Sunday, October 7, 2012

It's In the Eye of the Beholder

I've been thinking lately about the importance society places on physical beauty. We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. What I find physically attractive in the opposite sex might not be the same qualities another man appreciates. And that's fine. Life would be pretty dull, if not just a little contentious, if we all found the same selection of people hot.

But for a long time now--heck, since pretty much the time I hit puberty--I've always felt uneasy about how we judge people based almost solely on their appearance. As a male, I've been conditioned (by the media, by culture, and by my own peers) to respond to a certain list of attributes that are deemed attractive. Symmetry, height, complexion, and outward general healthiness are the key foundations of these attributes to be sure, but other factors are thrown into the mix. Does she have long hair or short? Is it lustrous or does it just sit there like a dry tumbleweed? Blonde or brunette? Measurements? Do they configure to the classic hourglass figure of 34-24-34? Is she 5 foot 9, or 4 foot 5? But most important of all: how does she score on the imaginary scale of attractiveness men have somehow set up among themselves to qualify such things? Is she a stratospheric "10" ala Bo Derek, or does she score somewhere closer to earth in the 6 to 8 range? Combining all these factors into some package we men are conditioned to recognize almost instinctively is supposed to determine the ideal "girl" for us to marry. Or, at the very least (because we're guys here, after all), the most suitable candidate to "get with."

My, what a big ... heart you have.

Yet, I've always had a major problem with this. The saying goes: "Don't judge a book by it's cover," and as a young man it didn't take me very long to figure out that this principle applied to people as well. After all, I was constantly being judged by the fact that I wore eyeglasses. In those days, unless someone actually took the time to get to know me, most people assumed I was meek and a pushover because I had a physical disability, albeit a mild one in the form of poor eyesight. Over time I developed a thick skin toward this treatment, and even more importantly, a distrust of those who put too much stock in the outward appearance of a person. In effect, I learned very early on that it was wrong to pass judgement on someone based solely on what they look like, or what they were wearing. Because I disliked being judged in this manner, I endeavored not to judge others in the same way. I began to look beneath the surface; to monitor how a person behaved and spoke. To get to know them first and judge later based on the content of their character. But specifically I made it a point not to judge solely on looks.

Naturally, when I came to the ripe age for such things, I started to apply this approach to the young ladies I found attractive. Now, I'm not pretending for one second that I didn't gravitate toward female classmates of mine physically more blessed with those qualities young boys are taught to desire. I'm only human. But what I found eye-opening was how instantly the magic spell would dissipate the minute the girl spoke or did something belying her intelligence.

I think I have a library book to return.

The greatest lesson came when, in the 10th grade at the tender age of 15, I developed this insane crush on a classmate of mine. Her name was Marina, and I thought I was in L-O-V-E!!! When I could get away with it, I would glance over in class and stare at her face, taking in all that beauty. She had it all: long wavy hair, high cheekbones, bright eyes, sumptuous lips, a killer smile--and a curvy body to make any young man blush! And to make things worse, I thought she actually saw something in me as well! I spent long hours agonizing over what to do with this knowledge. I was a man, after all. I mean, right? And men were supposed to make the important moves. Men were supposed to take charge, get the ball rolling, go after what we wanted. In other words, I knew I had to approach her and ask Marina out.

Oh, how restless my nights were! I worked myself so much into a frenzy over this proposed action of mine that I recall getting sick. It was more of a stomach ache/nervous breakdown, but who's splitting hairs here?

And then, I think, the hand of God swept down and saved me from the disastrous mistake I was about to make. For that day in class our teacher had decided we'd learned enough for the semester, and that we would instead play an educational game. The whole class split up into groups, tasked with going head to head with other groups in a game of world geography. The game was simple. At the teacher's choice, one student would step forward from a group and wait to be told a country's name. Upon hearing this name, the student had to run over to the huge floor-to-ceiling world map at the back of the class and locate the given country in the allotted time. If time ran out, the teacher rang a bell and you lost your turn. If you got the location correct, your group gained a point. It's a game I excelled at since I loved world geography. I used to stare at maps just for fun (and still do to this day), imagining all the places I would visit someday. But on this day I learned a valuable lesson: some people are just really, REALLY clueless with geography. Borderline mentally challenged, in fact.

