A friend of mine recently put up a post on Facebook comparing the covers of two magazines, Girls’ Life and Boys’ Life.
The latter featured a banner of “EXPLORE YOUR FUTURE” while the former had catchy headlines like “Wake Up Pretty!”, “My First Kiss,” and “Your Dream Hair.”
You know, all the reasons girls work so hard to get into good colleges.
Of course this double standard is empirically appalling; girls are brainwashed almost from birth to believe that being pretty, getting kissed, and having dream hair are worthy goals. The good news is that in my observation, most little girls DO actually believe they are pretty; the bad news is that as they grow up and are exposed to photo-shopped, airbrushed, homogenized images of women, many of them lose this self-confidence.
I read this quote recently from Warsan Shire, the Kenyan born poet and writer: “It’s not my responsibility to be beautiful. I’m not alive for that purpose. My existence is not about how desirable you find me.” This is an empowered but ultimately intellectual statement about the generic “you.” Because when a woman falls in love with a man there is a period of time when her existence IS about how desirable he finds her.
Anyone who denies this has never truly fallen in love.
We can argue that beauty and desirability are not the same thing (True). We cannot argue that feeling beautiful does not enhance a woman’s sense of her desirability (that would be false). And this is where many men, even men in healthy long-term relationships, find themselves in a losing battle; no matter how often they reassure their partners that they find them beautiful, they will more often than not come up against a wall of denial.
Time and time again men find themselves in the crosshairs when they utter the phrase they have been taught women long to hear: “You look pretty today.”
The reasons for this are so insanely complicated I will have to now resort to a list:
- A mirror has “confirmed” that this is not a true statement
- The media has repeatedly and incessantly “confirmed” that this is not a true statement
- We are taught that accepting compliments is the work of raging egomaniacs
- This statement often precedes a request for sex or some favor
- People who love us cannot be trusted to tell the truth about such things
- “It’s not my responsibility to be beautiful”
- When we are feeling terrible about something else, how we look doesn’t matter.
Do I need to go on? Being told we are “pretty” is the equivalent of an emotional loaded gun for most women. Beautiful women have their feelings dismissed because apparently their genetic gifts are supposed to exempt them from the right to feel bad about anything; women who feel they do not meet the standard of beauty often resort to expensive products, extreme diet, and fitness plans and even surgery to feel “acceptable” or “desirable.”
Never mind the legions of women who have “given up” on feeling beautiful; but not in the healthy I-accept-myself-as-I-am way. More in the I-accept-that-I-have-failed-to-meet-the-standard-of-womanhood-and-therefore-do-not-deserve-love kind of way.
That’s right, men. That is just a small sampling of what you are up against when you tell a woman that she looks pretty. You are victims here, too.
And by the way, I know it is not politically correct to admit this, but the monthly fluctuations of my hormones can also seriously compromise my ability to take a compliment. Telling me I look pretty at the wrong time of the month can result in some serious consequences. Of course I speak only for myself and not for all of those women who get outraged when it is suggested that their cycle can sometimes have an impact on their moods.
My hat is off to all of you who live in a reality that is so very alternate to my own.
So this is a fine mess we have here—damned if we do want to be pretty and damned if we don’t, with men getting so many mixed signals that it’s amazing they are still in the game at all. And I haven’t even started talking about body image yet! (Don’t worry, I won’t today).
Will we ever get to a point—as a society of men and women—where we’re satisfied?
How can we sort this out as a society? I certainly know plenty of happy couples in good relationships who seem to have navigated this minefield successfully enough, so there is hope after all. And I do think parents are much, much better these days at both reinforcing a positive self-belief system in their children and de-emphasizing the need to “look” a certain way for boys and girls alike. I see kids that are much more comfortable embracing their uniqueness than most people of my generation were.
So that’s progress.
But for those of us who are still caught in the double bind between wanting to somehow meet that unattainable standard we never agreed to and wanting to feel comfortable in the skin we are in, I think there are some helpful tools available to us.
First, unless you are one of those fashion junkies (you know who you are!), please don’t look at fashion magazines with their airbrushed images. Or conversely the tabloids intent on shaming women with cellulite, etc. Absolutely no good can come of ridiculing another woman’s form.
Accept that the statement “Love is blind” is a rather cruel way of saying “Love sees true beauty”. We have all had the experience of meeting someone and perhaps making a hasty, unkind judgment about the person’s looks, only to later get to know them and in doing so begin to find them stunningly attractive. Never mind actually falling in love! When you have fallen head-over-heels, there is NOTHING that cannot be construed as beautiful, charming, alluring. Sorry, that is a FACT.
The truth is that how we look is actually a small fraction of what makes us attractive. We know it intellectually but boy, it can be challenging to remember on a bad hair day. And how do men combat the reality that “You look pretty today” has an equal chance of earning them a glare as a kiss?
First, understand that if you get a glare it has little to nothing to do with you. But also, why not be more specific? “Your hair looks great that way,” “I love the way you move in that outfit,” “That color makes your eyes sparkle.”
Something that says, I notice you, I am paying attention to your details.
Sadly I cannot GUARANTEE you won’t get a glare. But hopefully the next time you do, you will understand it and be more likely to say the words a woman truly longs to hear: “You are enough, just as you are.”
Photo: Matt Frye
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