There was this girl who sat behind me in third grade. She had unruly blonde hair that hung down to her shoulders, steady green eyes, and tiny teeth, and I thought she was beautiful.
During class, I’d dream up excuses to turn around and look at her. When she was out sick for two weeks during that year’s typically cruel Wisconsin winter, I ran to school each morning anticipating her return. And while my classmates rejoiced on the last day before summer vacation, I began counting the many weeks we’d be separated. But when we all wandered into our stale classroom the following September, I saw to my dismay that the girl had changed. Her hair had been cropped like a Marine’s, she’d gained weight, and she was wearing glasses so ugly her parents deserved jail time. In short, I no longer found her beautiful, and therefore no longer had any interest in throwing things at her during recess.
This troubled me. Everyone from my mother to Mr. Rogers had articulated some version of “beauty is only skin-deep.” What really mattered, they said, was inner beauty.
I knew there was more than an ounce of truth to that—far be it from me to argue with Mr. Rogers—but inner beauty? Did that mean a cute spleen? Tying my shoes was a major accomplishment, long division seemed a near impossibility, and complex social interaction consisted of a game of tag. So the concept of inner beauty was tough to comprehend.
It didn’t get any easier. As a young editor at a popular men’s magazine, it was my job to find “normal” women for photo spreads—people who weren’t celebrities or models, but who looked like them and didn’t mind millions of guys ogling them in their underwear.
It was not a simple task. But I eventually found about 20 pictures that I thought would meet our art director’s approval. Then I looked on, horrified, as he dismissed all but two, his British accent making his rejections— punctuated with vocabulary that would have gotten me sent to Human Resources—sound almost affectionate.
Internalizing his standards, I became a brutal and unapologetic beauty critic, dismissing any woman who didn’t embody the popular ideal (perfect face, flat stomach, pneumatic curves) and using the word “beautiful” to describe women who, for all I knew, used paralyzed orphans to club baby seals.
OK, so I was shallow and evil. But beauty is tangible, beauty is sensory, and beauty is external. People who refuse to admit this need only walk down the street with a beautiful woman. I’ve done so with ones who are charming, and I’ve done so with ones who love reality TV and frequently use the phrase “Don’t go there.”
Their personalities don’t matter to the passing men who stumble as they stare, or to the women who look on with admiration and envy, or to everyone who looks at me as though I must have done something extraordinary to deserve such company.
That other famous platitude, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” suggests that there’s always someone who will think someone else is beautiful, and always someone who will think that same someone else is ugly.
In other words, everyone is beautiful, and everyone isn’t—so objective beauty doesn’t exist. It’s a nice thought, but scientists have told us for years that humans instinctively equate facial and bodily symmetry with attractiveness, because it connotes health.
Some have even gone so far as to say that beauty is mathematical, and not as in 36-24-36. There’s a proportion (approximately 1:1.618), known as the “Golden Ratio”—fans of The Da Vinci Code may recognize it—that can be used to compare an array of human proportions, like the width of the nose compared to the width of the mouth, to create a facial and body structure that is almost universally pleasing.
Of course, small asymmetries can augment a woman’s beauty—think of Tina Fey’s scar, or Kate Bosworth’s different-colored eyes. A coworker of mine once attempted an ill-advised back flip into a pool and landed teeth-first on the edge of the diving board. She knocked out one front tooth and chipped the other so badly it became known as “the can opener.”
But her good-natured acceptance of the relentless taunting she endured—her missing tooth was eventually found lodged in the family dog’s paw—combined with her charming attempts to keep her mouth shut when she laughed at herself, were, strangely, beautiful.
I thought this even though I’m neither blind nor a hillbilly, and, admittedly, I was also relieved—though not as much as she was—when her teeth were fixed.
Was her snaggle-toothed allure an example of that inner beauty I claim doesn’t exist? Not exactly. But I do think the way she acted, who she was, enhanced her beauty. If who you are can detract from how you look (and it certainly can; just think of Paris Hilton when she opens her mouth … to speak), then by definition it also can add.
I know a woman who is more beautiful now than she was ten years ago—and she was stunning then—because of the laugh lines around her eyes. Her personality has had a tangible, physical effect on her external appearance.
But, as my elementary-school crush taught me, there’s another thing that can affect a woman’s looks. A year and a half after that discombobulating first day of fourth grade, we were let out of class before lunch and sent to the local roller rink.
Emboldened by the sugar rush from a large cherry Icee, I approached the green-eyed girl when the music slowed and the lights went down for a couples skate. The disco ball over the rink sprinkled dizzying light through her long-again hair.
She’d eased into preadolescence gracefully, and her ant-incinerating glasses were nowhere to be seen. She was beautiful once more—until she turned down my invitation to skate. As I discovered that day, somewhat humiliatingly, few qualities—internal or external—make a woman as attractive as her feeling the same way about me.
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