The Darker Side of Beauty (Audio Available)

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 14 June 2015
(Click Read More for access to the audio files for this sermon)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we know better than that.  Beauty is only skin deep, but we easily forget that — or maybe wonder what it really means.  Beauty is too often confused with glamour but, if we are honest, we are often mesmerized by all that glitters.  “What does it mean to seek a life of beauty?” That’s the question of this month.  Of course, we’re not talking about living a life of physical, vain beauty.  But how can we spend a month contemplating beauty without confronting its darker side?

Even if we don’t talk about it, we know from the statistics that insecurity about physical beauty plagues a lot of people and it fuels a lot of industry.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner once wrote,“…if all of the women in America were to wake up one morning feeling good about themselves, the American economy would collapse.” I’m sure you could say the same about the Canadian economy.

We aren’t the only ones feeling bad about ourselves.  In the Philippines, women pay large sums of money they really can’t afford to have their skin whitened.   They say quite openly, “You Westerners are beautiful. We want to look like you!”  

We’re seeing rising numbers of young people struggling with eating disorders — and not just girls.  Boys and men are also living with increasing insecurity about their looks. But no one talks about it, because only women are supposed to obsess about their bodies.

All over the world, plastic surgery is becoming a norm for women and men.  I recently read an article in the New Yorker, of all places, about South Korea as the plastic surgery capital of the world.  There, everyone says that they do it to be beautiful, to be more successful and happy.  Change your eyes to look like an anime princess.  Taper your jaw, change your nose, your cheekbones, your bust, to feel better about yourself, they say.  To live up to a standard of beauty that is, well, pretty Western European.

I don’t know if you were listening to the CBC on the day that the editor-in-chief of Maxim magazine was interviewed.  This month, Maxim, an international lifestyle magazine for young men, came out with its annual “Hot 100” list, a list of the hottest (in other words, most beautiful) women in the world.  The big deal, according to the interviewer, was that the cover featured a beautiful but unadorned headshot of pop star Taylor Swift (“Who’s that?” my husband asks.  “We are getting old!” he says.  I know who she is, so I guess I’m not so old yet.)  A headshot instead of the standard photo of a woman in heels and cleavage is major progress forward, says the magazine’s editor-in-chief.  She explains, “This year’s Hot 100 turned into more than an exercise in ranking women by looks.  We set out to rethink how we define hot…  Beauty is subjective, but a person’s accomplishments are forever,” she says.   

The magazine’s other innovation was to invite Roxane Gay, African American writer, professor and feminist, to write a reflection on beauty as the lead-in to the photos of the other 99 women on the list.  OK, after I heard that, given today’s topic, I ran out and bought a copy of this men’s magazine that I’ve honestly never even seen before.

Roxane Gay writes,

“I like to think of myself as the kind of person who appreciates people from the inside out, but I am human.  I have instincts.  I enjoy beauty.  I objectify.  I want.  Or in today’s parlance, I thirst.

“We can talk about ‘inner beauty’ all we like, but as my mother often says, ‘We eat with our eyes first.’  For better or for worse, looks matter….

“If a woman has an unruly body, or if her features deviate from the typical European beauty ideal, she is often rendered invisible…  
“Beauty triggers our basic instincts, but it is also a currency, and for those without such a currency, life works differently.”

Gay speaks of the pain of social norms that make being white, thin, well-toned, blonde and blue-eyed the standard gauge of beauty. She tells the reader to go ahead and enjoy these beautiful women, but consider the people they are, behind those beautiful faces.  She concludes her essay by saying that when you’re done, try considering a broader range of what is beautiful.

In the end, I find I’m disappointed. Even though I only bought the magazine to read her article, I confess, I flipped through the pictures.  Those social norms dominate, to the point that by the time I’ve looked at all 100 women, I can hardly tell one from another. Their body types are all the same.  Only a handful are women of colour, and while there are a lot of brunettes, flowing blonde hair still dominates.  The photos seem to negate everything that Roxane Gay has written, but why should I be surprised? Why should I even care?

When I was in seminary, I took this course that was called Racializing Whiteness.  The course aimed to raise consciousness around issues of race.  But it had this interesting perspective.  Instead of focusing on what it meant to be a person of colour, it looked at the history of what defined whiteness — because we know that genetically, race is just a social construct.

We began the course by reading this haunting book, The Bluest Eye, by the African American author, Toni Morrison.  This is a painful story of a young black girl named Claudia who suffers terribly at the hands of the adults, black and white, who surround her.  She is called ugly for the darkness of her skin.  Whiteness defines beauty and Claudia despises it.  She despises Dick and Jane, those blonde, blue-eyed children in her early reading books.  She despises the dimpled, blue-eyed actress, Shirley Temple.  She despises the beautiful baby doll that the adults expect to be her most prized gift.

