in hell of being noticed by girls.  So, um, yeah, I usually succeeded when I set my sights on someone.

And now?

Now, I wonder what possessed me to enter into these casual, two-week drama games.  Most of the guys were social isolates for a reason.  Generally, we had nothing in common other than low self-esteem.  This is not to say that I didn’t have some longer, satisfying relationships along the way, and I certainly slowed down and found more appropriate partners as I grew more mature.  But now I can’t really imagine how my 13- through 15-year-old self made some of the choices that she did, and I wish I could tell her to “buck up” and let her know how many fabulous qualities she actually had had.

Our girls (and boys, to a lesser extent) are hit with enormous pressure to look “just right”.  Girls as young as 12 are asking for botox treatments.

Where are you with the whole beauty thing?

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11 Responses to Beauty

  1. Susan says:

    It’s a complicated issue for me, as well. (I had absolutely nothing to complain about, btw, personally.) But my friend & mentor in academia never had the surgery (the extra wasn’t available until much later) & she was sorry about it. We talked about it once, & in a vino veritas moment, she told me that there was no virtue in not having such surgeries if available. She was annoyed by the whole ‘don’t do that…you’re beautiful already.” As she said, “They didn’t have a cleft palate. How dare they?!”

    She’s exudes confidence, is well known, etc. That doesn’t matter when once in awhile she looks in the mirror & wishes for something more aesthetically pleasing. (Those are her words.) She was gifted with brilliance, fabulous personality, & many other attributes & that helped her get on with it. (She thinks that, too.) I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with wanting to look better. That doesn’t mean I think Botox (for cosmetic reasons…I’m about to have some, maybe, for medical reasons…it is used for spasms, etc.) for kids is acceptable. But I’m at an age when a few friends are having little bits done here & there. My younger self would’ve indicted them (silently); now, I say ‘whatever you need to do.’

    As for the other stuff, dysmorphia, mothers, etc. I shall return when more coherent. (Caffeine levels low:)

    • You bring up some excellent points. There is remarkable surgery now for cleft palate – maybe your friend should re-open that issue if it’s still important to her. I don’t think I would have counseled this young woman one way or another – I was just surprised how it had affected her, because she buried her feelings successfully prior to this. I just never considered it to be an “issue” when I looked at her.

      I know botox can be a medical lifesaver and they’re finding new uses for it.

      I would also be inclined to say, “whatever you need to do” to older friends or any friends, but I guess I still wonder what makes us feel we “need” to do anything.

  2. April says:

    These are issues that will be on my mind more and more as my daughters are coming of age. The other morning, I was trying to get Sylvia to hurry up so we could go and said, “your hair doesn’t have to be perfect.” That child whipped her head around like it wasn’t attached to anything, gave me a Rosemary’s baby look and said, “YES, IT DOES!” She has friends telling her to straighten it every day, and mainly because of her peers, has become obsessed with her hair. But I’m concerned if I try to fight it too much, it will come across as “moms are clueless.” And I vaguely recall there was a time when I actually cared what my hair looked like, too! So I can’t fault her for having a few insecurity issues; she’s right on track developmentally!
    When it comes to the cleft palate, I can understand where the mom is coming from. And if she is happier and feels more confident, then I think it’s great that her mom supported her in this. To feel insecure and then to feel unsupported by your parents…that can be too much. With the confidence and support, our daughters have a much better chance, I believe, of discovering that they are beautiful, from the inside out.

    • I may not have been clear here – I have no issues with her decision to get surgery – and neither did her mother – it’s just we were both surprised by the girl’s request, as this seemingly came out of nowhere earlier in the summer.

      And yes, I certainly had those issues about hair and EVERYTHING at that age. I wonder, though, how much is biological and how much is societal? I guess that’s part of what I’m trying to figure out.

      • April says:

        I think maybe the actual issues are societal, but the need to fit in is biological. For boys, this can mean skateboarding or being the best football player, but for girls, it means being considered conventionally pretty. Which, yes, is a shame, and I don’t want Sylvia (or any girl) to get too caught up in her looks. But it’s a fine line we walk as parents to try and figure out how to get that across without dismissing those very real feelings of wanting to fit in.

  3. I have and always have had, and possibly always will have body-issues. I think the American attitude towards beauty is poisonous. Part of the reason I want to have all sons is because I dread seeing a daughter struggle with who she is because of societally induced prescriptions of beauty.

    • Ah… but with sons there are different societal expectations. In those cases, there are behavior expectations and the wonderful “sports” thing.

      But I completely agree with you about the American attitude towards beauty.

  4. maggie says:

    Plenty of body issues here as well, and it’s probably a good thing that time, money, and fear of the knife prevent me from pursuing every idea that’s crossed my mind. Well, that, and the brief experience when I was younger that wearing the right clothing size didn’t automatically bring happiness/success along with it. Accutane, though, changed my life. Interesting post, interesting questions…

    • Maggie – thanks so much for stopping by!

      It’s been a good thing for me, too, that I’m scared of the knife, in addition to time and money issues in terms of “fixing” myself.

      The comments on accutane are interesting, too. This has become a matter of course for so many, and I know I used more than my share of clearasil in the pre-accutane days.

  5. goofball says:

    I’m currently mostly frustrated by hormonal outbursts of acne & greasy looking hear. Damn, I’m tired off looking like a teenager

  6. jeanie says:

    I grew up with people who had weight problems. Or, at least, my mom did. Did my first diet at eight when I allotted myself four pieces of Halloween candy a day. At my junior prom, I ate lettuce from the salad bar. No dressing, nothing. My senior year boyfriend gave me a heart-shaped valentines day box filled with diced red and green peppers and carrots. ALWAYS a struggle. And how I’d kill to be that overweight kid these days, some 40 pounds later.

    Rick pushes me like a crazy person to exercise more, and I know he’s right. He’s an exercise fanatic — you don’t ride 6,000 miles a year on a bike if you aren’t. But he told me (and I want to believe him; I THINK I believe him) that it’s not for aesthetics. He worries about my weight because it will shorten our time together most likely. I still hate to exercise and will find any excuse to avoid it. But when I think of it in those terms, it becomes a bit more palatable. Surely, he could have dumped me for a svelter model long ago, but he doesn’t. SO, I think healthy (between my curse words at the gym) and try to remember that is what matters most!

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