Debunking the Beauty Myth

I’m sure by now you’re aware of the latest and most egregious attack on teenage girls’ already fragile self-esteem, but just in case you’re not, click here to find out why you’ll be boycotting Abercrombie & Fitch and its affiliates from now until the Cubs win the Series.

As much as I’d love to believe that the inevitable demise of Mike Jeffries’ career will solve the problem, the sad fact is that it probably won’t; all this hypocritical P.R.-nightmare-in-flip-flops has done for us is put a comically clueless face on a much larger issue.

Jeffries’ tone-deaf misogyny harmonizes perfectly with the other sour notes I’ve heard lately: Disney’s gratuitous attempt to sexualize Merida from Brave; InTouch’s apparent ignorance of biology; the frequent attacks on Hillary Clinton’s appearance; and the ridicule a young friend of mine endures on a daily basis because she is albino and thus has a porcelain complexion, green eyes, and gorgeous golden-red dreadlocks to go with her African-American features.

Jeffries may have articulated it the most brazenly, but his message is no different than the others’: If you are female, your value depends entirely on the extent to which your physical appearance adheres to a narrow set of standards engineered by ad executives for the specific purpose of making the largest possible number of women feel insecure enough about their appearance to want to spend money to change it.

This kind of manipulative marketing is detrimental to women because it seeks to profit at the expense of our self-worth. It’s detrimental to all of us — men and women alike — because it seeks to remove variables such as individual taste and force us to evaluate beauty exclusively on Madison Avenue’s flawed, self-serving rubric.

I remember a comment someone once made about my favorite singer: “Judy Collins isn’t pretty, but she’s striking.”

I disagree with the first half of that assessment, but I think it illustrates the difficulty we have in wrapping our heads around the sort of beauty that doesn’t fit the rubric. If a woman is not conventionally pretty, we don’t know what to do with her. We can’t resist looking at her, but why?

You probably don’t fit the rubric, either. And you’re in awesome company, because you know who else doesn’t fit the rubric? Adele. Queen Latifah. Emmylou Harris. Bonnie Raitt. Jamie Lee Curtis. Helen Mirren. Tina Turner. My albino friend with the stunning African-American features and Irish coloring. Me. Not one of us fits the rubric. We’re all either too old, too heavy, too unconventional, or too all of the above to meet the standards A&F is promoting.

To hell with the rubric. I’d sooner die than swap my tangled curls, gray streak, hips, boobs, laugh lines, bifocals, or self-respect for some manipulative retailer’s approval.

To quote Bette Midler (who doesn’t fit the rubric, either): “Cherish forever what makes you unique, ’cause you’re really a yawn if it goes.”

Emily

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