” Don’t Want to Die Without a Few Scars”
Last week, I applied for a leadership role in a student organization. The position is one I have worked incredibly hard for over the past year. The organization, whose members have taught me generosity, grace, and strength of character, has been an integral part of my college experience. This weekend, I got a phone call informing me that the position was given to someone else. They told me I was absolutely qualified for the job. Ultimately, though, “image and representation” were the tiebreaker this year. They then offered me a different position, because “the organization really needed” my skills. It was kindness on their part, but the message was clear: we want you doing the work behind the scenes, while the prettier girl smiles in the limelight.
I cried about six times last weekend. And the truth is, I wasn’t crying because I didn’t get the job — I was crying because I was ashamed by how much it hurt. The thing is, they were right about me. I am what the world would call a behind-the-scenes person. But by a cruel act of the universe, I am a behind-the-scenes person who has always wanted nothing more than to take center stage.
I am not naturally beautiful, thin, or pleasant (ever wonder why there are no candid photos of me on this blog…or anywhere else?). My state of equilibrium is frizzy hair, big arms hidden in a sweatshirt, looking for something to argue about. I have spent my life learning to find self-worth in other facets of my person: my thoughts, my boldness, my tenacity. In this regard, I was doubly lucky to have been an ugly child growing up in an academic home. My mom would try to spruce me up with a hair bow before piano recitals, but I was a lost cause. When the applause erupted or the medal hung around my neck, I knew I had earned it through my performance alone. Meanwhile, my parents were being evaluated on similar lines. It was only later in life that my mom and dad became glamorous — as young professors trying to land tenured jobs, they were all substance over style. From what I gather, the process for becoming a tenured professor is the opposite of a normal job interview. It doesn’t matter if you wear a great suit or leave a lovely impression on the Dean at dinner. Everything comes down to the creative contribution of your work. “A deep thinker,” “brutally honest,” “insightful” — these were words of praise in our house. I didn’t learn that “she’s so put-together,” or “he’s so polite in conversation” were compliments until freshmen year of college.
Through the traits I developed, I earned my own self-respect and (perhaps I flatter myself) the respect of others. I wore it as a badge of pride that I was “so smart,” rather than “so hot.” Or at least I thought I did, until I got that phone call over the weekend.
I should have felt complimented — they praised me for my competence and dedication, the qualities I value — but instead, I felt like I’d been kicked to the ground. The rejection wasn’t unfair or undeserved by any means. Much like being male and non-handicapped are legitimate criteria for being construction worker, so too “image and representation” are legitimate criteria for this position. But even for a girl who does not define herself through beauty, it is shockingly painful to be rejected because you aren’t beautiful enough.
I have spent this whole week trying to pinpoint the source of the pain. At first I thought it was the fact that beauty is beyond my control — I had done everything in my power, yet the deciding factor was out of my hands. But that isn’t really the problem. The problem is that, deep down, I still put beauty on a pedestal, elevating it over all other virtues. And I think that’s because, deep down, we all do.
Think about our so-called empowering messages to young girls. “You did a beautiful job on your science project.” “You are beautiful in your own special way.” “Every body is beautiful.” We speak these cliches with the best intentions, but what we are proclaiming is that beauty, the ultimate virtue, must be aspired to. What we should be saying is, “you aren’t beautiful, you’re even better — you are strong, smart, and funny.” Strength, intelligence and wit are not valuable because they make you “beautiful on the inside.” They are valuable in their own right.
“Beautiful inside and out” — that’s my least favorite one. Not least because, I suspect, that’s what my organization meant by “image and representation.” I am not particularly beautiful on the inside; I am judgmental, cynical, and love controversy (or is that just another word for attention?). People have struggled to define “beauty” since the beginning of time. Whatever the true meaning may be, we can appeal to a cliche for a telling characteristic: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Beauty is a nebulous concept, but it is a concept defined in relation to other people. To be beautiful on the outside is to be aesthetically pleasing to others. To be beautiful on the inside is to be pleasing to others in personality as well.
When we tell girls it’s important to be “beautiful on the inside,” we’re telling them to be nice. It’s wonderful to be nice. But is it enough? Is “nice” sufficient for confidence, for achieving your goals, for self-respect? I think not. “Inner beauty” is simply being what other people want you to be. Your own values and standards become irrelevant. Try as we might, we ought to give up on reclaiming beauty for the nonbeautiful. For so long as beauty — outer, inner, metaphorical — is our highest praise, we will always be trying (in my case, failing) to meet external expectations.
I don’t want to be pretty. I don’t want to be nice. But I have not been able to extricate myself from this web of expectations: on the day the announcement was made public, I put on makeup and heels and did my hair. Come on, you don’t wear sweatpants to your own open casket funeral. But seriously, I don’t know if this is something I can escape. What I do know is that I need to spend some time looking inwards. I will take a good, long, look at my non-beautiful inner self, and determine whether I like what I see. I will remember why I am proud to be who I am. And, eventually, I’m going to be okay.
I didn’t write this post for you guys to pat me on the back and tell me I’m cute or anything. I’m interested to know what disappointments you’ve dealt with lately, and whether you agree with my characterization of beauty as an insidious force in so-called empowerment these days.