It may surprise you to know that not that long ago, I was not beautiful. Not like I am now.
Well, not to myself, anyway.
But something happened a little over a year ago that made me beautiful… someone noticed. And…he keeps noticing. And I continue to grow more beautiful.
Now let me go back a bit – as a child, I was skinny, klutzy, and gawky. My middle name, Grace, seemed a cosmic joke. Puberty brought curves – and acne – and unruly hair. And like many kids who didn’t mature gracefully, I was teased and put down, and I had veryfew dates. The things I thought made up for my less-than-stellar outward appearance, namely my singing voice and my acting talent, were condemned as being not beautiful either.
And thus – I spent my twenties, and thirties, and the first half of my forties, believing that I was not beautiful. Now in the process, I did learn that indeed I was talented and I got over that particular hurdle of self-esteem. But I have spent decades sure I had no place at the table with the “beautiful people.”
This was confirmed over and over again – I was excluded from a company fashion show because I was the only plus-sized member of the buying staff. I watched a less experienced, less knowledgeable but petite and pretty woman get the promotion I should have received. And I have seen the looks when people I have only talked to by phone meet me in person. They expect someone less…substantial.
And sadly, I am not alone. A 2009 study by the University of Florida showed that attractive people make up to 10% more money on average than those considered less attractive. A similar study at the University of Wisconsin showed that people deemed unattractive or overweight are up to 8% less likely to get the second interview or be hired. Good looking students tend to be favored by teachers. Handsome criminals receive lighter sentences.
Now oddly, discrimination for looks does seem to go both ways – exceptionally attractive people have a harder time getting jobs in engineering or the sciences – which tells me there is a bias that links intelligence to looks. Recently a woman was fired from a job at Citibank because she was ‘too beautiful and too distracting’. But who decides? Part of the challenge in defining discrimination based on looks is the challenge of defining beauty standards, which as we know vary from culture to culture. Japanese women want oval eyes. Ubangi tribeswomen value stretched lower lips. In some cultures, the Rubenesque figure is prized. In others, the skin-and-bones look is in. But within each culture, there are some general standards, and it is these standards that create a beauty bias, or what we call lookism.
If you doubt lookism exists, consider a comment made by Jason Mattera, editor-in-chief of HumanEvents.com: “Why do Janet Napolitano, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan all look like linebackers for the New York Jets?”
Consider the comment of Conan O’Brien, remarking on the firing of a female TV meteorologist because she looked too dowdy: her problem is “partly saggy with a chance of menopause.”
Consider the fact that Janet Reno and Linda Tripp were played by men on Saturday Night Live.
Consider an experiment by the ABC news magazine 20/20: they hired two women to stand next to cars that had run out of gas. Both cars were identical; both women wore the same outfits. Both stood helplessly by the cars with their hoods up. For the average-looking Michelle, a few pedestrians stopped but only made suggestions as where she could walk to get gasoline. But for the beautiful Tracey, cars came screeching to a halt. More than a dozen cars stopped and six people went to get Tracey gas.
Now I don’t think people necessarily know they’re discriminating against looks. As Tom Cash, a psychologist at Old Dominion University, says, “It’s a non-conscious process. People assume that more attractive people have an array of valued characteristics.”
On the other hand, not all lookism is non-conscious. There is a dating site specifically for beautiful people, unimaginatively named BeautifulPeople.com, and they only accept people they consider beautiful. It has been so successful; they now have a spinoff sperm bank – where you can make sure the baby gets ‘beautiful genes’. I wish I was making this up. The animated sitcom Family Guy poked fun of the beautiful people’s club – but it really exists.
And whether we want to join or not, we pay a price. Deborah Rhode, author of The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, says
“…conventional wisdom understates the advantages that attractiveness confers, the costs of its pursuit, and the injustices that result. Many individuals pay a substantial price in time, money, and physical health. Although discrimination based on appearance is by no means our most serious form of bias, its impact is often far more insidious than we suppose.”
Rhode notes that compared to “other inequities the contemporary women’s movement has targeted, those related to appearance have shown strikingly little improvement. In fact, by some measures, such as the rise in cosmetic surgery and eating disorders, our preoccupation with attractiveness is getting worse.”
