Ok, one more post about outer beauty, and then I’ll shut up about it. For now. I’m sure I will revisit this subject because not only is it a work in progress in my own life, but I see it as such as issue with society at large. I guess I’ll just have to be one of those few small voices that try to counter all the garbage we’re fed from birth.
You’ve heard me say that there are things that are beautiful about you. I may never have met you, and have no idea what you look like, but I’m certain that there is something beautiful about you. You see, I think I have a slightly different idea of beauty than many people. I usually tend to not zero in on other people’s warts (literally, or figuratively), and instead try to focus on what I like about them. Most often, the primary thing is their smile and/or their eyes. Not the thinness or fullness of their lips, the crookedness of their teeth, or the lines or dark circles around their eyes, but they way their face expresses what they’re feeling when they are happy.
For a smile truly is contagious. And when a person that others might think is ugly smiles, for me, whatever might have once seemed unattractive disappears. The really unfortunate part about this is that those people who perceive themselves as ugly are far less likely to smile. If you are fundamentally unhappy with the way you look, and are constantly self-conscious about it, you kind of squelch the smiles that want to come out.
I can’t think of anyone who would have had less reason to smile about the way he looked than Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man. Rather than fill you in on all the sad details of his life, I’ll encourage you to familiarize yourself with his story. For now, I’ll add a picture, and a short quote:
“The doctor [Frederick Treves, who took him in] arranged for a friend of his named Mrs. Leila Maturin, “a young and pretty widow”, to visit Merrick. She agreed and with fair warning about his appearance, she went to his rooms for an introduction. The meeting was short, as Merrick quickly became overcome with emotion. He later told Treves that Maturin had been the first woman ever to smile at him, the first to shake his hand.”
Keep in mind that he was in his early twenties by this meeting. His mother had died when he was 13, his father beat him and his stepmother verbally abused him, and he left home at 15, spent some time in a workhouse, and then as an oddity in a traveling show before finally being taken in by the doctor who ended up caring for him for the remainder of his life. He was emotionally overcome by this simple gift of a smile and a handshake.
I can’t imagine spending my entire life being met with horror and revulsion every time someone looked at me. Most of us, however unhappy we might be with our appearance, do not truly have to deal with this. And how would we respond if WE met Joseph Merrick? I certainly hope that I would be the woman who could shake his hand without hesitation, and offer him a genuine smile. For no matter how deformed he was, he was still a human being.
Was he worth less than Brad Pitt or any other attractive celebrity? Was he less worthy of kindness, consideration, or friendship? Intellectually, we would say certainly not. Our knee-jerk reaction however, may have been different in meeting him for the first time.
Why then do we ridicule others who do not fit into the current definition of “beauty”? The hatred and bullying I have seen online towards morbidly obese people is horrifying to me. Just because someone weighs far more than is healthy does not mean that they are not a human being worthy of respect. But often it happens to those who are not even that far off of the “ideal”. I was disgusted by the “reporting” in this article showing Kelly Clarkson on stage and making unrepentantly nasty statements about her appearance. Regardless of whether you think that she could have chosen a more becoming outfit, she is definitely not anywhere near being “Whaley” as they called her. And even if she weighed 400 pounds, would she deserve to be called a whale? Why do we think it’s ok to be hateful to people who are overweight, even if they are extremely so???
And even if we’re not overtly vicious like these people were, do we internally think, “well, at least I don’t look as bad as that person”? Are we silently body policing others, comparing ourselves to those who are “fatter”, “anorexic”, “uglier”, or otherwise “less attractive” than us, just to make ourselves feel better? If you find yourself doing this, it’s got to stop. Not only is it completely unfair and inconsiderate of others, but when we make a habit of being cruel to others (even if it’s only in our own minds), we tend to do it to ourselves, and we will assume that others are policing us as well. It really is just another form of bullying.
I have been concerned recently that I have come off as a skinny-basher myself. I certainly have no conscious intention of doing so. I have posted primarily about being fat because that is what I know. I am rebelling against the idea that skinny is the ONLY definition of pretty. But I am afraid I have in the past crossed that line and said that a certain girl really should eat more so that we can’t count individual ribs, and that is wrong of me, just as wrong as it is for someone to say that I need to stop going to buffets because I’m fat (incidentally, I hate buffets). Even if it is said out of genuine concern for someone’s well-being, it can still be hurtful. Chances are, they are painfully aware of the fact that they are dangerously fat or dangerously thin.
So how should we deal with this attitude, either in ourselves or others? If we catch ourselves starting to think things like, “She has no business wearing X”, “She needs a sammich”, “Step away from the buffet”, we need to make a conscious decision to halt the thought. If we’re hanging with friends and hear one start fat-bashing, skinny-bashing, or otherwise belittling someone for the way they look, nip it in the bud. If someone dares to spout hateful nonsense at us or a friend, we need to call them out about it. This is unacceptable behavior. I’m not sure how it ever came to be perceived as acceptable in anyone’s minds. It should never be OK to trash someone else in order to feel better about ourselves.
Women, we need to stop attacking one another. We need to stop assuming that we know the reason someone isn’t a “healthy” weight. We even need to reject the idea that a very narrow weight range is the only way to be healthy. We also need to reject the idea that a very narrow definition of beauty is what is or should be attractive to everyone. Not only do we all come in different shapes and sizes, desire comes in different shapes and sizes as well.
So I will leave you with some more reading on the topic. It’s such a prevalent issue, and it’s causing such profound self-hate from such extremely young ages. We have to start talking about it, and making the steps to change it, first in ourselves, then in our circles of influence, and on to the rest of society. Our well-being and the well-being of our children depend on it.
Ashley Judd wrote one the best attempts by a celebrity to address this issue last year when her puffy face (due to steroids to treat an illness) caused speculation about her having “clearly” had plastic surgery.
Asia Hates Body Policing has a lot of links to quotes and articles on body policing against both “too fat” AND “too skinny”.
Helpful Tips: How not to be a boorish body-policing jerk One of the best lines is right at the end: If it would bother you to hear it said about yourself, don’t say it to someone else. This could successfully be applied to anything that might come out of your mouth, and the world would be a far friendlier, compassionate place.