Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Be more attractive."

Yesterday a friend sent me the link to a recent post on the Boundless blog. The tagline to the post reads: “If no one’s asking you out, here’s the solution: Be more attractive.” Author Josh Loke offers three ways for women to attain this attractiveness: demonstrate respect, look good, and be fun. Specifically, he adds, “If girls are looking for a guy with humor, kindness, stability and initiative, etc., guys are looking for a girl who’s hot.”

Somebody hold my flower.

A blog post like this presupposes that a woman’s one goal in life is to find a date (or enough dates in order to up the numbers and somehow statistically find The One). But let’s bypass that red flag in order to concentrate on what the injunction to “be attractive” actually says to women everywhere. It says that your success as a person and a woman is measured only by externals. It says that you have ‘arrived’ only when men are asking you out. It says that if this isn’t happening, then it’s for no other reason than that you are not enough. It says that your flaws – both the ones you can change as well as the ones you can’t – make you unlovable and unworthy of love. It says that whatever you are already doing, no matter if it’s your best, it isn’t good enough.

The thing is, there’s nothing new about this message. It isn’t some earth-shattering revelation. Culture screams it from every poster on the side of a bus, highway overhang banner, and prime time commercial. It’s something that many women tend to believe about themselves anyway. It’s knitted into our culture and it can often be woven into our psyches. So we don’t need to hear it from people whose stated goal is to encourage and inspire. What’s more, the principle behind the idea isn’t even true.

I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who didn’t want to be the best version of their self. Most of us are actively working at this in smaller or greater measure in various ways. For many of us, this ‘best possible version’ includes looking after our bodies and expressing our personalities through the way we present our faces and bodies to the world. I like wearing makeup. I like cute dresses. I like spending a little time on my hair of a morning. It makes me feel ready for life, like the cheeriest, most confident version of myself. A bright lip colour and tamed hair and suddenly I am Joan of Arc. It would be certainly be cool if my personal version of beauty caught someone's eye. But that isn't why I do it.

And in many ways it’s irrelevant anyway because no matter how much effort I put into my personal attractiveness, no matter how much effort you put into yours, there's still going to be an arbitrary line in the critical sand of our culture which has beautiful people on one side, and those who fall short on the other.

I was born with a slight physical disability. It’s only a minor one as far as they go but it means I have some impressive scars and my attempts to learn how to jog keep getting pulled up by injury. I have weird feet and I’ll never be able to wear sexy heels. This is certainly a mark against me in what begins to seem like a high-stakes attractiveness contest. Add to this mark the flaws that I could correct with surgery if I had the money (which I don’t) and I believed I could justify it (which I also don't). Then of course there are all the basics: nose too big, eyes too small, skin too flawed, and twenty-five other things I’d be able to list off because we all get so good at recognising where we fail to come up to snuff.

There is nothing unique about me in this respect. Most of us could rattle off a list of our own remarkable failures to be beautiful. But vague hand-wavy ideas like “be more attractive” imply that with just a little more effort anyone can achieve the nirvana of beauty and finally catch the eye of a passing gentleman. And when people say “be more attractive”, we believe it to be true. If I could pull together all my components and recompose myself into my picture of the ideal externally beautiful woman, I would be tall, slim, elegant, and graceful. I would have narrow shoulders, sleek straight hair, and devastating cheekbones. My skin would be flawless, my hands small and strong. I would be athletic without really trying. But the thing is, I know girls exactly like this. What is more, their inner beauty is just as powerful and profound as their luminous external beauty. Yet they, too, are wondering, “What’s wrong with me? What do I need to do?”

The standard for physical beauty is ridiculously subjective. It is trend-driven and culturally specific. It also has a tendency to be wealth-privileged, ageist, ableist, and exclusionary. Some of us, no matter how much effort we put in, will never be typically beautifully. And that is okay. Every single one of us is far more than our face or our breasts or our waistline. And it’s a little beside the point that I am hoping to make but perhaps it’s worth a reminder: ugly people get married. Awkward people get married. Overweight people get married. Flawed people get married.

One commenter on the post illustrates why telling women to “be more attractive and boys will like you” is an unhelpful mindset:
“I've never ever been asked out over the entire course of my life, and neither have either of my two sisters. We all love Jesus and are very active in our church(es), and we are all perfectly fit (run marathons). We look attractive (well, maybe I'm not, but my sisters are both super cute in my opinion). We are also employed (or studying to be employed) in meaningful ways (medicine, actuarial science, and/or music). We all have hobbies that we are really good at and enjoy. We all would like to be committed, godly wives and mothers someday. We may be a bit reserved in public/around people we don't know well, but in reality, we've got to be the funniest, most hilarious bunch of girls on the planet (in my opinion). We live in a fairly large town near one of the largest cities in our state.

But, I'm trying to remind myself that there's always room for improvement. Maybe what I need is to improve my looks. Or could it be that I don't think of anything to crack a joke over during the 10 minutes of coffee hour after church (this period of time is always truncated for me because I'm either playing a postlude on the organ or teaching Sunday school--sometimes I don't even show up at coffee hour at all!)? Could it be our academic/professional interests that put people off? Could it be that we're Asian?? Could it be that we were homeschooled? Anyway, I'm trying not to think that we all happen to have the gift of singleness...although, of course, it is possible."
This commenter sounds like an awesome, well-rounded, fascinating person. And her first paragraph asserts that. However, she moves from these confident observations -- I am a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman who has a full and creative life -- to the almost apologetic confession that ‘there’s always room for improvement.’ And in one sense she is right: all of us can be better. We can all grow. That’s one of the things that makes life so interesting and the Christian walk so challenging. But the standard imposed upon her by this blog post has it wrong: the assumption is that because no man has asked her out, then there must be room for improvement.

When someone says “What is wrong with me?” to my mind it rarely arises out of personal conviction and a passion for growth. Rather, it’s steeped in despair and shame. People who force us to ask “what is wrong with me?” are not being helpful; they’re being bullies. “How can I be a better person?” is getting closer to the mark. But “How can I be a better person so I attract the attention of a man?” is so far off-base.

Taking care of oneself is good for the soul. It enhances the lives of those we care about because we are happier and healthier as a result. It gives us courage and personal freedom. It sets us loose to more freely care for others. It allows us to be our authentic selves.

So be healthy for you and for the people you already love. Be healthy because your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Be your own form of beautiful because your creativity reflects the splendour of the creator’s hand. Don’t strive to reinvent yourself in order to attract the eye of every possible good guy who passes you by. If your personal brand of beauty is bohemian layers and hippie hair, do that. If it’s farm girl chic with dungarees, boots, and a bare face, do that. If you believe external details are mere periphery in a world where people are hungry and dying, then act on that. Be your own form of beautiful because to do so for any other reason is illusory and transient and it might work -- but it might not work, too.

Be your best you. But be it for you, for the one who made you, and for the people who already love you. If that fails to capture someone's attention, it says less about you than you think. Be great, but be great because life is now, not because it will begin once someone notices how truly lovely you are. The world doesn't magically move out of black and white with true love’s first kiss. Life is already happening and it’s in full colour. Shine bright.
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