Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.

This is not politically correct.

But am I the only person who wasn't moved to tears on viewing that viral Dove beauty ad that's making its way around the interwebs right now?

Because every third person has FB'd or Tweeted or emailed it. And I gotta say: it just made me impatient.

Impatient that we live in a world where self-confidence is so rare.

Impatient that some of the most beautiful people in my life shared it, which meant they, too, related to feeling "less than," and that's fucked up.

Impatient that so very, very many folks waste so much energy worrying about whether or not they are "beautiful" when that life force could be spent in so many other incredibly life-giving ways.

Impatient because the more time we spend thinking about our appearances means the less time we're doing something meaningful or rich.

Impatient because who gives a fuck what anyone else thinks!!

It has to start right there with you.

* * *
"We would not concentrate so much today on looks/beauty, pay so much, die so much, seeing our 'beauty power' coming and going, never owned, never ours, if our look, our sense of self were owned.... 
The sadness on the streets speaks of how much we miss the look of people who looked at peace with themselves, meaning that we could relax with them and not try so hard, there being no competition."
— Nancy Friday,  The Power Of Beauty

* * *

I must've been about 21, a college kid in Delaware and just barely of legal drinking age, when a good friend of mine said, in that best of no-bullshit confident-brash-young-man ways:

Dude. Rach. Just be confident already.

And it was like: Duh! Of course. It's that easy. Just be fucking confident. Stop thinking so much and just be it, dammit.

[Once again that monkey mind steps in and fucks everything up. Thinking, thinking, always thinking. Chattering, analyzing, comparing. Chalk it up to just one more reason to meditate.]

And that was that.

So today, honestly, I'm kind of embarrassed and, well, stunned that I feel so irritated by the whole Dove video. I mean, it's so well-intentioned, right, and it carries a gorgeous sentiment with such a powerful, potentially liberating message: Know your own beauty. See it. Speak it. Own it, and certainly don't apologize for it.

So why does it annoy me so much?

* * *

When I was, yep, still 21ish, I had a strange curiosity for any and all theories about beauty. I wanted to know the aesthetics of beauty, the philosophies behind it, its history, what it had to do with religion, its relationship to power, the socially constructed nature of it all. I wanted to know what it really meant to be beautiful, what the implications were in the world, and who even decided what was beautiful and not.

So I studied it. Intensively.

I finished dual degrees in Sociology and Women's Studies. Read everything by Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem and Naomi Klein and Katha Pollitt and all of those other Second Wave feminists who ranted about the messed-up patriarchal roots of the Beauty Myth. I stopped wearing make-up and covered my mirrors with paper bags and handwritten radical lady quotes and felt generally like an EMPOWERED WOMYN!! I was gonna opt-out of that whole stereotypical feminine "must be beautiful" expectation and just be a walking brain instead.

Power to the plain ones! Janet Reno, patron saint!

And then, in the midst of a research grant the summer of 2000, I stumbled upon Nancy Friday's book on The Power Of Beauty (now published under the title Our Looks, Our Lives: Sex, Beauty, Power, and The Need To Be Seen.). Friday wrote as a self-proclaimed "ugly duckling" who'd grown into a great beauty. She preached about the power of sex and beauty and confidence and owning one's own Gaze. And it shifted things profoundly, that book. Talk about the power of one person's words. Friday turned my world upside down.

I stopped fearing that being attractive meant being perceived as intellectually illegitimate. I learned to recognize my own beauty. I stopped apologizing for being female and smart and attractive — qualities I'd long considered mutually exclusive. Friday's brash, bold, sexy writing changed the way I walked down the street. It opened my eyes to seeing, and to really appreciating, the criminally-unspoken spectre of male beauty, and gave me the words to articulate and celebrate it. My own paperback copy, hopelessly written in, circled, and highlighted, included a quote, one I scribbled down in that loopy college girl cursive, and one that I remember still: "Some of the most beautiful people in my life have no idea how beautiful they are."

How tragic, I thought.

I remember so clearly reading that and pausing, thinking of all the really stunningly vibrant and vital folks in my life who I knew very well struggled with even seeing themselves, let alone speaking their own beauty. And that realization pissed me off, and fired me up, and tangled my insides with deep compassion.

And I vowed, at that moment, after an (all-too-common) adolescence in which I, like every other teenage girl, fought desperately to become as small and quiet and stupid and tiny-voiced and feminine as possible (a culturally ubiquitous experience that Friday names as that "same turbulent, vacillating, and desperate cry for recognition: How do you see me so that I may see myself?"), to never again waste time worrying about whether I was pretty or not.

Because, fuck that.

I'd be my own and trust it and that would be that. Kali-Durga style. Fierce, wild, unbuffered.

And that commitment changed my life. It really did.

It taught me to drop the sweet-nice-white-girl-preacher's-daughter-from-Nebraska masks. It taught me to be real, unapologetically authentic, angry, true. It changed my friendships; I started spending most of my time with the confident, laughing, at-ease-in-their-skins, strong young men of my college community. It changed the way I wrote. It changed the way I traveled. It changed the way I interacted with male theater directors 20 years my senior. It changed the way I spent my evenings, and my mornings, and my noons. It changed the way I loved.

It changed everything.

* * *

"The truth is, the world is starved for people who are at ease in their skins.... 
Beauty has become what our lives are about, not the clothes and the seasonal fashions, but the rage, grief, a terrible sense of isolation that we get when we don't get back any good feeling from the money and time we invest in appearance. Appearance is everything, appearance is empty. 
People are Empty Packages, hollow souls desperate for expensive clothes, labels, jewelry, or fancy cars that draw attention." 
— Nancy Friday

* * *

So today when I see women who are yet 30, 40, 50, and onward, and are still so unable to see their own beauty — the kind of grounded, glimmering women captured in the Dove video — it generally makes me impatiently, impertinently, batshit crazy.