And so we go to plastic surgeons and do invasive damage to our bodies. We buy cosmetics and get chemical treatments that may not only harm our skin but also our planet. We go on diet after diet, all the while getting fatter and fatter and causing myriad health problems. In the extreme, the pursuit of beauty leads to depression and eating disorders. We spend over $200 billion a year on appearance, with $40 billion alone on diets – and more billions in mental health treatment. We spend more on cosmetic surgery per capita than any other nation; the top procedures? Breast augmentation and liposuction.
All because we know there is a value to being attractive. We know there is a financial reason – we will get paid more. And there is a social reason – acceptance.
Now if you are an attractive, slender person, there are some indignities you have never faced. You haven’t had to pay five dollars more for a t-shirt because there’s an extra inch of cloth. You haven’t had a blind date turn around at the door of the restaurant, pretending he didn’t see you. You haven’t watched, discouraged, as lookism gets played out in a sitcom not called Betty, but Ugly Betty.
If it sounds like I’m whining, forgive me. I suppose it’s like trying to get you to understand what it is to be discriminated against for being gay, or being from another country, or being disabled. There are big – and little – indignities – that go along with any kind of discrimination. My point here is that lookism DOES exist… and it permeates our entertainment, our marketing, our work, our lives. Naomi Wolf suggested in her 1991 book The Beauty Myth that images of beauty may actually subjugate women and be a tool for discrimination.
Now I want to take a small but important detour here… and address the question of whether physical beauty truly matters.
We can’t discount it: we are always in pursuit of beauty. We look around at our surroundings and find peace – and solace – and even God – in beauty. We sing hymns, like our opening today, which praise beauty as a sacred gift. You would be hard pressed to find someone who does not love a beautiful mountain, or a flowing stream, or an explosion of flowers, or a stretch of sand and foam. Even those who do not think they have a beautiful cell in their bodies love and seek the beauty in nature. And we bring beauty into our homes through décor, music, art, scents. How beautiful is the anticipation of a Thanksgiving table groaning with great tastes, smells, and sights. How beautiful is the promise of a perfectly placed painting above the perfect reading chair. How beautiful is the sound of a Chopin concerto wafting in the air.
Beauty is important. So important that it can reduce crime – I recall hearing a study that showed if abandoned buildings were covered with murals, crime rates go down. It is so important that three members of the Saratoga congregation went to El Salvador this past February to bring crime-fighting art to a crime-ridden neighborhood.
We seek beauty in truth, truth in beauty.
So why do we draw the line for human beauty? Why is it okay to surround ourselves with the most beautiful settings but scorn those who would make themselves beautiful?
Are we not nature too? Shouldn’t our physical beauty matter?
I would maintain that it does. But not because we should all join the beautiful people club, but because, if we are to be – as we say in one of our denomination’s readings – in harmony with the divine, we must take our place as part of that beauty.
Human beauty is praised across the world’s religions. Take as the prime example this passage from the Song of Solomon:
How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.
Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies.
Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.
Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.
Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries.
How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
Similar passages can be found in sacred texts around the world. And yet… what of inner beauty? You may be asking yourself why I am focusing so much on the outward when there is so much inner beauty to celebrate, and isn’t that more important?.
It is true –inner beauty is important. Vitally important. We recognize the value of the inner self – the good, the compassionate, the loving, the strong, the welcoming, the courageous, the accepting, the graceful. We know it enough to see when someone is ugly despite their beautiful physical appearance.
There was a recent reality show called True Beauty that pitted ten gorgeous people against each other to determine the most beautiful; what they didn’t know is that they were being judged on their inner beauty. Of course, there were easy eliminations at the start – reality shows tend to bring out the worst in people. And yes, the show’s judges did look at their outer beauty as well – perhaps to validate the fake premise. Despite it being just another reality show, I suspect we as a culture are starting to think about our outrageous obsessions with outer beauty. And it certainly proved St. Augustine right when he wrote, “Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.”
There were two things I found interesting about the show. The first was that when they had just three contestants left, they were told the truth – that this was about inner beauty – and they were made to face moments of inner ugliness as they watched video footage of their worst moments. You could see it was hard for them to watch as they talked behind people’s backs, tried to sabotage each other, and behaved selfishly. But you could see these three finalists were humbled. One of the contestants remarked, “I was thankful to see that side of myself. I didn’t realize it was there. I will make a change.”
