A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Mirror, mirror

I looked up in surprise, expecting to see one of my daughters demanding my attention – but no, they were happily whacking each other with pool noodles several meters away. Instead, I was being addressed by an unknown plump and energetic bundle of purple ruffled bathing suit, green inflatable ring, and half-wet brown curls.  She struggled and splashed all the way across the shallow end to accost me.  Having reached her goal, she thrust her face close to mine, and examined me from a distance that reflected both intense curiosity and juvenile optic focal distances.
“Hi,” she repeated. She didn’t wait for a response, but pressed on.  “Tell me why your eye is like that!  What’s wrong with it?  Tell me the story of your eye!”
My first reaction was delight. I’m a sucker for the honest charm of a kindergarten-aged person who has not yet had her curiosity subsumed by politeness.  Besides, the idea that my right eye has its very own “story” seemed to elevate its status from useless orb to mythic legend.
That was my first thought.  My second thought was, “Ugh… is it really that obvious a whole pool-width away?” 
I try not to be self-conscious about the many, many ways in which I do not meet the American Standard of Beauty – but that’s a tall order.  Magazines, movies, and my flickering computer screen all tout these exacting criteria with maniacal zealotry.  Are your teeth too stained?  Is your hair unmanageable?  Are your thighs too plump? Is your waist too plump?  Are your arms too plump?  Is everything too plump, because, goddammit, we’re really into fat-shaming you?  Are your toes unattractive?  Do you, perchance, have a mismatched, wandering, blind right eye?  
I’m not the only one who’s mightily pissed off about this, of course.  I’ve seen oodles of articles and photos that profess to tear the Western Standard of Beauty off its skinny, glossy pedestal.  I’ve seen websites and Facebook posts featuring photos of women who are older, heavier, saggier, smaller-breasted, or more racially diverse than the standards that we see in magazines and on billboards.   Men don’t really prefer skinny girls!  Everything you see is photo-shopped!  The average woman is a size [some-bigger-number], not a size [some-smaller-number].  Our beauty standards should be broader!  Our beauty standards should include average women!
Glancing at this oh-so-well-intentioned propaganda, I’ve often felt as if I ought to be hollering its message from bell-towers, and maybe shooting off a few fireworks for added emphasis.  Hey! Mainstream media!  If you tell us one more time that we should hate ourselves for how we look, things are gonna get ugly with this Roman candle!  At the very least, I should be “liking” and “sharing”, shouldn’t I?  And yet, somehow, I haven’t been.  All that UpWorthy hasn’t made me feel Up, or Worthy.  And for a long time, I didn’t really know why.
There in the pool, I must have hesitated for a microsecond, because my little interlocutor elaborated, and pointed. “That eye’s smaller.  And lower down or something, maybe. And you keep closing it and not opening it.  I mean, not even opening it at all!”
I laughed.  “Well, it’s blind,” I explained.  “I didn’t even notice that I was keeping it closed, because I can’t see anything from it, anyhow.”  Also, as far as I could tell from the choking fumes, the pool chlorine was dialed up to roughly 50% of the lethal dose for carbon-based life-forms.  My right eye may be blind, but I guess it has some independent-minded self-preservation instincts.  Independent-minded, and asymmetrical.
Asymmetrical?  Is it even possible to be self-conscious about facial asymmetry, of all things?

Well, yeah.  Circa 1991, for a class in biological anthropology, I read a journal article that professed to debunk our ridiculous American standards of beauty – using actual science and cutting-edge cross-cultural research.  Skinny is a local fashion, not a universal standard! This article seemed to be full of hope for a college-aged misfit such as myself.  I was yearning to be told that I did not need to be thin to be acceptable.  I was desperate to learn that I did not need to have shiny blonde tresses, to boast perfect skin and a button nose, or to wear flirty skirts and mascara in order to be potentially desirable.  And, indeed, the article promised to do exactly that.  It reported that broad cross-cultural studies showed that only three qualities of feminine beauty were universal.  What were these standards?  Youthfulness, a waist-to-hip ratio close to 0.70, and facial symmetry. 
