I don't want to be a 'natural beauty'

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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.

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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

38 comments

  • I'm amazed that a room full of educated, intelligent young women didn't take that lecturer to task and make him explain his creepy, sexist remarks.

    Now I may be howled down for saying this, but I don't think that praising "natural" beauty is akin to praising intelligence, athleticism, or other traits that aren't dished out equally at birth. The difference is that intelligence, athleticism, etc. are latent traits that need to be developed. They are something you "do". They are skills that you learn, work on, and demonstrate. If you don't use it, you lose it, and the only way of using it meaningfully involves effort. Lots of it.

    As Kate most eloquently pointed out, the "natural" beauty we're referring to here requires no effort other than continuing to breathe (and yes, by current standards, perhaps not to eat very much). When we laud and praise this beauty, we are merely lauding genetics. Not work, not effort, not striving, not the application of talent, not the learning of skills, not the development of character or ability. Just... "well done for looking so good."

    A child who sees their friend praised for playing sports well, or doing well at school, has a place to direct their efforts if they want to emulate that by working to develop the relevant skills. But seeing your friend complimented every day for the shape of their eyes or the lilt of their cheekbones... what can you do to emulate that?

    Commenter
    Red Pony
    Date and time
    May 27, 2013, 9:50AM
    • +1

      Red Pony, we finally agree on something. Cause for celebration, I feel!

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 27, 2013, 10:20AM
    • In general I agree, but I don't think intelligence and athleticism can be entirely learned. I think some of those skills are inherent like beauty. But I agree at least people can vastly improve in those areas through hard work.

      Commenter
      Mellah
      Date and time
      May 27, 2013, 10:20AM
    • Yes, you're right here Red Pony. Latent abilities that you've worked hard to enhance - be it intelligence, swimming ability, musicianship or whatever are absolutely worthy of praise for the reasons you suggest. Most kids who are naturally ahead of the pack in their younger years only stay ahead in later years with a whole lot of hard work - hours of practise or study or whatever. No one sees the 4.30am swim prac starts, or the hours of music study - they just have a slightly envious trill at the genetic head start the child was given.

      I suspect we'll never move away from looks as a major factor in life, but most of us seem to get to an age where we recognise it is just a fleeting gift with hard work at other latent gifts being the real key. The challenge is huge though - every aspect of our culture, from movies to tv stars and more encourages looks as the driver to success. I mean how many drop dead ugly tv stars, movie stars, music stars etc do you see? (A few, but a very, very few.)

      Commenter
      Chairman Miaow
      Date and time
      May 27, 2013, 10:45AM
    • Melleh, that was the author's original point. Intelligence is also inherent. Thus, when a smart kid does something good, you praise them for "working hard to get this result" not "well done, you are smart". Kate is extending this to say to pretty girls "You did your make up well" rather than "you are pretty". Not that I agree with this - see my longer post below.

      Commenter
      innerwested
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 27, 2013, 10:49AM
    • Natural beauty tequires sensible healthy lifestyle, oral hygiene skin care, and obviously intelligence in hairstyle , dress and manners and deprtment .You see many people who were gorgeous as teenagers who are revolting now, because they didnt work it, got fat and lazy or became drunks.But the bottom line is beaurty is about symmetry,and that indicates healthy undamaged DNA and RNA and ,because its undamaged visibly the organism is generally healthier throughout and overall.

      Commenter
      Kane
      Date and time
      May 27, 2013, 11:29AM
    • The natural beauty referred to here is a fallacy, though, and the real 'natural beauty' does fall into a category quite similar to natural intelligence and natural athleticism.
      That is, something that some are fortunate enough to have been born with at levels above average, but can easily be completely wasted through abuse or neglect.

      Keeping up a healthy balanced diet containing minimal sugar and oils (and even carbs) and includes actually eating those 5 serves of veg a day constantly recommended, to maintain clear skin. Making sure to get in at least an hour of exercise every day to keep muscle toned and body fat percentage below 10% (or below 17ish% for women).
      Avoiding excessive sun, alcohol or even air conditioning that can dry out the skin.

      These are things that I would consider hard work and a lot of discipline and not really worth the end result. That's only my opinion, but I'm sure many other people would feel the same.
      But then some who agree with me still choose to resent these attractive people on the false assumption that they didn't work for it.

      "A child who sees their friend praised for playing sports well, or doing well at school, has a place to direct their efforts if they want to emulate that by working to develop the relevant skills."
      And then despite working triply as hard to achieve that level, comes to the sad realisation that no amount of training is going to get them as good as their friend, because they simply aren't fast enough/tall enough/big enough. At which point they can either:
      - Adapt by setting themselves personal goals and look at constantly beating these
      - Give up completely and constantly whinge about how unfair life is

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      May 27, 2013, 11:52AM
    • My impression is that the religious lecturer was waxing lyrical about the "dewy, untouched" beauty of the pious Muslim girl because of his own view that being a virgin is "beautiful" and being sexually experienced "takes away a young girl's beauty" in his eyes. His view, perhaps, but definitely not mine!

      Commenter
      MO4
      Date and time
      May 27, 2013, 12:12PM
    • Intelligence, athleticism and musical ability are partly inherent, but most people (unless born a total genius) still won't get far without putting in a fair amount of effort and practice. "Natural" beauty is something you're lucky to be born with, like being lucky to be born to very rich parents, and beauty will fade with time. I prefer to praise my three daughters for their achievements, though sometimes praise for looking beautiful is warranted (eg: high school ball). But I have always emphasized achievement and hard work over beauty, which has resulted in them not becoming obsessed with it and having a healthy self-esteem.

      Commenter
      MO4
      Date and time
      May 27, 2013, 12:18PM
  • I think your comments are valid, I can't remember as a child ever being commented on for being a handsome young man. Maybe at special occasions like a wedding if I was dressed up or something.

    Girls on the other hand seem to be told all the time "such a beautiful little girl" or "aren't you pretty today".

    This gives the child the imbalanced idea that it is important to be pretty. That above all, it is the thing they should strive for.

    I don't have any kids but I have two nieces and I never compliment them on their looks (although they are stunning girls) I think it is much more productive to compliment them on their school work, when they do well at their dancing - when they achieve things.

    I can't control what everyone else says to them but at least they'll always have an uncle who sees beyond their beauty and what's beneath and hopefully that will help them in their later years.

    Commenter
    Adrian
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 27, 2013, 9:50AM

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