Sunday, May 31, 2009

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

"Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street bald and still think they are beautiful!" – Stephanie Hawkins*

For a bald girl, I am about as Out There as I can get without going bare. I wear scarves to weddings, dates, work, and job interviews – basically, everywhere. I talk comfortably about my alopecia with anyone who asks, and even those who don’t. And now I’m writing about it. In a public blog. Under my real name. (Honestly, I debated that, but opted for transparency.)

And yet.

I avoid mirrors, especially when my head is bare, like when I first step out of the shower.

After a shower, I still wrap my head in a towel.

Once I’m dry, the first thing I put on is my pañuelo.

Even when I’m alone, I wear a fleece hat to sleep, and not just because it warms my head.

I can count on one hand the people who’ve seen my naked head – two hands if you include doctors, wig store owners, and an arrogant photographer.

The other day, I am waiting at a bus stop in The District, wearing my gray pinstriped pantsuit, when an African American man in an oversized t-shirt, baggy jeans, and a New York baseball cap approaches me.

“You are lookin’ fine today,” says New York. “For a white girl.”

I look behind me, side to side, but see noone. Is he talking to me?

“Jenny Craig be workin’ on you.” His t-shirt hangs to the middle of his thigh. He’s probably a large, but the shirt is at least a triple extra large.

He must be homeless, I think. “I need Jenny Craig,” I say, emphasizing the word need.

“You look like that naturally? Ooh, girl.” He reeks of alcohol.

Ah, he’s drunk. I smile politely. “Thanks, I guess.”

“When I see something I like, I jus’ say it. And I gotta say, you look good.”

I look behind me, side to side, and see a young woman leaning against the storefront, her arms folded against her chest. She is watching us. I roll my eyes in her direction.

He is from New York, he says, tugging on the bill of his cap.

I nod.

He admits to having had a few too many drinks, but he’s in the midst of a divorce, and he’s drowning his sorrows. He doesn’t use these words, but that is the gist.

I look off to the distance as he’s talking, shift my weight from one foot to the other.

Finally, he gets the hint. “You have a great day,” he calls from the intersection, turning back for one last look.

Here’s the thing: My first reaction was to label him as crazy, an alcoholic, some sort of derelict. No man in his right mind would hit on a bald girl. Normal men don’t even notice bald girls.

I did not think, “I’ve still got it!” And I certainly didn't think, "I sure am beautiful."

The truth is, I struggle with my image. I truly believe that bald can be beautiful, but on other people. I don’t consider myself beautiful. When people say I’m beautiful, I don’t believe they mean it.

I am not alone. And this is not unique to bald women (though it very well may be magnified).

According to The Real Truth about Beauty Study, commissioned by Dove in 2004, more women are dissatisfied with their beauty than any other area of their lives, with the exception of financial success. Approximately $230 billion is spent each year by people around the world on products designed to make them feel more beautiful, yet a mere two percent of surveyed women described themselves as such.

As a child, I felt beautiful. I must have. Everyone around me said I was beautiful, and I believed them.

At what point, I wonder, did I stop believing? Was it when they stopped saying it?

Can you feel beautiful if nobody ever says you’re beautiful? If only your mom says it, or your grandma, or your spouse? Is it merely the sum of a lifetime of affirmations?

Is beauty a state of mind or a physical attribute, a weight, a shape, a hair length or color or fullness, the size of a lip pout, the upturn of a nose?

Is beauty defined by others, based on a narrow description created by a society of people, most of whom don’t even meet the strict criteria?

Does the criteria, by definition, need to be strict? If we all described ourselves as beautiful, if we all truly felt beautiful, would it dilute the meaning? If we all were beautiful, wouldn't beautiful be the new average?

I hope we get to find out.

And I hope I live to see a day where bald women walking down the street really do feel beautiful.

Check out the Dove Campaign and the research behind it.

* excerpt taken from "from WOMEN" by Stephanie Hawkins, published in Deluxe Rubber Chicken, a Web-based journal of poetry published from Cheektowaga, NY.

© 2009 Christy Bailey


mojee said...

beauty is totally in the eye of the beholder. we annot escape our culture and life experience. and unfortunately the media dictates to us what is beuatiful.

Anonymous said...

I think there are a couple of standards that come to play. One is based on what we see and the other is based on who we believe people are. I don't think the first is necessarily bad--we all have preferences. However, where things get messed up is when we start trying to promote one image of beauty over another--especially at a societal level. What gets overlooked is the fact that beauty in the physical sense is transitory. Not only do we get old (a constant process that changes our appearance), but someone's "beauty" can be tainted by they are. Good looks won't gloss over abhorrent behavior (I'm sure we can all think of examples). Beauty may draw us into a relationship, but it can't make the relationship functional.

This leads into that other form of "beauty", which is our assessment of a person's character. An exposure to someone of good character-someone inspiring, courageous, moral--does not fade so easily. We are drawn to them, and the superficial tends to recede. First Lady Michelle Obama's speech in London at girls school is a good example. She's an attractive woman by any standard, but that's now what captivates people.

In the end I think we all play a part in defining what is "beautiful".

Joanne said...

Good points ljrenfrow!

For me beauty is not a hot button. I once had a boyfriend who would always tell me I was beautiful. "So what" I thought. What difference does that make to anyone? I want to be intelligent, insightful, romantic, loving, witty, etc. Beauty? Sure, it's nice but it's not one of my top things.

My question is: if you want to be defined as beautiful, what are you really wanting? Admiration? Prestige? Love? Acceptance?