Thursday, 12 November 2015

On Beauty

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Is beauty power?

Ally of Shybiker asked this question in a blog post a while ago. She was talking about beautiful people getting preferential treatment, and taking it for granted. It got me thinking about beauty, and what it means to me. Unlike Ally, I've never really thought about what it means to be a woman, or feminine, or what role beauty plays in my life.

I was always a girly girl, a little princess who played with her mother's jewellery and clothes and collected dolls and liked pretty dresses. I was also always told that I was pretty. And my mother of course was a really beautiful and elegant woman. And she had a twin sister who was a very beautiful and elegant woman. So, feeling beautiful was perfectly normal for me when I was a little girl. As in something I never thought about, worked at, or agonised over. It was as normal as having two legs, or learning to read. You see, it wasn't just my mother and my aunt who were beautiful: in my world every woman was beautiful. Both my mother and my aunt were hairdressers, and for as long as I can remember I saw stylish and trendy women coming and going all the time. As a result, beauty was so normal that it was ordinary.

But beauty was never a reason for preferential treatment

For starters, my mother may have been beautiful, but she certainly didn't know how to use her looks to get ahead in life (unless we count her very brief stint as a model). She was extremely shy, and suffered from poor self-esteem. She also believed that men who complimented her looks always had an ulterior motive, and taught me that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And I totally agree with her on this. To this day I have trouble taking compliments, and I always think people only compliment me because they want something from me...

So, in my mother's book, beauty was not necessarily an asset: it got you the wrong kind of attention from men and elicited envy from women. All of this never prevented her from pulling out all the stops when dressing up, of course... What can I say, the woman was full of contradictions and mixed messages...

I've never thought of myself as a beautiful woman

As I said, my mother was a very beautiful woman, in the conventional sense (symmetrical features etc), and a former small town beauty queen. This was less fun when I was 14: my classmates would say they saw me with my 'big sister', and commented on how pretty she was... which of course made me feel like the ugly duckling: the skinny 'little sister' with crazy hair, thick glasses and braces...

Of course, I had my share of male attention when I was a young woman: I don't think I had ever trouble attracting attention. But I was extremely uncomfortable with any attention that focused on my physical attributes. I particularly resented comments about my 'beautiful eyes' or being told how 'cute' I was. It's not that I didn't believe these comments, I just found them lacking in originality and an insult to my intellect. You see, I always knew I was smart, I didn't need anyone to tell me that. And it annoyed me that it wasn't immediately visible to everyone else... So, men who commented on my looks made me feel as if they tried to reduce me to just another pretty face whose opinions didn't matter.

old photos

Lucky for me, I was witty 

And I shamelessly used my verbal skills to put down any poor man who dared approach me with anything as banal as 'you're cute'. And I got very good at verbally castrating those annoying wannabe chauvinists who treated me like a piece of meat. Treat me like an airhead at your peril, that's the idea...

Maybe it's because I was so focused on being credited for my skills and talents that I never learned to use my looks to get ahead. It never even occurred to me that I could use my femininity to get preferential treatment. Sure, I've been offered a few free drinks here and there, and I've always declined. In my experience, they usually come with strings attached...

So, when it comes to using my looks to manipulate people, I wouldn't know where to begin... I mean, how does it work, exactly? Will people do things for you just because they think you're beautiful? Surely people, or men for that matter, are not stupid enough to be manipulated so easily? Or are they??? Have I missed my chance to make the most of my assets?

Well, probably not... If I tried to pull crap like that, surely people would find it pathetic? Or laughable? In any case, I don't think I could pull it off without feeling utterly ridiculous. Besides, what I really want is respect.

Yes, looks matter, but respect matters more. 

If people only see you as a pretty face, they're not really interested in your thoughts or ideas. They just want to project their own fantasies onto you. Or they treat you as a toy to play with as they please and then discard you when they lose interest.

But if people respect you, for whatever reason, then you matter. And people who matter are not discarded as last year's toy. You just don't overlook the people you respect, there would be consequences.

However, commanding respect does not mean you couldn't have charm or charisma to attract people. And neither charm nor charisma have anything to do with beauty. After all, the world is full of very beautiful people who are neither charming nor charismatic; just watch any reality show...

