Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
If someone asked me to describe myself critically I would say I am 5’3″ on a good day, overweight bordering on clinically obese – but I carry it pretty well and so mostly just look very curvy and pudgy, I have brown eyes, a nice smile, and more or less dark hair depending on what I’ve done with it chemically recently. I have what most people agree is a pleasant sounding voice. If someone pushed (which mostly, no one does anymore although I remember a point when people actually did ask), I would offer that I’m kinda cute, but not classically pretty in the face.
I have self-image issues.
The rest of the world does not see me that way. If they are my friends they are not viewing me critically, they are viewing me as their friend. If they are not my friends, most people still don’t view each other critically (meaning analytically), although they might view judgmentally. Some people tell me I’m pretty.
I have a hard time with compliments, but I’m getting better at just saying thank you, even when I disagree. That’s because a) the basis on which we consider each other attractive is incredibly subjective and b) I don’t wish to call someone a liar.
That sounds extreme, but I finally had an acquaintance (who is now a friend) point it out that way: “If I say ‘you look pretty today’ it means I think you look pretty today. When you deflect or thank me but disagree, or just outright disagree, you’re effectively calling me a liar – it feels to me like you are telling me I am lying to you.”
And suddenly, a lot of things clicked for me. Why I get grouchy when a friend or acquaintance flips a compliment I’ve given them. It feels like they don’t credit me with the intelligence of knowing what I think looks nice. Like they are calling me a liar or stupid.
I know what “classic beauty” looks like. I’ve been watching television and movies and reading magazines for most of my life. (And besides, the “classic beauty” scale varies so much over time.) If I was trying to say, “Wow, Joyce looks like Marilyn Monroe, she’s gorgeous!” I would say that. Instead, I say, “Joyce looks so beautiful today!” And in general, I mean Joyce looks beautiful in comparison to Joyce on any other day.
On the other hand, I have friends who are trying to take back agency from a world that doesn’t recognize women’s worth except in terms of societal beauty concepts. They choose to call themselves things that we as a Western society have termed “bad”. Fat. Ugly. Scarred. Damaged.
I don’t see those things as mutually exclusive, but these friends do. So I find myself in a personal frustration loop. Because to me, those friends are fat AND beautiful. Not classically beautiful (re: ugly) AND gorgeous. Scarred, damaged AND perfect. And yet, I want to respect their need to own a thing they know as true about themselves and not appear to be arguing or contradicting them – even as it feels like they are arguing and contradicting me about my perception of them.
To me, attraction fluctuates depending on what I know about you. Almost everyone starts out in my head as an acceptable level of attractive/pretty/handsome. The more I like you as a person – the more I respect you, find you interesting, want to subscribe to your magazine – the more attractive/beautiful you become. This means I will notice that your green eyes have flecks of gold and brown in them. I will hear how your voice inflects when you are talking about your lover, your child, your pet. I will learn how your hair curls when it needs cut. Conversely, the less I enjoy time with you – the more I learn that you are bigoted, mean, cruel to children and puppies, and are a general liar and scoundrel – the less attractive you become. I will notice that the wrinkles around your eyes and lips are from stifled or not so stifled frowns. I will hear you take that tone that means you are about to share a bit of juicy gossip that no one really needs to hear. I will notice how perhaps you show a certain disregard for other people’s time, feelings or personal property.
I think some people would argue that attraction isn’t the same thing as the ugly – gorgeous spectrum scale.
For me, it is. That does not mean that I necessarily want to have sex with everyone I’m attracted to (although there are some people I’m attracted to that, yes, sex is a factor I think about), but it is still all wrapped up in a bundle. As I’ve gotten older, it’s part of what has allowed me admit to myself that I’m not particularly 100% straight. I’m much more comfortable with the idea of being with other humans in general sexually, than I would have admitted as a teen or young adult. (Although looking back, when I was a kid I saw no problem with their being two queens to rule a kingdom, or two kings, or even princes/princesses if they seemed cooler.) And I still haven’t decided what I would call myself. Bi? Pan? I understand why people want queer to be a non-determinative word.
So I wish that we could all just say “Thank you” when someone gives us a plain compliment. If someone says, “You look nice today, don’t you feel pretty?” that’s entirely different (and somewhat condescending sounding). I think as a recipient of that compliment, I’ve totally been given permission to disagree and you should have thought things out further. As it is, I try to respect what I know about my friends and I resist giving compliments to those that would think I’m lying or otherwise condescending to them.
It doesn’t stop me from thinking they’re gorgeous though.