Updated: Dec 5, 2019
[An audio version of this blog can be found HERE].
As I've dipped my toe back into the wild world of dating, I've noticed a striking pattern in the comments made to me by men. Dozens have told me that I'm beautiful. Dozens more express pleasant surprise that I'm beautiful and have a functioning brain. Several more have sung my praises for being so "unique" or "different." What I've quickly learned, however, is that men will say almost anything if they think it'll land them in bed.
When I expressed my frustration about this to my therapist, he told me, "You have what I call the 'curse of attractiveness.' Many women, especially women in this [eating disorder] program, have this. It's an interesting phenomenon." What the curse means, in a nutshell, is that beutiful girls are valued for only that, our beauty. We find this confusing and troubling. I'm here to tell you why.
We are sad, beautiful girls because we learned, from a very young age, that how we look is more important that how we think, what we know, or what we can do. This is a curse because we don't want to be valued for how we look; looks fade, always. This is a curse too, because people assume that attractive people must be happy. What more could a beautiful girl ask for? We are sad, sometimes, because we are expected to be happy. We are expected to know that we're beautiful and for that to be enough.
Some of the most successful, powerful women to ever live are continually judged by how they look. We talk about their hair, their outfits, their skincare routines, instead of focusing on the talents and skills and badass work they're doing. One pertinent example is women in politics, namely, Hillary Clinton.
"Her hair, a perennial topic, and makeup, or lack thereof, have been in the news since the Drudge Report posted a photo of the secretary of State wearing glasses and no cosmetics other than lipstick during a trip to India. A story in the April issue of Elle magazine quoted Clinton's aides bemoaning her recent habit of pulling her hair back in a casual ponytail with a scrunchie, a fabric-covered hair elastic.
Asked about the attention in an interview on CNN, Clinton said she is beyond worrying about reaction to her appearance. "If I want to wear my glasses, I'm wearing my glasses. If I want to wear my hair back I'm pulling my hair back. You know at some point it's just not something that deserves a lot of time and attention." Her response led to a flurry of media attention from newspapers, morning news shows and blogs.
The attention to her looks is a familiar theme, not just for Clinton but for other women in politics, including Republicans Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin."
Men and women alike find it difficult to judge women or girls by their performance without being distracted by their appearance. The Wiener Philharmonic orchestra only succeeded in hiring female musicians after they started auditioning behind a curtain with shoes off. These elaborate measures were needed to prevent their looks and gender from influencing judgments of their musical performance. Ann Hopkins, a successful consultant who attracted large clients for her firm was rated "unfit" for partnership because of her make-up and dress style. Serena Williams won the Roland Garros Grand Slam contest less than a year after giving birth to her daughter. But in the media, disapproval of her black catsuit prevailed over praise of her atheltic acheivement.
We are sad, beautiful girls because we know our worth stems from our looks. We know this, because if famous, powerful, successful women are primarily judged by their looks, we must be too. We are praised and applauded for being pretty, meanwhile, our blood sweat and tears go largely unnoticed. Our accomplishments falter beneath, "She's smart, she's just not very pretty," or are overshadowed by "She did X and Y but isn't she pretty?"
No wonder the confidence of girls and women is chronically lower than that of men and boys. Men and boys are not unilaterally judged based on whether they are pleasing to the eyes of everyone around them. Most men, and many women, don't understand this, and so punish and blame women for our lack of confidence.
This is the patriarchy at work: by telling women and girls that our appearances grant us value, the patriarchy systemically usurps our autonomy, intelligence, and successes. In doing so, the patriarchy also teaches men to judge women and girls by our looks, creating a reward feedback loop that looks something like this: a woman dresses up, she is complimented by both men and women for her looks, she learns that it is good to look pretty. She takes pains to look pretty all or most of the time, because she has learned that taking the time to look pretty is more important than taking time to do nearly anything else.
We are sad, beautiful girls because our beauty grants us a privilege that is undeserved and therefore baffling. There is an entire field dedicated to the advantages of beauty: pulchronomics, or the study of the economics of physical attractiveness. Being pretty makes finding a job easier. It makes us more popular in real life, and online. It helps us advance in our careers. Other people are nicer to us. And most insidiously, pretty people earn more money, across all industries, than the rest of the workforce.
The privilege of prettiness dies, though, the moment we are deemed too old, too wrinkled, or too soft to be attractive anymore. We collectively make fun of older women who've had lots of botox or cosmetic work done, but when you grow up learning that how you look is what gives you value, you are terrified to lose it because then you lose your value.
We are sad, beautiful girls because the world we live in is goddamned confusing. When explaining the phenomenon of sad, beautiful girls to others, I've been told, to my face, that I should just know my worth does not depend on my appearance. And of course, that's an easy thing to tell someone to believe, but it's pretty damn hard when I've spent yeares internalizing the message that my looks are all that matter. It's difficult to honor, love,and value yourself for who you are and what you do when the praise and adoration you receive from the outside world is telling you, "Oh, but aren't you pretty."
We are sad, beautiful girls, because we are just figuring this out. We're figuring out that being called "pretty" or "hot" or "attractive" doesn't feel good when we have so much more to offer, when the compliments drip from the mouths of people we are not trying to look pretty for. We're figuring out that one day, our attractiveness will become not enough and we'll be left wondering how or if we hold value.
Sad, beautiful girls are treated like decorations or accessories.
Sad, beautiful girls were taught that our appearance grants us love, acceptance, and affection.
Sad, beautiful girls don't want or need reassurance (especially from men) that we are, in fact beautiful.
Sad, beautiful girls will continue to be sad and beautiful until we begin to teach girls that our appearance is a shell, that the really good things about us cannot be gleaned from looking. That if someone compliments our looks, we can, and should, leave that compliment on the table. That life is a wild, confusing place to be sad, and a wild, confusing place to be beautiful.
We will continue to be sad, beautiful girls until we see strong, smart women applauded for being strong and smart. We will continue to be sad, beautiful girls until we are valued for more than our pretty, painted shells.