If we can settle down and stop talking about the Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign for a moment…we get it.
It sucks to live in a world where looks matter as much as they do. My hair hurts just as much as yours from getting this message drilled into my brain 24/7.
On the flip side, naïve platitudes that imply we should embrace some vague inner beauty, doesn’t help either. Nor does plastering average looking girls in their underwear on billboards.
It only reminds me that I don’t want to be average looking and makes me feel guilty for feeling that way. And that I need a spray tan and more cardio.
Like or not, beauty’s a part of the human experience. Cameron Russell, a former Victoria’s Secret model dissected this last year during a TED Talk. Even though her message was looks aren’t everything, it’s hard to ignore the subtext that they certainly help. A lot.
And hey, maybe it’s all Darwin’s fault. Psychologist Nancy Etcoff, assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School said as much on NPR’s series on beauty. We may just be hardwired to like pretty things, whether it’s people or landscapes.
“Beauty is a very fast and instinctual response. It’s a very inspiring response. From our basic motivations to live and survive, to our need for experiences of awe and pleasure and a sense of aspiration of what might be perfect in the world. Beauty draws us in. We can’t stop looking, or listening or touching or thinking about the beautiful. It takes us outside of ourselves and it motivates us.”
The problem with the beauty dialogue is its lack of perspective. Our society gives beauty undue weight, because in our economy beauty helps sell things. Couple that with a narrow definition of what beauty is and beauty suddenly becomes…ugly.
So let’s put beauty in it’s place. After all, beauty without a means to an end is boring. All beauty really does is open doors. Far more interesting and sustaining is the character that comes from succeeding when beauty is limited, waning or absent all together.
The question is how does one fling open the door and boldly walk thru when beauty isn’t on your side?
I think the solution lies in giving charisma, talent and chutzpah marquis status and diminishing beauty to a supporting role. Too much like pushing molasses uphill in January you say? Look again. I present to you, examples of women and men who grab the world by the balls and seemingly don’t give beauty a second thought.
1. Lena Dunham
Out of a sense of obligation to stay plugged into pop culture, I begrudgingly checked out “Girls” during a business trip. My introduction to Hana, Dunham’s character was the episode where she switches tops with a guy at a club while dancing (this is a thing?) and winds up with his sleeveless yellow mesh see-thru top.
For the rest of the episode she wears this like a parka (ok, so she was high, but still). What made this spectacular was her incredibly ordinary body. The kind you see in a real life locker room, but rarely on TV, at least not naked. I soon noticed that there wasn’t a nude scene Lena didn’t like, especially if it involved sex.
A weekend of “Girls” binge watching ensued. I could take or leave the show itself, but I watch it to see Lena Dunham get naked. Not because this turns me on (that’s what The Tudor’s are for), but because she is a one woman example of how to be vulnerable, sexual and unapologetically comfortable in your own skin.
Some of her nude scenes make me wince, but it doesn’t matter what I think, because in Hana’s words “it’s Wednesday night baby and I’m alive!”
2. Rebel Wilson
If you haven’t seen Pitch Perfect, move it to the top of your Netflix queue. Beyond the charming comedy, there’s an interesting contrast between the gifted Anna Kendrick (uncomfortably merchandised in a push up bra and too much eyeliner), Brittany Snow as your typical hot girl, and Rebel Wilson who plays Fat Amy.
Anna’s protagonist is supposed to be front and center, but it’s Rebel’s Fat Amy who sits squarely in the driver seat. She knows she’s fat, but gets it out of the way quick to take control of the conversation before anyone else dare deny her what she wants. You forget she’s fat. You just remember she’s incisively funny and you want more.
3. Peter Dinklage
Game of Thrones asides, Peter Dinklage is a case study in character and sex appeal. In fact, I first noticed him in Sex in the City and Elf. He’s openly admitted that living with Dwarfism has been a frequent source of frustration and anger in the past. What makes him remarkable is his determination to be taken seriously as an actor, and not on central casting’s speed dial for leprechaun.
In a recent NY Times article, director Alexandre Rockwell recalls his impression of Dinklage
“You might come in with some luggage about Peter’s physicality,” Rockwell says. “Right away he cuts right through that. You’re thinking, He’s a dwarf, he’s a dwarf, but Peter comes shining through as a personality beyond any kind of diminutive-size issue.”
4. Tilda Swinton
The only person who defines Tilda Swinton is Tilda Swinton. The 52-year-old Oscar winner writes her own rules, inherently challenging convention. Not for the sake of causing a stir, but because it’s what she prefers.
Whether it’s the diverse roles she choses, napping at the MoMa in the name performance art for those lost to AIDS, or raising her teenage twins in the Scottish Highlands with her 34-year-old lover, Sandro Kopp, Tilda is in control. She’s not a woman who is making the best of circumstances, she’s a woman who defined them.
5. Lady Gaga
Gaga got a media hand slap last year for gaining 20 pounds while on tour. Funny when you think about it, because we hear more about her weight problem than we did about her being carried onto the red carpet as an embryo inside an egg.
She loves to transform herself, whether thru gender or species, but I guess the last frontier of shocking transformation is a few extra lbs. I doubt her weight gain was a deliberate artistic statement; more likely the result of stress, cortisol, lack of sleep and some comfort Oreos. Still, she didn’t hide under two pairs of Spanx, hair extensions and leg make-up. She just strapped on her meat corset and belted out a show worth every penny her fans paid to see.
6. Diana Vreeland
Diana Vreeland almost single-handedly made fashion the obsession it is today. Ironic that a in a world populated with only P.Y.T., it was a woman who was practically the exact opposite that defined what being glamorous and fabulous was all about.
To wit, my favorite DV quote: “..a new dress doesn’t get you anywhere; it’s the life your living in the dress, and the sort of life you had lived before, and what you will do in it later”.
So lets stop making it wrong to talk about beauty. It isn’t wrong, it’s just off kilter Lets hear more about the Tilda’s, Peters, Gagas, Lenas, Rebels and herald those who thrive instead of cower when beauty is limited.
After all, in the immortal words of Grey Livingston, “Beauty comes as much from the mind as from the eye”.
Or as Judge Judy would say, “Beauty is fleeting, but dumb lasts forever”.
- Why You Need Charisma (Harvard Business Review)
- The 20 Unsexiest Beautiful People (Nerve.com)
- What is Beauty (NPR)
- The 20 Sexiest Ugly People (Nerve.com)
- Peter Dinklage Was Smart To Say No (NY Times)
- Tilda Swinton: Her ToyBoy, Elderly Lover And Intriguing Menage a Trois (UK Daily Femail)
- Photo Credits: Frida Kahlo on White Bench by Nickolas Muray, Lena on BB Annie Leibowitz