And, sadly, Marina was one of these students.

I can see it so clearly now. Marina and her pretty little self stepping up to the line, asked to find that most exotic, far-flung of countries: Mexico. And . . . she cannot find it! She stands at that map searching high and low for it, caught up in the frantic dance of the truly clueless. She hisses and sucks at her perfect teeth, runs tapered fingers through that beautiful, lustrous dark hair, and basically makes one big fool of herself. Ring, ring went the bell, and it was all so terribly over.

Ring, ring went the bell, and my heart was broken. There I sat dumbfounded. This? This was the girl I had this huge crush on? This was the one I was driving myself crazy over? And to make matters worse, she couldn't find Alaska later on in the game, either. How the hell do you not know where Alaska is? It wasn't like it was inside one of those insert boxes at the bottom of the map to save room. This was a WORLD map -- Alaska was right where it's supposed to be, perched there up on the backside of Canada!

Forget Alaska, can someone tell me where the blackboard is?

And just like that, all the attraction I had for this poor, beautiful girl went up in smoke. Gone, vanished! It happened so quickly, as if someone had flipped a switch off inside of me. One minute she was the girl of my dreams; the next, a brain dead bimbo. And that's all it took for me. Something so innocent as a class game to completely change the way you view a person. It taught me a huge lesson, one which I swear has stuck with me to this day. No matter how beautiful someone might appear on the outside, it has not one thing to do with how smart or great a person they are on the inside. And it was at that moment when I realized: what was on the inside mattered a lot to me.

Now, had I been too harsh on Marina? Perhaps. After all, sometimes we have off days. But the 15 year old me didn't care. The young man I was developing into realized that beauty truly was only skin deep, and that this was not enough. I wanted something more--I wanted someone more! Someone to converse with, to share my dreams with. Someone who could reflect and reason. Someone, at the very least, who took their education seriously!

Nowadays I catch myself out on the street or riding the subway around the city watching people as they pass by. I watch how they hold themselves, or how others react to their presence. I see how the attractive people get flattered and given special privileges. That debonair gentleman who gets praised at the boardroom meeting for his forward thinking, when it's the meepish guy with the rumpled shirt and glasses who did all the number crunching and is ignored. Or the knockout redhead who, with a smile and a practiced curl of a tress behind one ear, has men on the number 4 train falling over themselves to give her a seat. Meanwhile the pregnant, dark-haired woman in her mid 30s sporting a scowl is ignored. I've seen how it is out there in the world. And yes, these are both actual observances of mine.

Or better yet, turn on the television. Watch the commercials sometime. Notice how the user of the competition's product, Brand X, is balding, short and bumbling, while the blonde using Brand Presto-Neato! is glowing and brimming with unbridled verve and sexuality. You think that's a coincidence? Hell no! That's marketing genius! We all know that sex sells, but what about the damage this does to the young, precocious and developing mind? What is the message that our children are internalizing here?

You have to stop and ask yourself sometime: Do I want to live in a world where people are marginalized and disqualified simply based on the way they look? Can a short, balding man make himself any less vertically challenged or follicularly deficient? Are these not inherent traits determined by genetics, and not by the implied lack of his character? And where does it stop? How far do you go from promoting Debbie over Sarah because Sarah is mousy and bi-focalled and Debbie is tall and buxom, to deciding that blond hair and blue eyes are the defining characteristics of the master race?

When does it stop?

So, no, I don't judge people based on their looks. Whether for good or for bad, I just don't. And when it comes to dating, I would never make the mistake I made with Marina and assume a woman's nice, intelligent, and "girlfriend material" based on how well she fills out a pair of jeans. Physical attractiveness is, for the most part, impossible to control. You're either born with the genes to resemble an Adonis or Aphrodite, or you're not. But when it comes to those traits that matter most--intelligence, perseverance, honesty, integrity, loyalty, etc--these are things you can develop over time based on years of self reflection and exposure to the right sorts of role models.

In other words: you can be born beautiful, but stupid is a choice. Or at least, a result of extreme laziness on your part. Sometimes I feel sorry for beautiful people. If I had everything made easy for me simply based on my looks, would I be a good man today? Or would I be vain and shallow, focusing only on the material things in life?

Oh Prince Eric, I find your dissertation
on world peace sooooo dreamy! 