The insecurity, that is. The self-scrutiny. The self-imposed critical gaze.

I wanna grab onto their shoulders and shake them and say: Get over it already. Chuck the fear. You're so beautiful. You are a unique expression of the divine. You are luminous, glowing life force. So stop worrying about it and just get on with your life, ok?

Fuck constructs. Fuck "beauty." It isn't even a real thing. Everything we think of as "beautiful" now wasn't always. It's just a product of the times. Of the culture. Of the capitalism. Of the era. Skinny adolescent-boy-looking women. Collarbones jutting. Big eyes, big boobs, no boobs, curves, no curves, straight hair, kinky hair, all of it in perpetual constructed motion. None of it permanent. All of it societally and historically contingent. All of it an illusion.

So what a shame that that illusion should run roughshod over so many contemporary female psyches.

Be your own beautiful. Own your nose, your shoulders, your butt. Fucking OWN THEM. Stop wasting any more energy on worrying about how you look when you could be out there planting gardens and fixing cars and climbing mountains and playing an instrument and generally being a badass.

I have known very ostensibly "beautiful" people whom upon first meeting I initially thought exceedingly, breath-takingly lovely and who then within even a few quick hours or days, I kind of stopped seeing altogether. And certainly never again really thought of as beautiful. Not by any fault of their own. Even though they had the requisite big eyes or chiseled chin or sloped nose or high cheekbones or what-have-you. They were dry or barren-spirited or dead-eyed or boring or fearful or, gulp, insecure, so much so that none of that raw beauty showed through.

And I have known people whose bone structure or bodies approximated nothing even close to standardized homogeneous contemporary beauty ideals. And yet they were embodied and confident and fearless and vibrant and unashamed of taking up space. And goddamn, were they gorgeous!!

Beautiful. Alive. Vital. Their own.

SO please forgive my impatience, but seriously, ladies (and gents), enough already. Get rid of the fear, the shame, the self-criticism, and breathe good hearty wild life into your body. It's beautiful. It's a particular manifestation of the divine, goddammit. Trust that. Move and live and breathe ease into that knowing.

You're gonna be fine. You don't need a forensic artist to tell you that.


Kimberly Greenhut said…
Well said. I think something else that needs to be addressed is how to believe you're beautiful without being labeled as stuck-up. I think a lot of women struggle with that. It's sort of a catch-22.

When I watched I wondered if the women were specifically asked to describe themselves physically. If someone asked me to describe myself my instinct would be to talk about my personality, passions, and life experiences first.

Another flaw in the Dove beauty thing is that I think we are a very judgmental and competitive society. We do notice others' flaws (physical and character) and in a lot of ways take comfort in them.

But if asked to describe a stranger you just met, you're not going to hone in on her shortcomings. That's just rude and it makes you look mean and judgmental. And who wants to be perceived that way?

Lastly, is The Power of Beauty appropriate for a 14 year old? I ask because I have on in my life who happens to be very pretty by societal standards. I want her to know that she is more than that but that she should recognize it and own it and it will give her tremendous power.

Thanks for a great post.
Jacky said…
Well said, sister. Raw and unapologetic. I'm not even going to shave my legs tonight. You've inspired me to let go and be free. Mother nature has given me facial hair and I want to own it.

Please post a photo of yourself and so we can all celebrate and bask in your luminous, glowing life force!!!
Jennifer Guise said…
I hadn't watched the video until after I read your piece. The thing that stuck in my craw was the woman talking about how important beauty was and how it affects everything - your job, your happiness, etc. I understand that the piece was meant to make us realize we are more beautiful than we think we are, but instead I think it stressed how important physical beauty is.

Now that I'm an instant s'mom of an 11 year old, I want to teach her just the opposite - that beauty is about the whole of you. The irony is that the less you care about how you look and focus instead on feeling fulfilled and happy, the more physically appealing you become. Happiness is beautiful and not the other way around.

Of course, companies in the business of selling us products to reduce our cellulite, subtly darken our skin into a faux tan, or counter the wrinkles on our faces (I've earned those laugh lines, dammit!) are going to play on our insecurities to encourage us to buy their products. Although it's fairly artfully hidden, this video is more of the same.
Rach said…
Thanks for all your thoughtful comments, y'all. They are apt and smart and pinpointed important points that so need to be made.

Kim, I'm hemming and hawing on whether the book is appropriate for a 14-year-old or not. In some ways I think YES, it'd be world-shattering. But in some ways I think it might be too sexually frank. Then again, I have no idea what it's like to a 14-year-old these days. Maybe you should skim it and decide?

But a big yes on the ways in which beauty is a catch-22, a source of power, a source of judgment, and so much more.

Oy. Pour me a cocktail already.

Holly M. said…
Y'know what's funny? I didn't even watch that massively circulating video. Subconsciously, I imagine I was thinking what you think - fuck that. Everyone is beautiful. Everyone is ugly. Everyone is both. Or neither. I don't need a soap company - who is, really, just trying to manipulate me to buy their product - to tell me what's what.

OK, now I'm venting. There was also a massively circulating video a while back, with a blind man sitting on the sidewalk, with a cardboard sign reading, "I'm blind, please help." A girl walks by and changes it to read, "It's a beautiful day and I can't see it." Suddenly the world starts giving him a bunch of money. At the end of the video, we see that it's an ad for a communications company. Eeeeewwwwww. That is so tasteless! Everyone's circulating this video like it's the most important social statement on earth. But to me, it was degrading and it pissed me off.

Ah, I feel much better now. Happy travels, m'dear! OM OM OM...Holly M. in DC

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