Claudia says, “I had only one desire:  to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me.”  

As I read, I could see through Claudia’s eyes as she attacked the doll’s pink skin and perfect blue eyes but her hands were my hands doing exactly what I did as a child to the exact same doll.

I cannot compare my life to that of Claudia’s.  I have never suffered her level of pain, and I have always had the privilege of being white.  But beauty was a big thing on my mother’s side of the family, and blonde hair and blue eyes were prized above everything.  I grew up despising those perfect blonde children, Dick, Jane and especially Sally, that they tortured us with in order to teach us how to read.  

When my grandmother immigrated to the US at the turn of the 20th century, she and her family were Jews fleeing the pogroms in Poland.  As she grew into adulthood, nothing mattered more to her than fitting in as an American.  She maintained a Jewish identity, but she slowly let the vestiges of her old world past slip away.  Beauty was defined by how well you could pass as not being Jewish.  Her first baby, my aunt, was a blue-eyed, blond-haired beauty with a perfectly turn-up shiksa nose.  Her second baby, my mother, was dark-eyed, dark-haired with a nose that might have been adored by the Romans but marked her as the one thing my grandmother dreaded:  Jewish.  

Not that any of this would have been articulated as an outright rejection of Judaism by my grandmother.  No, it was more subtle than that.  It was all about passing for being white, for being beautiful.  As one of seven sisters, one more beautiful than the next, the competition was tough, and my grandmother had aspirations to fit into a society that shunned her.

My aunt became a fashion model and married too young.  My grandmother told my mother to get a career, since she wasn’t beautiful.  There’s a whole story to tell of my mother’s pain because she could never live up to my grandmother’s expectations, and her triumphs because she had a fulfilling career.  Still, she passed my grandmother’s pain and expectations on to me.  It took me years to realize that the distinction had little to do with any measure of beauty and everything to do with being Jewish and trying to pass for something else.

I knew from my grandmother that, whatever I was, wasn’t good enough.  It’s funny how children absorb these things from the generations.  My mother’s hurt turned into my own anger against the icons of the day:  Shirley Temple, Dick and Jane and the perfect pink baby dolls with their blond curls and glistening blue eyes that I, too, wanted to dismember.

The funny thing is that my aunt, who was still a beauty at the age of 92, told me a completely different story before she died.  She insisted that my grandmother had never told my mother she wasn’t beautiful.  (Although my cousins confirmed that they heard the same story.)  No, my aunt said, she was the one who suffered because of her looks.  She told me that, as a girl, she was sure she was the ugly one.  Her friends told her she had the nose of a pig.  One of my great-aunts became so angry when she heard this that she took my aunt around to all the modelling agencies in New York City and that’s how she became a model.  I figure that she was the victim of the backlash of her friends’ insecurity.  Her turned-up nose liberated her from being labeled as Jewish, so they told her she looked like a pig.

For better or worse, looks matter — at least they did in my family.

There’s a lot a pain in this world, things that are more serious than how we feel about our body image.  Most of us function just fine, even though we may live with the daily insecurities we keep to ourselves.  We tell self-deprecating jokes about our weight, our height, our hair, or our  features.  Maybe we think we’re above all that, that we are too sophisticated to care about our physical appearance, or to have ever cared.  Yet, I know that there has to be a lot of pain right here — pain about not living up to social norms, about what it means to be acceptable as a man or a woman, about what it means to be acceptable as a person.  We want to believe that we can look beyond the physical, and yet the physical is the first thing that we encounter.  To admit to vanity, or the tendency to judge what we see, seems taboo.  These are the things that we keep silent.  Yet in that silence, our own wholeness can be lost.

Like Roxane Gay, the only thing that I can think to offer you at the end of this sermon is a call to broaden our definitions of the beautiful, to become more aware of what social norms are really telling us, of how deeply these norms are cut into the substance of our culture, and how harmful this can be.

But I leave you with Paolo Coehlo's version of the myth of Narcissus that he tells in his book The Alchemist.  Everyone knows Narcissus as the beautiful man who is so in love with his own reflection that he falls into the lake and drowns. In the alchemist’s version, the lake weeps so much for the loss of Narcissus that it turns from fresh water into salt.  “Why do you weep?” the goddesses ask the lake.  They are sure the lake is lamenting the loss of his beauty.  “He was beautiful?” the lake asks.  Then, with reflection, the lake tells the goddesses, “I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”

May you allow yourself to see your own beauty reflected in the eyes of others.

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