What do you think? Do you try to look past a person's outward appearance for what lies beneath? Can innate physical beauty really correlate with a person's inner worth? Does a pretty face trump I.Q. and character? Beauty's only skin deep after all, but integrity lasts a lifetime. As a society, we should value one far more than we do the other. Shouldn't we?

Whether you agree or disagree, sound off in the comments section below and let me know how you feel on the subject.


  1. I can't find anything to argue with what you've said, David.

    I'd like to offer something else related to this that gets me riled up every time I see it in the media, which is often: People being criticized for their natural appearance. Like the TV anchor who was panned recently for being "overweight." WTF? What are we teaching people by that attitude? Unless you are picture perfect you don't deserve to exist?

    Corollary: The media is bad for your health.

    1. Ain't that the truth, Ian! I simply don't like the carte blanche we give attractive people by virtue of the superficial beauty we can see at first blush. And let's not even get into just what passes for "beauty" in the Western Hemisphere to begin with.

  2. My husband and I met on an intellectual level before we saw each other physically. While it helped that we were both attracted to each other physically, it's far from the core of our relationship.

    I don't like to judge others by their looks, having been judged my self. I have worn glasses since I was five, I have big boobs and I am a bit overweight. Triple whammy.

    My husband thinks I am beautiful and that's all that matters. Who cares what strangers think :)

    1. Sprite -- that's a heartwarming tale about you and your hubby. I would imagine seeing beyond the merely physical makes for any rock solid marriage. Thanks for confirming my suspicion. :)

  3. Oops I think that could have come across wrong. My point was . . . Mom always said beauty is only skin deep and everyone loses it sooner or later ;D and my Mom was truly beautiful...inside and out.

    1. Well, I never got to see what it was you wrote before the comment was removed, but of course I agree with you. Like I implied in the body of this post, a pretty face doesn't last forever. :)

  4. Beauty fades, dumb is forever.
    Good post. It is fascinating what different cultures deem as attractive.

    1. Yes, it really is. Hmmm, that might be a topic for another post . . .

  5. This is a such a great post. I agree with everything you've said. While I believe in the importance of physical attraction, it grows and it fades and it changes, so it definitely can't be the only thing. I've met people (men and women) who maybe didn't strike me as particularly beautiful at first, only to get to know them and have them grow incredibly beautiful to me over time. And the opposite has happened, too.

    Btw, have you ever thought about writing pieces like this for a lifestyle magazine? You have a great voice for this.

    1. That's a huge compliment, Jen. Thank you! I don't know what types of articles get written for lifestyle-type magazines, but that is an interesting suggestion . . .

    2. I concur with Jen about your writing! :)

  6. I loved this piece very much. I'm short, overweight but determined to get if off, and chesty. Men and women alike, sometimes can't get past that. As others have said, beauty comes and goes. But to me, I think everyone is beautiful in their own way. I know that sounds incredibly trite, but it's how I truly feel. What is beautiful to one person, may not be the case for the other person. Personally, excite my mind, and I'm pretty much puddy after that. Which is what I prefer. Oh don't get me wrong, mutual attraction to your physical appearance is necessary in a relationship, but i'ts not the only thing that should be considered. Know what i mean?

    1. Yes, I definitely know what you mean. I truly believe physical beauty is overrated. Yes, there needs to be *some* physical attraction there for the relationship to work, but to be honest it's probably one of the least important qualities in a real relationship. Besides, if all goes well, it's kinda hard to see all that beauty when it's dark and you two are under the sheets. ;)

  7. Good post. Not unlike my post back in '09, Funny, with my hiatus from facebook, I was thinking about things to blog about and this topic popped in my mind. Imagine my surprise at this entry of yours. And the title almost exactly the same as the one I did three years ago! Yours is written much better though. ;-) There is definitely so much more to life and relationships than physical "beauty". Eye of the beholder indeed.

    1. Ah, so THAT explains it! When I was coming up with the title of this piece, I *knew* I had seen it somewhere else on blogger. I thought it might have been a title I had used already in one of my previous posts, but after searching all my archives I came up with nothing. Yet I still couldn't shake that feeling that I had read it somewhere on blogspot. And now I know!

      Thanks, my friend. I re-read your post, and yes it's amazing how in synch we are! But not surprising.


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