I have run into several videos and articles lately involving women and aging, women and body image, and male-born transgenders transitioning into females. All of this leads to me answering a favorite question of mine: “What is beauty? What does beautiful mean?”
In one article, Rebecca Shaw writes about actress Maggie Gyllenhaal “being told that at the ripe old age of 37, she was too old (and I assume decrepit) to be cast as the love interest of a 55-year-old man. Let’s consider this: Gyllenhaal, who is already 18 years younger than the actor in question, cannot be cast as his love interest because she is too old. I really don’t believe that we stop often enough to consider how absolutely warped the world of Hollywood (and our world) must be for this to occur.”
As a man reading this story, and an old man at that, I frequently find Hollywood’s mind set hideous. It supports the cliché that female attractiveness is all about — and just about — physical youth and beauty. It entirely ignores a facet that I find at the core of human beauty: consciousness.
Beauty is not just how we look. It is how we think.
I saw another video on Facebook where signs placed over two doors in a city high-rise gave women a choice of which door to enter through. One said AVERAGE and one said BEAUTIFUL. Women were shown pondering which door to claim as theirs. The video also included some interviews with women sharing their thoughts about the choice they made. Several wanted a redo so they could enter through the door marked BEAUTIFUL.
While the video apparently intended to show people, especially women, that it was OK to claim that they are beautiful, it still left the definitions of average and beautiful up in the air. It passively hinted that beauty was a mental state.
Then there’s the much yakked-about public transformation of Bruce into Caitlyn. Much of the focus has been about the high cost of surgeries. She could easily afford it. Some have complained that with all the resources ultimately poured into the Vanity Fair photo shoot, anybody could look smashing. The focus seems to have been on the outer Caitlyn, the packaging, not the inner being. It again poses the question, albeit slightly under the radar, what makes for beauty? What makes a person beautiful?
There are countless articles now related to ranking beautiful women with headlines like “The Most Beautiful Women of All Time.” It’s immediately obvious that this is all about looks, and it doesn’t supply the criteria for the judging someone a great beauty, as if it is too obvious for consideration.
SO WHAT IS BEAUTY?
I want to say that having been raised in the American culture as a white guy, I have certain conditioned responses to beauty. As a young kid my heart throbs included Doris Day, Ann-Margret, Patty Duke (especially when she played the British twin), and after discovering my dad’s magazine stash, countless Playboy Playmates.
Yet over the years, as I discovered that physical beauty is not enough, my personal conception of beauty embraced a more wholistic approach. I noticed that some qualities that made women beautiful to me were usually not traits I saw featured in the personalities of women heralded as great beauties.
For one, I prized humor. Humor is a bonding force for me. I have little orgasms of joy when someone gets my humor. I find bliss when someone in my personal universe makes me laugh. Unfortunately, woman glorified as beautiful (in media terms) often act like Stepford wives-in-waiting. They lack the cutting edge perspective of someone who can see the human comedy in action, who can drill through pretension with laser-like precision.
I also prized empathy and compassion. I have no particular fantasy desire to melt ice queens and give my soul in love to narcissists. I am much more attracted to one who cares about the feelings and welfare of others than I am to someone who looks gorgeous yet flaunts snarky insensitivity. Beauty is the capacity to feel what I feel. Empathy makes for much better conversations.
I found curiosity and the urge to explore ideas as very attractive. Conformity addicts are not my cup of tease. People willing to step outside the box and let their imaginations run wild (especially with humor and empathy) are beautiful to me.
I find affectionate people beautiful. Smilers, cuddlers, huggers, toucher-feelers, and flirters give me joy. Often they inspire me, especially when it seems as if the world is filled with people hardened into hostility and competition. People who are generous with affection remind me of the world I would prefer to live in where people care for people.
BEAUTY IN THE MEDIA
For much of my life, I have noticed that while watching movies or TV shows (when I used to watch TV) that I was often attracted to the “character actors.” I found that they indeed had more character than the leads. They were just more fun.
In Hollywood formulas, character actors are usually not supposed to be perceived as “good looking” as the leads. They are quirkier in their appearance. In Hollywood, however, this is often less than obvious. The dialogue uttered in the show often has to inform us that we are supposed to see the person as second fiddle, not up to par.
The sidekick friend often launches more interesting lines into the story than the glamorpuss does. She often has a better sense of humor, more freedom of speech, and just plain more substance. Since she is often depicted as single, she often seems more appreciative of the love she does not have. If I were in the movie in some sort of Pleasantville fashion, I would seek her out over the star beauty.
This principle carried over into my physical life. I found myself more intrigued by women who had spicy personalities over good media looks. Yet here is the irony that lucky people discover: love literally shapes perception of how someone looks. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder because emotions shape our experience. When someone delivers an emotionally fulfilling time, it literally shapes how they appear to the perceiver.
SEX MYTH I CAN DO WITHOUT
There is an elitist cliche that when someone says that a friend has a great “personality,” It means that the person rates anywhere from homely to downright ugly. The mockery implies that personality is less important than physical beauty; that physical beauty ranks people as to how sexually desirable they are.
Too often the assumption is made that the better you look physically, the better sex you’ll have, as if physical beauty is the magic ingredient for ultimate sexual satisfaction. People who do not feel that they rank high in the beauty standings often feel as if they lack some mystery power. Meanwhile, social media is filled with complaints that men in particular are so shallow they cannot appreciate anything but the right, tight beauty dressed in whore clothes.
God bless physical beauty, but in my world, lovemaking is a juicy journey filled with mental and emotional intercourse. The richness of that experience comes in the consciousness people share, which is yawning bland if the meeting of minds is just about looks.
Over the years, the world has gotten much more complicated. Now it’s not safe to say
“You’re so beautiful” without fully defining your terms. Is it just a line used by a womanizer or a con for some nefarious end? Is it just physical, physical? Is it chauvinistic ballyhoo? Is it patronizing pabulum? Is it a nonspecific, catch-all compliment that the receiver installs the desired meaning to — you think I’m beautiful?
Some women have told me they become quite perturbed when some stranger called them beautiful. They heard the line more as a substitute for “I want something from you,” like when a stranger approaches you and calls you Friend. Uh-oh.
The beauty that I am struck by is a complex amalgam of personality traits and physical qualities. The feeling that motivates the desire to share it in words is not something easily packaged into a pithy sentence or two, especially in the passion of the moment. Unless I feel safe or confident in the person’s ability to empathize with my intent, I’ll likely keep my compliment to myself.
I doubt if I am the only man in America to think this way, but here goes: A woman who is my age does not need to look like anything but a woman who is my age. I am not riding on the youth and beauty bandwagon. I do not appreciate the cultural obsessions that cause middle-aged and older woman to feel bad about the state of their bodies.
I doubt that society is going to turn this around. There are too many economic interests that depend on keeping people in a state of anxiety over their appearance. Those promoters of superficial beauty succeed because we don’t just say no.
But I would like to bring attention to the idea that beauty encompasses intelligence, humor, sensitivity, creativity — in short a lot of nonphysical qualities that do not wither with age. There are people who prefer savoring those qualities more than worshiping plastic surgery and cosmetic attempts to appear untouched by aging.
Want to read more on the topic? Here is an earlier post on this topic.