Next week, I am going on a girl’s trip to a sunny location with some great friends. Stop drooling. Before you get too green with envy, consider that instead of occupying myself with which books I’ll bring or which sundresses I’ll wear, I am instead thinking about how gorgeous my friends are compared to me. I am thinking I am no longer pretty in that singularly youthful way. What does it mean to be pretty? And does it really matter? And does anyone besides me really give a shit whether I am pretty?
Circulating on Facebook recently is a video by Dove. Yes, the beauty bar (apparently NOT soap). In it, female subjects (around my age) are drawn by a forensic artist first as described by themselves and second by someone else who had recently met them. The drawings are of their faces. Without exception, the subjects recounted their own perceived faults and inadequacies. Chubby cheeks. Mousy hair. The other person who was asked to detail the subject’s features was decidedly more focused on the positive aspects of their appearance. Lovely eyes. Shapely cheekbones. In fact, the describers were far more accurate when the artist completed his renderings. (The subject’s faces were occluded from the artist’s view). When the female subjects finally saw the finished product, you could see the heartbreak on their faces. The images were dramatically different. The describers got it right. The subjects got it wrong. Just plain wrong. And then I wondered, am I getting it wrong, too?
Earlier this month, President Obama was praising California attorney general Kamala Harris for being brilliant but in the next sentence, he called her the best looking attorney general in the nation. Whaaa? After an apology brought on rightly by protests, it’s still sobering to consider that women are still being given credit for their good looks on the same level as their accomplishments. It’s bullshit for sure, but it happens all the time. Gordon Patzer PhD, a professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, runs an institute on physical attractiveness. His website is called Looks Rule. Seriously, it is. He has spent the last 30 years researching why it does matter. Basically, his findings are that attractive people are valued more highly than others. That’s it. On a whole, they’re not happier, more organized, more interesting or smarter. Just more valued. Maybe that’s the reason that all these beautiful people are idolized who really haven’t done anything. Paris Hilton. Kim Kardashian.
They are more likely to have attention lavished on them, such as having others pick up their dropped papers while those less radiant are left to fend for themselves. More attractive candidates get elected. Less attractive students get less attention from professors. It’s no wonder we want to be pretty and attractive. You get to be liked and sought after! You get promotions! You get attention! But then… It’s must be hard to keep up that level of interest after your looks get you in the door. After all, you don’t morph into a different beautiful person every day. You are you. And don’t we all use what we have? Not everyone has supportive parents. Or lots of money. Not everyone is athletically gifted. Or endowed with a high IQ. And you can bet that those things are highly valued too. And also, what happens when your looks fade?
The reward circuits in your brain fire when you gaze upon a person, male or female, with physically attractive features. The subcortical and paralimbic parts of your brain are activated, meaning that this happens without you being aware of it and also that it effects you emotionally. So, as part of human evolution, we are programmed to be drawn to the prettiest of the species. On the whole, men are more influenced by pretty women than the other way around. And women are much more interested in being perceived as attractive. Hmm… So, here in suburbia, do pretty women have more friends? Not that I have seen. Do they have better jobs, better husbands? Sometimes, but not anywhere near statistically significant. Do they seem happier? Maybe. Do they have less worries? Definitely not.
One of my daughter’s friends asked me recently, would you rather be pretty or cool? I told her I’d like to be pretty cool. She seemed to like that answer. Women rail against the status quo, me too, but we are fighting a biological instinct. Attractiveness is a favorable attribute no matter how you slice it.
But here’s the thing.
I am pretty sometimes. When I go out, when I wear mascara, when I watch my children play, when I go on a hike with my husband. But I am loved all the time.
Have you ever known someone and at first you don’t see them as all that attractive, but as time passes, you find them more and more appealing? As you discover their absolutely infectious laugh, their eyes gleam even more. As you find out you both love Rob Lowe movies, you notice a glow about them. As you are hugged by them in your saddest times, you close your eyes and allow yourself to be surrounded by their beauty. That’s the rub. You can change your biology. You can create a pretty face when initially you didn’t see it. You can even do this for yourself. I just did.
Thanks to Barbara Paulsen at Mt. Hood Mama Photos for the pretty photos. She is really pretty, too, by the way.