I like compliments as much as the next person, but I can’t stand being reassured that I look good or am pretty. It implies that’s my looks are something I should be worrying about; if I made a list of things that make me anxious in this life, it would not include my looks.
But people are conditioned to worry about a woman who lacks beauty. It comes from a long history of women being allowed to offer nothing but sex appeal to men in order to receive the resources men controlled. While we haven’t yet reached gender parity, at least women of my generation grew up with the belief we needn’t exchange sex with men (in marital or other forms) for financial security. We had other options. Therefore, in theory, we shouldn’t have needed to be someone’s idea of good-looking to get by in life. And yet, people worry for those of us who aren’t supermodel types – and fail to worry about those who are the media’s idea of gorgeous, as if being beautiful guarantees a good life.
To all this I say: Bill Gates.
Let’s face it. He’s just not (conventionally) good-looking. But he is a legend in his own time, rich, respected, influential, so I doubt anyone ever wrung their hands about the fact he was never be a GQ cover boy. It sounds silly even to think of, doesn’t it?
And yet, what could I possibly do in this life that would be so important that no one would ever think it a pity I’m not also starlet material? I mean, Martha Stewart is great-looking at the worst of times and terrifically successful, and yet the tabloids have wasted more than a little ink on the subject of her occasional slight weight gain and signs of aging. I can’t even bring myself to discuss the way Hilary Clinton’s looks and sex appeal were dissected during her run for the Democrat presidential ticket, and she’s a good-looking woman. And, oh, Oprah: all those years, she was such a success, but still too fat.
When, oh when, will someone notice that despite all the many fantastic things Bill Gates has going for him, his looks aren’t great, and THEREFORE EVERYTHING SUCKS FOR HIM?
See how ridiculous it sounds when you put a man’s name in there? And yet, it’s what women face. We hear it so much that it sounds normal for someone to be ignoring everything a woman has accomplished because she’s got a wrinkle or five, or has put on seven pounds, or has adult acne. It’s what little girls become aware of, often not on a conscious level, as they contemplate someday taking over Congress, becoming president or running a top corporation: even if we do all that and look totally awesome, we will find unflattering pictures of ourselves in the “Who’s Not Hot?” section of various rags. What a thing to look forward to! Gosh, I can’t imagine why we aren’t all out there busting our asses to become something other than the next starlet.
Let’s take a look at actors, while we’re at it. Male actors can look like Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci, Don Knotts or Ron Perlman and establish solid careers and maintain loyal fanbases because we are conditioned to appreciate something deeper in men than their sexual attractiveness. But women…. pffbt. If you look up somebody’s idea of ugly actors online, for the women they list people like Rhea Pearlman, Linda Hunt and Joan Cusack. Joan Cusack? Are you kidding me? She’s a hundred times closer to the current beauty ideal than any of the men I mentioned. Linda Hunt is perhaps in the same ballpark as the men (nowhere near the beauty standard, but a memorable, fascinating face backed up by solid acting skills), but the vast majority of female character actors look more like Joan Cusack. That means, if you’re not at least as close to the beauty standard as she is, you can kiss goodbye your dreams of even a minor acting career.
This culture kindly equips men with multiple measuring sticks by which to gain esteem. Not good-looking? Then don’t go into acting, son! Go into engineering or lawyering or Congress or any of the eleventy billion careers where downright ugly men score big on a daily basis. But women have only one measuring stick, and it’s “Are you perfect at everything yet?” No matter what you accomplish in the world, it’ll be a pity if you aren’t also great-looking, and everyone will wonder why you haven’t gotten corrective cosmetic surgery to fix your lack of gorgeousness, since you obviously have the money.