Pool Child was not done with me yet.  She needed to know how my specific peculiarity fit into the known peculiarities of her small world.  “That’s different from Lou,” she told me, after I’d explained my congenital cataract in terms understandable by the under-six set.  “Lou’s eyes go different, but not blind.”
“She has trouble getting both eyes to track together?  To look the same way?” I hazarded.
“Lou is a BOY,” the child corrected me, marginally offended by my foolish error.
Ah.  Well, maybe Lou doesn’t need to be so concerned about the beauty-related ramifications of the fact that he’s wall-eyed.  Or cross-eyed.  Or something.  Asymmetrical, anyhow.
Facial asymmetry isn’t exactly a phrase that rolls off the tongue (nor is it the name of a bad garage band.)  It also isn’t a quality I had at age nineteen.  Or could have.  Ever.  Back in the previous millennium, the tough truth was right there in black and white (because journal articles were printed on a substance known as “paper”).  I’d already been agonizing for years about my many, many other flaws.  And now this: facial symmetry.  I remember putting down that stapled, photocopied piece of literature with a feeling of bleak fatalism.  Screw you, world.  Screw you, and your immutable universal standards.
My best friend tried to cheer me up.  He wrapped a tape measure around my not-terribly small waist and my more-than-ample hips, and grinned at me.  A ratio of almost exactly 0.70!  Ergo, I was beautiful!  He hugged me as warmly as any man who has zero interest in the wide-hipped gender can possible hug.
“Lou sometimes only looks with one eye, though, because of seeing two of everything.” Pool Child tells me about Lou at some length.  Lou is a grownup. A grownup boy?  Well, okay.  Aren’t we all?  Lou can see from both eyes, but has trouble with convergence.  I’m betting Lou has no binocular depth perception.  I’m also betting Lou’s facial asymmetry can be spotted a whole pool away.  Hey, Dove Soap, can Lou be beautiful, too?
That’s right, Dove Soap wants “regular” women to feel more beautiful.  Feminist soap!  Empowered soap! Let’s all buy a crapload of Dove beauty products!  Look at all these artful photos of somewhat-but-not-really-diverse women whom we’ve now declared to fit the new, broader standard of “beautiful”!
Why don’t I click?  Why don’t I “like”? 
Well, partly because I’m just too damn cynical for Dove Soap.  Tear-jerkers don’t jerk me.  But I’m not just cynical, I’m also ludicrously logical. Okay, my brain says, what if we broaden our standards?  Where does that get us?  
I’ve heard it argued that the reason why our culture’s beauty standards are unfair, terrible, and misogynistic, and downright villainous is because only 1% of women can attain them (or 3%, or 5.6% -- I’m totally making these numbers up, just like everyone else does.)  But… if we create new beauty standards that are within the reach of, say, 73.8% of American women, is that a victory, or does it just make the other 26.2% (even if they are super-good at doing the math) feel even more turd-like?  No matter how much the beauty standards are broadened, I still haven’t seen the special website dedicated to Wall-Eyed Beauties (although that would also make an excellent name for a garage band).
Logically, then, the only way that we can alleviate the terrible, depressing strain placed upon girls and women (who are so desperate to meet our cultural beauty standards that they are actually willing to believe Dove ads) is to a) convince them that everyone is beautiful; b) convince them that nobody is beautiful; or c) persuade them not to give a shit. 
I’m in favor of all three.
Let me unpack that a little. 