The second thing I found interesting about the show was seeing that it was only as these contestants began to get to know each other that you saw them see each other as people, not as physical specimens. I suspect part of our lookism problem is that we don’t have often have the time to go any deeper. We are so busy, we have so much information to process, and we only have moments to make judgments about one another. In a society where we don’t know each other, we don’t have enough of a relationship to get beyond the surface. And we get stuck on the outside.
Oh sure, we try to get to know people – but when your congregation is bigger than say, 25 people, that’s awfully hard. And the bigger it gets, the harder it gets. In 2007, I spent a year between beds and doctors and operating rooms to fix an injured back, and it wasn’t until the next spring that I returned to my own congregation in Saratoga. When I left, I fairly well knew the 100 or so regulars. When I returned, there were dozens of new faces for whom I was as new as the visitor who’d just walked in. Now since then, I’ve gotten to know some of them, but maybe not as deeply as I’d like. I’m sure those I don’t know are amazing, beautiful people – and they probably don’t know as much about my inner beauty either.
The challenge of course is getting our inner beauty to shine. A challenge which has established another multi-billion dollar industry: the self help industry. The titles of self-help books promise as much as the commercials for L’Oreal and Revlon: Learning to Love Yourself. Five Simple Steps to Emotional Healing. The Power of Self-Coaching. The Self-Esteem Workbook. The Courage to Be Yourself. The Courage to Heal. Healing Your Emotional Self. Maximum Confidence. The list goes on and on, and on and on. If you’re like me, you’ve spent too much money on books like this, seeking a way to boost inner beauty from within. We console ourselves with affirmations, my favorite from the Al Franken character Stuart Smalley: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darnit, people like me.”
But just as all the cosmetic treatments in the world can’t make you perfectly beautiful on the outside, all the self talk in the world doesn’t stand alone in doing the trick for inner beauty either.
Yes, it takes a beloved community.
I know it’s contrary to all we say about not caring what others think, about being our true authentic selves, etc. etc. But what feels more powerful to you, saying to yourself “I am somebody” – or having someone tell you “you are somebody”? Self-affirmations are important, but I suspect mostly what they do is get our heads ready to hear the affirmations from others.
There are many people who don’t feel beautiful, on varying levels. And what happens, when you don’t feel beautiful on the outside is that your confidence shakes on the inside. It is subtle…it starts with apologizing for a bad hair day and then wearing clothing that covers up the bulges… but soon you’re building walls instead of building confidence. You figure if people don’t think you’re attractive, then why bother making the effort? And soon you are closed and cold, and as desperately as you want connection, your entire Being pushes people away. And this feeds your frustration, and you think, ‘who needs people anyway?’
But you do. Partly because humans thrive best in community, but partly because other people are the best evidence of your own best self. Other people are a mirror; what we see in others is reflective of what exists in ourselves.
Yes. Beauty IS in the eye of the beholder. Rodgers and Hammerstein asked, “do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?” When we show that we prize all beauty, we help others – and ourselves – become more confident and dismantle the subtle cuts of lookism.
As I said at the start, I became beautiful when someone noticed. I remember the moment; I was going out to an event that evening, and was talking to my boyfriend on the phone that afternoon. I looked at the clock, knowing it was time to get ready, and I said, “I need to go make myself look beautiful.” He replied, “Well, it won’t take much because you’re starting from such a high base.” It sounds like a little thing now, but at that moment, it was huge. Someone told me I was beautiful. All of me – beautiful.
Oddly, I found myself caring a bit more – buying more dresses, taking better care of my hair and face and nails, watching what I ate. It wasn’t that I wanted to become beautiful for him – I just wanted to keep being beautiful. And when I started taking a little bit better care of myself, I noticed that my gentleness, and compassion, and strength, and yes, even grace, started to come through too. Others noticed it and commented on how beautiful and happy I seemed. Which made me feel more beautiful. And on and on, and on and on.
Have you told anyone they are beautiful recently? Have you seen the goodness and sweetness and courageousness and gracefulness of the people around you and told them?
I invite you now to take that opportunity. I chose Libby Roderick’s simple tune to end my talk today, and as we sing it through four times, I want you to sing it to each other – and to yourself – and to each other again. Our beauty – inner and outer – is a miracle. It is nothing to be discriminated against – it is something to be celebrated. Let us affirm that.
Amen and blessed be.