Anyway, I may not know how to use my femininity or looks to get ahead, but I am (slowly) learning how to be charming when it serves my purposes, but at the same time use my charm sparingly to command respect. Take work, for example: working in adult education, I try my best to charm my students by being nice (no, it doesn't come naturally; I'm really a mean bitch, not a nice girl, just ask my husband). After all, I want them to feel at ease and find the lessons pleasant. But I also want them to find me just a little bit scary: they have to respect me as an authority figure. Besides, if they find me scary, they won't be asking for special treatment and just do what they're told. And that saves everyone's time. Well, OK, mine.

beauty

Still, I want to feel beautiful (don't really know why, but it doesn't really matter), in addition to being respected. However, as far as other people's opinions on my looks go, I don't want to think about it. Of course it's nice to be considered attractive, but I don't think it does anyone any good to worry about whether they match someone else's idea of beauty or not. After all, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and you simply cannot please everyone. But everyone can still respect you, whether they think you're beautiful, or even like you, or not.

Photo Credits: my mother, Ritva L, in the early 60's. All photos from my mother's old photo album, I have no idea who the photographer is.

What do you think, which one gives you power, beauty or respect? Or both?

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11 comments

  1. Really stunning pictures! So nice to have that kind of pics of your mother.
    www.fashionandfoodandotherstuff.com

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    1. Thank you. I have lots of pictures of my mother, and she looks fantastic in all of them... She just knew how to pose. I wish I'd learned that from her, but no....

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  2. I value wit and intelligence and especially kindness, more than any physical attributes. that said, there's no doubt that being conventionally attractive is an asset in our culture. "Attractive" people make more money, and are given more social perks. Not "fair", but true. Your mother is a great beauty, I am sorry she didn't feel great about her whole self. xox

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    1. Beautifully said Patti.

      bisous
      Suzanne

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    2. Yes, kindness is important, and treating people with respect. That is my number one guideline at work: always being kind, even when I have to ask students to do more and better. But being kind also makes you vulnerable to being exploited, so it's important to set limits, too.

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  3. I'm deeply impressed at your ability to examine such personal issues and discuss them candidly. You raise fascinating points that affect all women and not just you. An essay like this is a public service.

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    1. Oh, you are so kind... I'm very good at analysing all sorts of issues, I just don't always take them seriously, especially if they're my issues...

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  4. This is such a great essay, Tiina. You bring up so many interesting things. My mother placed a lot of importance on appearance when my sister and I were growing up. It was difficult because we never felt that I could live up to her standards. I think that until quite recently looks were a woman's most important asset. Thank goodness that has changed...at least a bit. And true. We all want to look good. Even those who won't admit it. Beauty can be power, as Patti so eloquently stated. But relying on one's looks comes at a price and I think your Mother understood that. I have never ever been comfortable with my looks and have always gone out of my way to appear as though I'm not trying too hard. Because I was "cute" as a younger girl I was always afraid of not being taken seriously. Now that I'm older and I've become somewhat invisible...at least to most young people and members of the opposite sex....I find it so much easier. By the way, my dear, you are beautiful inside and out.

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    1. That's awful, feeling that you have to live up to someone else's standards, and feeling that you don't measure up. Well, I always felt that way with my father, but that was only because his 'standards' kept changing all the time. Still, it took me a long time to understand that it was his neuroses I was trying to live up to... As for my mother, she always made me feel beautiful. And I still want to look good, but I don't want to fit into anyone else's definition of beauty. I think we middle-aged women should reclaim our right to feel beautiful, and smart, and whatever else we want to be.

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  5. I totally agree with your lines that neither charm nor charisma have anything to do with beauty. Indeed there are enough very beautiful people who are neither charming nor charismatic and they don't attract. They even did research on that in the USA: hypnotised women: beautiful ones, letting them think they were ugly and "ugly" ones, letting them think they were beautiful. It will come as no surprise to you that the beautiful (hypnotised) women got nowhere, neither with men nor with women. And the "ugly" ones...did. Self confidence and inner beauty shines through the exterior.
    Now... I have to tell you off a bit Tiina. I think you are too severe on people who pay you compliments about the way you look. Sometimes people just want to be nice to you. And not every word or compliment is profound and deep. Sometimes it is just about being nice to another human being. And then it is not nice to be burried with a sharp tongue.
    For myself... I have always considered myself as ugly until I was 16. After that age I started to look around, lost the glasses etc etc. Never achieved the level of feeling beautiful, but in these last three blogging years I have come to realize I am not bad looking and I have a character which is easy in dealing with all sorts of people which I consider a big asset. Isn't it pathetic to only realize this when you are my age (I am 61 now) haha. Well better late then never.
    Greetje

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    1. Oh, rest easy, Greetje, I was only mean to men who thought they could charm me simply by complimenting me. As if it was that easy: call me pretty and I do whatever you want... But, it's also a cultural thing: Finns don't really know how to take compliments, or give them, either. We're not good at small talk; we tend to think that people mean everything they say. And I'm far better dishing out 'compliments' than accepting them. Of course, what other people take as a compliment, I meant as an honest opinion...

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