Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


with 2 comments

It was one of those odd coincidences.  I was reading the comments for the last blog yesterday while I was watching a retrospective on the Apollo 11 moon landing–yesterday was 45 years since we first walked on the moon.

If the two things seem to have nothing to do with each other, give me a minute.  Because to me, they’re two sides of the same situation. 

Although, I’ll admit, only one side of that seems to me to be a problem.

Someone said that there was no point in striving to meet an impossible standard–and that attempting to do such a thing might even be harmful.

The answer given was “trying to be taller,” which, of course, would be both useless and a waste of time.

But I contend that the example is not pertinent, and the premise is very, very wrong.

1) In the first place, no ideal is achievable.  That’s why it’s an ideal. 

This history of civilization–of all civilizations, inclusive–is the history of the human race’s war against the inevitable: against imperfection, and decay, and death.

Of course, none of these things is achievable, as far as we know. 

But that really is irrelevant.  The attempt to overcome those things, the will to perfection at any cost, gets us everything we value and most of what we take for granted in “modern’ societies.

It gets us vaccines and moon flights and wheat that feeds twenty times as many people as the old kind and Homer singing about Hector slain and indoor plumbing and the perfect curve of the David’s forehead.   It gets us John Donne and Charlie Parker.  It gets us a world where we spend our time fretting that our poor people are too fat.

Sometimes I think I’m the only person left on earth who understands how completely bizarre that is.

So no, I don’t think it’s pointless to aspire to an ideal whose standard we can never meet.

2) For all the talk about what one “culture” or “society” or another considers beautiful, one of the stranger realities of human existence is just how narrow our standards of beauty–male as well as female–really are.

We do this, I think, because we tend to confuse beauty with two things that are somewhat related, but not nearly the same thing: fashion, and sexual desirability.

Fashion is various and changes constantly.  The rule there is “let me show how I’m doing something new that is so expensive it proves I’m richer than you are.”

In societies with more scope, there are sometimes subcultures whose standard of fashion is something that proves that they’re YOUNGER than you.

The principle thing to remember about fashion is that, unless you’re dealing with the younger thing, it can be bought.

Sexual desirability runs on an emotional engine that has little to do with looks per se and everything to do with biology. 

Most of us are primed to want sex, at least when we’re young, and we are drawn to a wide variety of types and personalities. 

But wanting to have sex with somebody, even a strong sexual attraction to somebody, is not the same as finding that person beautiful. 

And there are more cases than anybody can count of people, and especially women, with nothing special in the way of beauty at all who still scorch the landscape when it comes to sexual partners.

3) Beauty–as opposed to attractiveness–is something colder and more abstract.  It’s also something like a force of nature.

And it never lasts.

Physical perfection is achievable in human beings only in the short run. 

As soon as the first signs of death and decay appear–the first small wrinkles in women, the first atrophying of muscle mass in men–the game is over.   The perfect is, by definition, eternal.   The temporary lacks perfection because it is temporary.

This is not to say that people who begin as beautiful can’t end up as very good looking.  Some beautiful people fall into ruin, but others just go on looking great, if without the incredible pull they had in their youth.

Witness Maria Schell.

4) The preference for youth, especially in women, is almost certainly biological.

At the core of each and every one of us is a biological imperative that says: be fruitful and mulitply.

Nature wants us to multiply  A lot.  And women reach the end of their childbearing years a lot earlier than men. 

Lymaree’s observation that “society” says the standard of beauty is perpetual sexual attraction is wrong on two counts.  It’s not a standard of beauty.  And it’s not society that has erected it.

Like it or not, in every human society everywhere, women past menopause will be the least honored members.

What seem to be exceptions to this rule are actually deliberate and carefully devised attempts to “fix” the problem of middle aged women in one manner or another–and those fixes never more than half work.

We live now, however, in a society where the fixes have all broken down, to be replaced by an emphasis on equality of opportunity in business, academia, government and the professions.

That’s a fix, too, and like all the other fixes, it only half works.

