We put a lot of stock in beauty. We really do. And then we try to tell people that it’s not important, that beauty is only skin-deep, and we ought not to be so concerned with it. Right before the commercial break in which purveyors hawk creams and serums to make us look ten years younger, and make-up guaranteed to make our complexions flawless, and fool-proof diet plans, and all manner of surgical procedures designed to correct whatever we don’t like about ourselves.
Yeah. well first of all, the big secret to that is that no amount of surgery will ever fix what you don’t like about yourself. If you don’t like something about yourself, it’s not really your nose or your breasts or your buttocks. It’s way deeper than that, and surgery isn’t what’s going to fix it.
Let’s fess up – visual attraction counts for something. But we’ve gotten out of control. Really out of control.
Fox (of course it what Fox) Network had a so-called reality show called “The Swan” in 2004 in which they took women whom they judged to be ugly (by what right?!) and gave them extreme make-overs involving plastic surgery. Part of the show was encouraging their close friends and relations to say what it was they didn’t like about these women – what things needed to be improved. Nice, right? Well, one of the women ended up committing suicide as a result.
I’m not saying Fox killed her. Suicide is still a choice, and clearly there were problems before, but certainly the show contributed to this woman’s troubles. How does anyone encourage people to say what they don’t like about a person? What a horrible thing to do. You’re not good enough because you’re not pretty? Wow.
And why “The Swan”? Well, you probably know the story of “The Ugly Duckling.” You know the one, where one of the ducklings doesn’t look like the others, so it’s called “ugly” but eventually it grows up to be a beautiful, graceful, swan.
Here’s the thing about swans, though. First of all, cygnets (those are baby swans) aren’t ugly. They’re adorable. What they aren’t is ducklings. And they don’t look like ducklings. Which are also adorable. But of course, in our human culture, if you don’t fit in, if you’re different, that’s WRONG. That’s ugly.
I learned this lesson when I was VERY young. Rather, I rebelled against this lesson when I was very young. The message was coming through loud and clear from t.v. Beauty was young, white, blonde and blue-eyed. Now, growing up in New York City in the 1960’s, I knew well that everyone didn’t look like what I saw on t.v. Heck, I didn’t look like that. But message received. One of my mother’s high school students was babysitting for me, and I thought she was quite beautiful. My father must have thought so, too, because he did a portrait of her (my dad was a photographer as well as a teacher). She was also black. I remember telling her, in the only way I knew how, “[Babysitter], you’re pretty even though your skin isn’t this color” (pointing to my own arm). It wasn’t my standard of beauty I was trying to tell her that I was rebelling against, it was the one I saw on t.v. I hope she understood that. It was the most eloquence I could muster at that age.
Beauty – physical beauty – comes in many forms. And it is always in the eye of the beholder. There is a glamour portrait of me in my bedroom. When I say glamour shot – I didn’t look this good at my wedding. I was a lot thinner then, too. It was taken 18 years ago. After my husband died, some of my girls came over along with one of my grandsons to help pick out some clothes to take to the funeral home. One of my daughters said to her son, “Is that sassy Grandma?” And Grandson answered, “No, that’s just Grandma.” OK, he’s only three, so he’s not jockeying for the best portion in my will. No, he’s just seeing me. In the photo and in person. He’s seeing past the make-up and the jewelry and the hair, and he sees me. That’s what it means to have beauty in the eye of the beholder. I look the same to him. All the time. I love that kid.
Here’s another thing about swans. They’re mean. Well, they’re mean to people, anyway. As far as actual swans go, I’m not making a value judgement. Swans are what they are. They’re beautiful, but that doesn’t make them safe, or wonderful pets, or delightful to be around, other than for looking at. But I’ve noticed that the privilege of beauty can sometimes have this effect on people, too.
I’m not saying that every person who conforms to societal norms of beauty is a mean person. I am saying, though, that I’ve come across plenty of people who’ve become accustomed to the privilege they’ve received from being outwardly beautiful, and this had made them inwardly quite ugly. People who think they’re entitled to call other people fat or ugly. People who have actually claimed that they deserve better service because they’re pretty.
Perhaps it would do for us to remember that, for all their beauty, this didn’t stop people from eating swans throughout history. In the choral work “Carmina Burana” there is a piece that’s sung by a swan on a spit, in fact. It’s a little creepy, sure. But it’s a good reminder that physical beauty isn’t an impenetrable shield.
So the new year is upon us. It’s a duckling. Or a cygnet. Or, you know, just a new year. Full of possibilities. Of course, every day is a new year from the year before. What will awaken in your new year? Where will you find beauty?
That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.