No girl believes that she's beautiful...

2012-04-27 01:21

Someone posted a little image meme on Tumblr recently, which was just the oh-so inspiring text:

No girl believes she’s beautiful, until a guy comes along and makes her feel like she is.

I saw it in the context of an edit roughly to the effect of “No girl believes she’s beautiful, because our society has really unhealthy notions of beauty…”, etcetera.

But the more I think about this, the more it bothers me. There’s a few problems.

Problem #1: What about a girl making her feel beautiful? Yeah, I know, most people are straight. Nonetheless, it seems a little problematic. On the other hand, I think there is a fundamental societal rule going on here; people are sort of trained into the notion that men judge feminine beauty. (One of my friends once got a comment on tumblr that a reader had seen a picture of her and thought she was ugly. Apparently she was supposed to care.)

Problem #2: Why can’t she believe she’s beautiful before some guy makes her feel that way? This is sort of a followup to the other, but it gets to a deeper issue about how people form their self-image.

Okay, now with those in mind, let’s do a little postmodern art, and deconstruct it. Try a few of the following:

No girl believes she’s a successful CEO, until a guy comes along and makes her feel like she is.
No girl believes she’s a member of a tool-using species, until a guy comes along and makes her feel like she is.
No girl believes she’s wearing glasses, until a guy comes along and makes her feel like she is.

These highlight something of what makes the original creepy; it’s non-sensical at a very deep level, unless we presuppose that girls are uniformly incapable of a respectful self-image. But wait! There’s a deeper problem. Let’s try one more:

No guy believes he’s beautiful, until a girl comes along and makes him feel like he is.

Do you see it now? The original piece has a presupposition in it, cleverly hidden, that “believes that she’s beautiful” is a thing of particular and special importance. It presupposes that every girl wishes to be beautiful, but beyond that, that she cannot be fulfilled without believing that she’s beautiful, and that she is fulfilled by believing that she’s beautiful. It is offered as both necessary and sufficient to her validation as a human being. It doesn’t explicitly say that, but what you see from looking at random substitutions of other nouns or adjectives is that none of them have that “oh, how touching” conditioned response. It’s romantic because the guy makes her complete as a person — by making her feel, and thus believe, that she’s beautiful. Turn it around and make it about a guy and it’s just sorta silly-sounding. Who cares whether a guy believes he’s beautiful? I’m not even sure most guys want to be “beautiful”.

This weird standard is deeply embedded in our view of what it is to be female in our culture. Look at all the stories, especially movies and TV, where a woman’s true beauty is revealed. Every time, it is done by showing that she can look attractive. Never do you see the other students at the high school realize that being around her makes them laugh and feel more alive. Never do you see other people in the office come to respect their coworker’s technical brilliance, her determination. No, the makeover is always about looking pretty.

A trivia point: Many women have skills other than being decorative. Some of them, in fact, would rather be complimented on those skills than on how they look. Imagine, if you will, that you were to spend ten or twenty years working with fanatical dedication to become a genuinely world-class expert in a challenging field, and that people mostly responded with “wow, and you dress so sharply!” or “and she does it without a hair out of place”. Seriously, how insulting is that? I understand it’s pretty damn insulting.

For more deconstruction of this, focused merely on the hilarity of repeating the soundbite until the words lose all meaning, you can have a look at my tumblr post about this.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. No guy feels that he’s a feminist, until a girl comes along and makes him feel like he is.

    On a more serious note, I don’t think this obsession with beauty is purely cultural. If women were as attracted to pretty men as men are to pretty women, men would be a lot more interested in how they look to women. And that attraction has a biological basis: many aspects of beauty are good indicators of fertility, and pregnancy and nursing are extremely physically demanding.

    That said, there’s a lot more than Darwinian sexual selection going on here. For one thing, we’re still living with the vestiges of a culture in which child rearing was a woman’s only career option. And that’s not just a Victorian holdover: read about Sarah in the Old Testament.

    For another thing— and this actually contradicts that premise— most of the rules for female beauty are enforced by women. This is something my wife has noticed. If she’s going to be around men, she doesn’t bother dressing up, since guys won’t even notice. But if she’s going to be around women, she does. Guys tend to notice sexy, but not stylish.

    Dave Leppik · 2012-04-27 12:08 · #

  2. IMO this is about role models. Both role models. Being beautiful really is a value that is still valid in the female role model.
    So yes, Dave is right when pointing out that these role models aren’t only expressed by the opposite sex, but by members of the same sex as well. The mother teaches the daughter what it means to be a woman, for example.

    Thing is: We, as human, sentient beings, can’t define ourselves without some outside help. It’s some form of dialect in which we act the way we think we do, and get a response “from society”, either in a positive, or in a negative way. The difficult bit is to look at this response and act on it without loosing ourselves.

    @Dave. “And that attraction has a biological basis: many aspects of beauty are good indicators of fertility, and pregnancy and nursing are extremely physically demanding.”
    That is actually not true. What is being considered as “attractive” has changed throughout history several times. Not long ago what we call “Obesity” was a signal of health and luxury, thus it was the definition of attraction during that time.

    Christian · 2012-04-30 02:09 · #

  3. No man believes that he’s an idiot, until a woman comes along and makes him feel like he is.

    — James Marshall · 2013-11-08 15:34 · #

 
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