Tom Matlack’s wife and mine are kicking some serious celebrity butt.
I’m just going to just say it. I feel sorry for gorgeous female celebrities. Why? Well, several reasons, not the least of which is because they aren’t as beautiful as Tom Matlack’s wife. Or mine.
And, having said that, I’m also feeling sorry for myself for having even attempted to write this article . Because I’m mucking around in such a catastrophic mish-mash of cultural misconceptions that I don’t even know where to start kicking my own ass. And I’m only seven sentences in. But let’s press on regardless, shall we?
Ah, “beauty?” What could be more subjective, right? We all have our own view of what is beautiful, right?
But we are also subject to our culture’s collective view of beauty. And that narrative is a powerful one, indeed, when reflected back to us 24/7 on every billboard, magazine, video screen and Special K box in the known universe. Typically, a culture’s collective view of beauty is, in fact, a direct reflection of that society’s class structure. In the middle ages, only landed gentry could afford to be well fed or could live in such a way as to have pale skin instead of sunburns from working in the fields, so beauty was pale and full figured. In post-industrial McDonald’s cheeseburger America, only the wealthy can afford a personal trainer or time to pursue a nice golden tan, so tanned and thin represents the unattainable ideal of beauty. It’s all pretty obviously tied to power and wealth and all things unattainable. Did I mention unattainable?
Which poses the question, was Helen of Troy considered to be more beautiful than the rest because of how she looked, or because two powerful kings started a twenty year war over her? Are certain physical characteristics deemed beautiful because the rich and powerful media outlets tell us that they are? And we all fall in line in agreement? Suddenly, we find ourselves wanting to date someone because they fit an external criteria that isn’t even all that central to our own definition of beauty. Remember, men and women will often date someone for the presumed effect they have on others…right? Arm candy? Status wife? Are we all chasing some narrow and ultimately unsatisfying Madison Avenue version of love?
And how bloody long does it take to figure this out?
Now, I am not a beautiful woman myself, nor have I played one on TV. But I feel empowered to speak to this issue in part because of the innumerable times I have contributed to the interpersonal shitstorm that results when this “Madison Avenue Approved” beautiful women appears. In my youth, I have made the awkward drunken passes (because, in my youth, I couldn’t possibly approach a “beautiful” woman sober). As a twenty-something, I dated “beautiful” woman and then crashed and burned into a steaming pile of self-loathing and insecurity, pleading with them not to take the nearest exit even as I set the theater on fire.
Even in later years, I have stuttered and stumbled and seized up like an engine block full of sugar just because the check-out person was a passable ringer for Tyra Banks. I have done all these things and much more, and I have no doubt created thousands of awkward moments for women who’s only crime is that they are attractive. Now multiply my actions with the current population of hyper-sexualized young men and women on the planet and you see the problem. Just picture the screaming young girls who are going nuts at your local Justin Bieber concert. Why Justin Bieber? Can it really be marketing?
The fact is, young people take in these weirdly narrow ideals of beauty hook, line, and sinker and internalize them to the point that they risk years of debilitatingly low self esteem. Which is terribly sad, because it takes so long to cast off these narrow mass media views of beauty and take ownership of the richer and more diverse expressions of beauty we see staring back at us from our own mirrors.
Yet, somewhere back along the way, I was FINALLY able to let go of that narrow imposed view of beauty and dramatically expand what beauty can be in my life. How it can manifest from my own ideas instead of ideas imposed from outside. And the moment that happened, something shifted for me. Now, I count myself among the non-Tyra-Banks-impaired. (No offense to Ms. Banks.)
And yet, all around us, the battle continues. Each time I see Angelina Jolie being pilloried yet again by the tabloids, I despair for us all. This woman readers are being encouraged to judge harshly, is clearly a decent and thoughtful person. I’m horrified by the combination of media-fueled obsession and simmering resentment that typifies our culture’s response to beauty and fame. Because no sooner does one part of the mass media elevate a woman as a celebrity sex symbol then another part begins tearing her down. It’s a nearly simultaneous construction/demolition process that reflects decades of cynical packaging and marketing of sex and beauty. Like their nasty reality TV counterparts on the more pestilent backwater cable networks, celebrity tabloids invite us to judge and condemn our supposed betters—holding no sympathy or empathy, seeking no sense of what we all have in common. No, this is an invitation to us to condemn, judge and dismiss. As if we’re not getting enough of that in the House of Representatives.
Why are we so nasty towards our celebrities? Clearly, we resent the narrow definition of beauty they have come to represent. A definition that excludes 99% of us. We are not the right shape, or size, or color… Empowering those narrow ideals forces us to buy into self-alienating narratives of beauty. Our collective cultural choices about beauty have been hijacked for cynical commercial purposes, splitting beauty into “them” (beautiful/rich) and “us” (ugly/poor). The fact is, both the range of physical traits AND the actions required for someone to be defined as beautiful in our culture have gone way off the rails. Thin has never been a mandatory prerequisite for beauty, I don’t care what Cosmo Magazine’s last 2000 covers say. Furthermore, if beauty is a marker for lasting lifelong love then, by extension, one’s actions must be understood to inform one’s beauty not the other way around.
If we leave the definition of beauty in the hands of the mass media, we will get back a cynically narrow and therefore, badly distorted view of it. The repercussions of which reach down into our schoolrooms and our bedrooms; into the lives of our children and our selves. It’s not that these images of beauty are false. They are simply too narrow, excluding the much wider range of passion inspiring fantasies and images that can, in turn, empower the vast variety of human beings who come in all shapes and colors.
The fact is, everyone is beautiful. And I mean, Lauren Bacall, “You know how to whistle don’t you?” beautiful. There isn’t a man or women in the world who doesn’t have their moments of divinity. That moment when the light hits them a certain way. That moment when their courage or kindness sets them apart from all others.
Unless we teach our children (and ourselves) how to see and value much wider expressions and ways of beauty, and unless we encourage them to communicate who they are in the world, we leave them with little choice but to mimic what is being sold to them by the mass media.
The narratives we need to encourage in ourselves are not hard to figure out.
1) Everyone has their own special range of beauty. Look and you will see.
2) An honest and open relationship is deeply erotic thing.
3) No one else in the world has what you have. Don’t hide it.
No matter how beautiful a man or woman is deemed to be, we humans inevitably lose interest if the surface is all we are focusing on. So if we, in our internal dialogues, continue elevating one pretty face after another to the pantheon of the ideal, in lock step with the mass media, we miss the beauty in our sweet children and darling spouses because we are not opening our eyes to the rich and diverse markers of beauty in our own lives.
But here’s the good news. And it brings us back to Tom Matlack’s wife and mine. (Never mind the fact that my wife likes to joke that I’m the wife in the arrangement…) Tom recently penned an article for the New York Times that declared his wife to be the “most beautiful woman on this planet.” Well done, sir! I commend you on your absolute commitment to the truth!
In response, Joanna Schroeder noted:
But I believe [Tom]. Not because I think that his wife, Elena, is objectively the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s lovely, of course, but the reason I believe him is because my husband feels the same way about me.
And for the record, I feel the same about Saliha. So, how, in a world of seemingly endless super models, have Elena, Joanna and Saliha each become the most beautiful woman in the world? Well, I can’t speak for Joanna’s husband or for Tom, but I have a simple explanation for my own good fortune. I finally decided to open my eyes to what is truly meaningful and beautiful for me in the world, and there she stood.
I suspect they did the same.