In spite of all that, the fixes are the good news–they’re part of that thing where we don’t accept ourselves as just another animal, but insist on fighting the inevitable.

But half working being what it is, we end up with Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the Supreme Court and bouncy little blondes analyzing the government while clueless on all the cable news stations.

6) I think the real issue here is the fear of many women that to get older–to no longer be sexually attractive–is to become invisible, unloved, alone. 

And that’s not a baseless fear.  A woman can be Ruth Bader Ginsberg, but it’s a status she has to win, and not everybody can win it.  In fact, the vast majority of women can’t win it.

What’s more, the traditional hedge against aging–having a large family committed to your welfare–is in direct conflict with earning a place in the professional world that will guarantee you recognition on your own.

Large families have become so unusual that there is very little accommodation for them.  And they’ve become so prohibitively expensive, it’s hard to know how they’d get on even there were such accommodations.

But the important thing here is that this problem cannot be solved by “body acceptance” or any of the other fashionable “social” movements that crop up here and there.

The fact that you accept your body does not mean that anybody else will, and it does nothing to change the landscape of the social world into one that asks other things from people than the way they look.

7) I agree that the kind of people who likely end up on Dating Naked do not understand the word “human” as I’ve used it, or even realize that there is that sense of “human” to be.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t understand it.

And that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t understand it.

To not understand–to live the way they live now–is to hit 40 and fall off a cliff.

Written by janeh

July 21st, 2014 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Ugly'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Ugly'.

  1. I wasn’t agreeing with much above, until the last sentence. That I agree with wholeheartedly. People hit that cliff and dive headfirst into ill-advised plastic surgery, constant physical upkeep (hair dye, wrinkle cream, dressing inappropriately) aimed at appearing as if they’re still in early adulthood. My mother is 79, and she’s still chasing this ideal. She can’t keep weight on, to the point it’s endangering her health, and she’s *happy about it.* In between hair coloring and manicure appointments…

    I conflated beauty with sexual desirability because that’s exactly the message society sends, and always has. The signals that communicate “good breeder” are those that society adopts as the characteristics of beauty. Right now, those signals are the slender figure of the barely nubile, symmetrical features, bright eyes and shiny hair. The characteristics of a woman entering her prime breeding period. Men have to be more mature and muscular, but have a bit more leeway on the age thing.

    It used to be that women of Reubenesque figure were more desirable, because a woman with some extra calories packed on was more likely to carry a pregnancy to term than an emaciated waif. (I won’t address things like Japanese teeth-blackening, because that *is* fashion)

    The currently unattainable, and most often Photoshopped ideal of female (or male) beauty, has been shown to be actively harmful, anorexia and bulemia leading the way. Even the stars and models IN those pictures don’t look like that in real life. We don’t truly learn that sexual desirability and good looks aren’t the same thing until later in life, if ever. Certainly we don’t learn that in our formative years.

    I think that despairing that people don’t strive for unattainable ideals is mistaken. Most of us *are* striving for ideals, but they’re the wrong ones. Millions of women are striving for size six and washboard abs (along with good jobs and adequate child care), instead of striving for inner serenity and satisfaction with what is essentially an historically blessed life.

    What I think is that body acceptance says “stop wasting your life worrying about how you look and focus on more important things.” It introduces the concept that there ARE more important things. Which looking at images of current beauty standards and sexual desirability will not do.


    21 Jul 14 at 11:45 am

  2. Yes, the last sentence grabbed my attention too.

    I was amused to hear in this morning’s news that there have been complaints here in Canberra from people wishing to have tattoos removed having been left with scars and other disfigurements by the laser removal treatment.

    Poor dears. My heart really bleeds for them. One of the less pleasant sights in the local shopping malls here in Australia are the veritable swarms of pierced, pumped and painted freaks strutting their stuff like peacocks displaying. Look at me, look at me! Ain’t I just the prettiest thing you ever saw in your life.



    21 Jul 14 at 1:03 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 737 access attempts in the last 7 days.