Part a: Everyone is Beautiful
Despite my penchant for accessorizing with bandannas and decorating with duct tape, I am not opposed to beauty.  In fact, I think the world would be a sad and lifeless place without it.  I see beauty every day. Sometimes it stops me in my tracks.  Even setting aside the often ephemeral beauty of non-human things -- autumn sunlight scattering through the birch leaves, the languid and impossibly long stretch of a yawning feline, the distant white-topped crags of Denali against a cerulean sky – there is plenty of human loveliness to marvel at.  It’s the lithe energy of your child in motion, hand outstretched to catch your own.  It’s the delectably naughty twinkle of a shared joke in your lover’s glance.  It’s visual, yes, but the vision is caught in a mood, a moment, a memory.  It’s not something that can be bookended with a set of metrics.  It’s not something that can be used to judge others, or to deem them either acceptable or sub-par.  It’s something we can all attain, and all participate in, in certain transcendent moments, and in the eye of the right beholder.  However, much of the time…
Part b: No One is Beautiful
Human beings aren’t fixed works of art, like crystal candelabras or careful, static, pre-arranged photographic displays of pseudo-diversely “beautiful” women.    Do you prefer ginormous hooters?  Excellent.  Do you like the look of men who appear to have been snorting lines of testosterone?  Sublime.  Are you positive that you only want to date skinny blonde women?  Good luck with that.  But keep in mind that real people, regardless of boob bountifulness or pectoral proportions, look weird if you photograph them with a mouthful of spaghetti or while bent over to tie a shoe.  Real humans get zits, wrinkles, ingrown beard hairs, period-stained underwear, and horrendous cases of the stomach flu.  Everyone poops, and (unless you have a kink so odd that it sends you to the darkest backwaters of the internet) you probably don’t think they look beautiful while doing so.  Which brings me to…
Part c: Who Gives a Flying…
Oh, sure, physical attractiveness is important, in that it factors into what we call, in other species, “mate selection”.  But attraction and desire are ubiquitous – a delightful miasma that surrounds us all. Despite the unremitting, exorbitant, and boring-as-hell efforts of every advertiser under the sun, we still haven’t been fully brainwashed into rejecting all the lovely, sexy, fascinating, imperfect humans around us.  Look!  People are full of life, interest, spark, health, and humor!  People are dating.  People are marrying.  People are sneaking away in to the shrubbery.  (Wait, no – don’t look.)  The whole wide world is telling us that perfection is not necessary for lust, for love, for mutual admiration, for self-confidence, for happiness. 
Pool Girl eventually satisfied her curiosity.  She splashed her way back to where her mom, highly distracted, was playing Bounce the Beach Ball with two other even littler siblings.  In animated tones, with much smiling, pointing, and waving back in my direction, Pool Girl began talking to her mother.  I couldn’t catch everything she said, but from the woman’s look of abject and horrified embarrassment, I got the gist.
Bad Parenting Moment.  Been there, done that.  I smiled.  I waved.  I overflowed with empathy.  The mother smiled back, still mortified, but also relieved.  She was a heavy woman, with thin brown hair straggling wetly against the side of her head.  She was tossing the ball lightly to each of her kids.  They were giggling.  She was giggling.  Pool Girl looked back at me again, and tried to throw me the ball.  It fell short.  I retrieved it and threw it back anyhow.  My own kids, finally noticing that I was playing with someone else, lunged for the ball too – but their swimming skills are negligible at best.  No matter.  They giggled, too.
I looked at my scrawny, pale, awkward, sodden, giggling kids, and at that other mom’s chubby, browner, awkward, sodden, giggling kids.  What did I want for their mutual future?  A set of American Beauty Standards (complete with metrics for waist size, for bust size, for degree of facial symmetry) that was “realistic” enough to encompass all of them?
Um, no. 
What I wanted was for all of them to know that each of them will have moments of true beauty, as reflected in the eyes of some over-the-moon beholders – and that it will be joyful to savor these moments.  But I also wanted them to understand, without even having to think about it, that they will also have many, many more moments when beauty isn’t even on the radar – and doesn’t need to be.   Life is full of gardens to be planted, books to be read, and mountains to be climbed.  It’s full of crazy ideas to be chased -- and crazy kids to be chased, laughing, around an overly chlorinated oblong of tepid water. 
It was nice getting to know you, Pool Girl.  And you were right – my eye really did have a story, after all.
[Note: I’m pretty sure that gestating twins and hitting middle age have thrown off my waist to hip ratio a bit, but I don’t really feel like measuring.   Oh, and that thing about symmetry?  Turns out it was wrong, anyhow.  Go figure.  http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/08/theres-more-to-life-than-facial-symmetry/378807/]

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