debbie millman

Friday, March 24, 2006

Commentary: Eye of the Beholder

Many years ago I dated a man that was incredibly handsome. Kevin was so good looking that I often felt dull in comparison and tried to compensate by wearing especially pretty clothes and taking extra care with my make-up and accessories. One day, after several months together, we went strolling through Soho, holding hands and window-shopping. After several hours of bumming around, we stopped in a sidewalk café. We sat outside in the sunlight and watched as people went by and wondered out loud what their lives were about, who they lived with, what kind of music they listened to, what their names were. As we were about to get the check, a very tall, pale, heavyset woman walked by in Birkenstocks and cargo pants. Her hair was unbrushed, she didn’t have on a trace of make-up, and she was wearing a gigantic, slightly dirty, fleecey jacket. When she saw us her eyes lit up and she rushed over. Kevin jumped up and ran to meet her, and they hugged and kissed hello. He brought her over to meet me and introduced us: she was Kathleen, his ex-girlfriend. She held out her hand warmly, and graciously said hello. I kept my shock at bay, but after she walked away I told Kevin that meeting Kathleen had surprised me. He asked why. I replied that when he had first told me about her, I just assumed that she was stunningly beautiful; I thought she must be, given how good looking he was. When I told Kevin this, he looked completely astonished. And I’ll never forget what he said next. He told me that she was stunningly beautiful; that she had one of the most incredible faces he had ever seen. In fact, he thought she was gorgeous. I was shocked, and suddenly felt like a silly little kewpie-doll in comparison.

Beauty is a strangely obsessive concept in our culture. We live in a day and age wherein there are more people undergoing plastic surgery than ever before, and there is no part of the body that can’t be refurbished and remade. I even read recently there is a reconstructive service now available called vaginal rejuvenation. And I will never forget seeing an episode in the UK of an extreme makeover show that featured anal bleaching. I think I can safely say that we have reached a tipping point in our efforts to recreate who we are by recreating how we look.

Beauty is also an incredibly subjective experience. From a cultural perspective, what is beautiful in one culture may be considered ugly or even grotesque in another. Last week I watched the movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ with my dear friend Cheryl Swanson. Cheryl is a brand strategist, a trend forecaster, color analyst and design consultant. We watched the film together, and observed a woman’s journey in becoming a Geisha (which means ‘artist’ in Japan.) We were struck by what was considered beautiful in the Japanese culture at that time: white painted faces, red-stained lips, charcoal darkened eyebrows, tabi socks and geta sandals. Sexy was the briefest glance of a “naked” wrist. We couldn’t help compare this to what is considered conventionally beautiful in American culture today: the modern day Daisy May/Barbie Doll looks of a Jessica Simpson or the pornographic version of the same embodied by Pamela Anderson. Cheryl and I could not find one modicum of beauty in either woman and we shook our heads in wonder as pondered how a) George Bush could even consider inviting Jessica Simpson to the White House and b) if she even knew what the word “politicizing” meant. After all, this is the same woman who thought that the Chicken of the Sea tuna brand was actually chicken. Then again, George Bush did think that he really was going to find weapons of mass destruction. Maybe these two are perfectly suited to each other.

Every culture has its own pre-conceived parameters in place for what a woman “should” look like: many Islamic women are restricted to wearing burka. Indian women adorn their sari’s and their beautiful bindi, the Zoë tribe in Africa have wood planks put through their bottom lip when they become teenagers, and, of course Americans make their breasts bigger, their thighs, noses and tummies smaller, their nails colorful and their hair blonde. All in the name of what? Social confidence? Peer approval? A sense of belonging?

Now more than ever, the idea of what is “aesthetically enviable” has changed. It was only a few years ago that urban kids in Manhattan were shooting each other over a pair of Levi’s. Now that same pair of jeans is featured on a business magazine accompanied by the headline, “How Levi’s trashed a great American brand.” We now live in a media age wherein what we engage with or utilize in order to feel beautiful changes in milli-seconds.

Last week, as I was racing through an airport, I saw a very pretty young girl of about 8 or 9 years old. She was walking towards me carrying her luggage, and I could see a small doll head bobbing out of the backpack behind her. Both the girl and the doll had the exact same color hair: a flaxen blonde. I was struck by the identical hair color (and hair style, both doll and girl had a long, swinging pony tail) and I couldn’t help but slow down to look both at the girl in front of me and, as she passed me by, the doll bobbing behind her. When I got a good look at the doll I realized it was a carbon copy of the real girl, just a smaller version. This made me feel a bit odd--this forced mimicry of sorts--when suddenly it made me smile. It occurred to me that women have tried to look like Barbie Dolls for decades; now a girl had a doll that was made to look like her. This reversal of roles felt empowering, and I hoped that this exchange of aesthetics could extend beyond pretty little girls, and include every type of beauty: the conventional, the unconventional, the hidden, the incongruous and the subjective. Today I want to feel optimistic that maybe one day, anyone who wants to feel beautiful can; that beauty will be measured by the virtue of who we are rather than what we look like.


Anonymous marc said...

beauty measured by virtue? i suppose the wheat would separate from the chaff much sooner, but think we may well be starved from lack of wheat. lack of substance fills both the 'beautiful' and those less so. my optimism for the day when beauty=virtue hardly measures up to yours, as beauty has been a guide since mankind first began decision making.

i performed a hindu/anglican wedding the other day. the beauty of the women in full regalia (the men too) was quite wonderful. no doubt there are many who would have thought likewise. but equally so, there are many who would have not seen the beauty, stopping short at skin color alone.

i was married to a woman i once found beautiful. others did too. today, many years later, the beauty is long gone, and saddly the virtue was never there. so i'd rather not hold my breathe and wait for beauty to come around, but would rather hold out that maybe virtue will see its way to the fore.

3/28/2006 04:26:00 PM  

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