Photo: Getty Images. Posed by model.
It must be nice to be a “natural beauty.” To be gorgeous without effort or even interest. This type of beauty is perhaps the most impressive. It’s like being a piano prodigy, except that you don’t even have to touch the keys. You can just stand around. You can sit. You should probably not eat too much, but otherwise, you’re good, because of God and genes and accident.
It’s hard to escape the concept of natural beauty. Once in university I was in a religion seminar, and the guest lecturer, a world-traveling, leathery-tan man with an impressive literary biography described in detail the beauty of the pious Muslim girls he’d encountered on his wild desert journeys. One girl was maybe fifteen, but she radiated a kind of primal loveliness. A dewy, untouched sex appeal. Holy shit, did he actually use the words “sex appeal” in describing her? He might as well have. Rapturously, he recalled how even her thorough hijab could not conceal her bursting beauty. Unlike Western girls, and here he glanced around the table at our tired, effortful faces, this pure blossom didn’t even have to try. She simply embodied beauty. She had, somehow, regardless of politics and oppression and discrimination and whatever else, won.
I was disturbed. Why were we talking so much about this girl’s appearance in the first place? Why was this man so comfortable objectifying, exotifying, and eroticizing her, especially in an academic setting?
But we are always talking about girls’ appearances, actually. And, in practically every context, “natural” beauty is praised.
It sets up a strange dynamic. We know, as girls, that we’re supposed to care about how we look, since everyone is always talking about how girls and women look as though it’s a really big deal. And we know, simultaneously, that it would be best if we could look as though we don’t care very much how we look, but also look as pretty as possible, at every given mument. Women are celebrated for being beautiful, and celebrated even more for being beautiful when they aren’t even trying.
Being beautiful in track pants is a major accomplishment.
Being beautiful without makeup is a triumph.
Being beautiful early in the morning, while exhaustedly walking the dog or slogging miserably to work—success!!
A few months ago, in the New York Times Room For Debate session on makeup, a man proudly trumpeted his wife’s ability to look super hot without even putting makeup on! And she is not exactly young anymore, either! Imagine that.
Now imagine a woman who’s gotten “work done.” Oh dear. Not great. We feel sort of sorry for her. Snide comments are made. She looks like she’s made of plastic...There’s a desperation about her. Basically, to summarize, she’s already failed, and she’s publicizing her failure by trying frantically to correct it. A woman I know who’s had a facelift told me in confessional tones that she made sure that it looks “natural.” And of course the idea is for cosmetic surgery to look like you didn’t “need” any cosmetic surgery to begin with. You’re supposed to appear a few weeks later looking refreshed, as though you were born this way.
We women often put a lot of effort into, and pay a lot of money to attempt to “look natural.” But, you know, better than whatever natural looks like for us personally.
It can all seem a little ridiculous, when you lean back from it for a second and squint. Which is why the leaning back and squinting is so important, because we need to recognize how ridiculous beauty constructs are.
Of course, it’s not completely unexpected: We praise people for being “naturally” smart, too, “naturally” athletic, and etc. But studies continue to show, as they have for some time now, that it is generally healthier to praise schoolchildren for being hardworking, than for being naturally gifted. We know now that to emphasize a child’s inherent ability places pressure on that child to continue to be accidentally talented, which is something that is hard for anyone to control. When the children who are applauded for their natural skills fail, they are shown to take the failure very personally. After all, the process of their success has always seemed mysterious and basic and inseparable from the rest of their identity, so it must be they who are failing as whole people. When students are instead complimented and rewarded for their effort and improvement, they tend to not be so hard on themselves. When they fail, they reason, “Well, I’ll work harder next time.” They learn that they are capable of success, rather than constantly automatically deserving of it, and they learn simultaneously that they are bigger and more complex than their individual successes or failures.
With this in mind, it seems especially important to correct our widespread cultural fixation on girls’ natural beauty. Which is not to say that this is a perfect analogy, and that we should praise little girls for learning to apply makeup skillfully, so that they can make themselves prettier, even if their inherited features aren’t stunning.
What I do want to say is: telling someone, especially someone very young, that what matters most about them is something outside of their control—something they either have or don’t have-- is messed up. It’s psychologically dangerous, even. It prevents them from figuring out their own worth and taking on the world as unique, fascinatingly diverse individuals.
And goddamnit, we need to let girls do this.
What’s awesome about us as girls and women isn’t something our genes did or didn’t do, it’s what we’re are capable of as full, messy, complicated people.
In honor of this, I will continue to proudly look like crap in the morning, without makeup, rumpled in my schlumpy clothes. It doesn’t get more “natural” than that, guys.
Oh, and also, I reserve the right to sometimes dress up, and fiddle with my hair, and pose in different pairs of similar-looking shoes, and to try very hard to look as pretty as possible. Because for me, it is an effort. And because sometimes that effort is an enormous amount of fun.
Kate Fridkis blogs about body image issues on Eat the Damn Cake.