Boo hoo, I’m beautiful

When Daily Mail columnist Samantha Brick wrote a whiny essay on the downsides of being attractive, the blogosphere laid it on like a ton of bricks.

“I am sorry, but this woman is not even remotely attractive,” a commenter named Alex, from New York City, wrote. As if beholders of beauty are ever objective, what was even more absurd was that Alex missed the point entirely.

What Brick had intended to illuminate in her essay is how a woman’s appearance fuels objectification, which has both helpful and harmful effects. But what she ended up doing instead was recounting a series of sad trivialities tied to her looks that have lost her friends, uplifted her husband and littered her dinners with free champagne.

“Throughout my adult life, I’ve regularly had bottles of bubbly or wine sent to my restaurant table by men I don’t know,” Brick wrote. “And whenever I’ve asked what I’ve done to deserve such treatment, the donors of these gifts have always said the same thing: my pleasing appearance and pretty smile made their day.” But, for her, good looks don’t come without gripes: “I’m not smug and I’m no flirt, yet over the years I’ve been dropped by countless friends who felt threatened if I was merely in the presence of their other halves. If their partners dared to actually talk to me, a sudden chill would descend on the room.”

It’s a dull idea and a bore to read, having nothing whatsoever to do with the requisite chutzpah it takes to presume such elemental prettiness. But perhaps even more irritating is that Brick counts her blessing a curse.

When Israeli-born producer Noa Tishby, a some-time model and actress, was asked during a Women In Film And Television panel discussion about her “relationship with [her] beauty,” she was caught off-guard but answered beautifully.

“I feel awkward about answering this question,” Tishby, the producer of HBO’s “In Treatment” said, according to a report on “[B]ecause the answer I really want to say is, ‘Boo fucking hoo me. Poor me!’ Saying like, ‘Oh you know, it’s really hard,’ is crap, and there are harder things than that, than to… be – to be pretty.”

Tishby added: “It’s not something that’s in my DNA. And yes, it’s an advantage, but it can be a problem. And it’s something that I need to make sure I have no particular relationship to, good or bad, because it just is. And people may react to it in a certain way, but that’s just their story… And it’s not something I complain about. Do I get upset when I get, for lack of a better word, disrespected? Absolutely… And it [has] happened a lot, and I found myself in a lot of those awkward situations, but you just have to remove yourself from them and stick to whatever it is that you want to say.”

Jezebel blogger Irin Carmon called the moment, “[t]he most uncomfortable — and interesting” of the night.” It is never a joy to have to discuss the role of one’s looks in public—as Brick’s confessional illustrates, owning up to attractiveness is slippery terrain—though the issue seems to have sparked a slew of personal stories lately.

Writing on The Daily Beast, the actress Ashley Judd articulated her grievances with the cultural preoccupation with female beauty.

“The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately,” Judd wrote. “We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification.”

Is there something especially special about female beauty or have we been socialized to focus on women’s bodies but men’s skills? I once asked a male friend about this, who gave a typical male answer: “If you were to put a photo of a woman’s thigh or a man’s thigh up on a billboard, which would cause more rubbernecking?”

If you asked me, I’d refer you to those juicy 1990s Calvin Klein ads in which Mark Wahlberg modeled underwear. In his recent essay on the French philosopher Albert Camus for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik even had to explicate how Camus’s handsome face propelled his popularity.

“Looks matter to the mind,” Gopnik wrote. “Clever people are usually compensating for something… When handsome men or beautiful women take up the work of the intellect, it impresses us because we know they could have chosen other paths to being impressive; that they chose the path of the mind suggests there is on it something more worthwhile than a circuitous route to the good things that the good-looking get just by showing up.”

Beauty, whether on a man or a woman is a powerful thing (just ask Brad Pitt or that Danish hunk on “Game of Thrones”), but the male reception of female beauty is what drives the difference. When men get a whiff of female sensuousness, they seem to lose their senses (“Men become very absolute about pretty girls, don’t they?” writes Zadie Smith in her novel On Beauty), while women can appreciate what is eye-pleasing without instantly connecting it to their own pleasure.

The point is not that it isn’t flattering—and often seriously fortunate—for a woman’s appearance to be praised; the trouble is that too often it snuffs out acknowledgement of her other qualities.

As Judd put it, “Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.”

Several years ago, when I wrote a profile of a director who had made a pass at me, a male colleague of mine remarked, “Well I could never get that story.” Which was a polite way of saying that the only reason my piece was deserving of attention was because of what I wrote, not how I wrote it; the subject of being an object more worthy than my skill.

In the movie “Elegy” based on the Philip Roth novella The Dying Animal, two men discuss exactly this phenomenon.

“Beautiful women are invisible,” opines the poet George O’Hearn, played by Dennis Hopper.

“Invisible?” says David Kepesh, the professor and cultural critic played by Ben Kingsley.  “What the hell does that mean?”

“Invisible,” O’Hearn repeats.

Incredulous, Kepesh insists, but “they jump out at you. A beautiful woman stands out, stands apart! You can’t miss her.”

“But we never actually see the person. We see the beautiful shell,” says O’Hearn. “We’re blocked by the beauty barrier. We’re so dazzled by the outside, we never make it inside.”

We all want to be seen, and there’s nothing more painful than being seen skin deep.


Poem “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith

Cape Cod, May 1974

No, we could not itemize the list

of sins they can’t forgive us.

The beautiful don’t lack the wound.

It is always beginning to snow.

Of sins they can’t forgive us

speech is beautifully useless.

It is always beginning to snow.

The beautiful know this.

Speech is beautifully useless.

They are the damned.

The beautiful know this.

They stand around unnatural as a statuary.

They are the damned

and so their sadness is perfect,

delicate as an egg placed in your palm.

Hard, it is decorated with their face

and so their sadness is perfect.

The beautiful don’t lack the wound.

Hard, it is decorated with their face.

No, we could not itemize the list.