‘Beauty: Its Secret Pleasures, Pain and Power’ – Introduction

Author Michal Tal (mtal11@bezeqint.net) emails me the Introduction to her new book for which she seeks a publisher:

(Michal Tal above with her baby Meidan)

Our culture clearly worships beauty. Magazines  are packed with formulas to make people more beautiful, plastic surgery for both sexes is booming, and images of impossibly flawless models are displayed throughout the media. I must stress, that I don’t feel like I was born as one of those goddesses of perfection that people worship. This is not because of any physical deficiency, but because my  glamorous looks have made me miserable throughout  my life.

Doesn’t beauty make your life easier, you say? Often it made my life easier. Beauty can be your entrance ticket to a magical life. But, consider this:  women are constantly angry with me for being too thin, too blonde, too pretty or too young-looking for my age. The admiration of men turns to hate when their lust is thwarted.  Why, when encountering  beauty, are people so determined to undermine it? Be very careful what you wish for.

More often than not, people will just blurt it out; "You’re beautiful". This can be experienced like a soft kiss or an accusation, depending on who says it.

I will go deep inside myself and find that place where it feels safe for me to own it, to own being beautiful. Looking good can be like living in a pink bubble. It lends a sense of enchantment to daily life. There is an added confidence…like some subtle sense of being a "queen" in my surroudings. When I was a kid sitting with my parents at social events, people told my parents, "she sits like a queen." A reliable mystic once told me that I was, in my former lives, always a member of the aristocracy and that once I was a princess in ancient times. I feel the promptings of that former existence filtering through the mesh of time into my life today. I absolutely feel like a princess when I enter a room, because my looks tend to evoke a sort of deference. There is this sudden parting of the crowd as I enter. People craning their necks to see me. It’s a heady feeling… like  having had too much champagne… like getting an "A" on a test you didn’t’ study for. It’s the ultimate "freebie".

When you’re pretty, and you look like a princess, people think you have the keys to some magical kingdom. They tend to seek you out.When I was young and at university for my B.A. I was always asked if I was a model. This made me happy, because at that age, doesn’t every girl want to look like one? Now I’m asked if I was on TV, if I’m a soap opera star. I tell them I’m not, but I want to say, "Yes, I certainly am in a soap opera. The story of my life!"

One of the perks of being pretty is waking up to your own reflection. Even later in life, there’s still that ‘edge’ your good looks give you, which makes you think of endless possibilites, that good must come of this day.

Being beautiful means you have the ability to amaze. If you’re talented in any way, if you have a hi-tech job, if you’re a doctor, and artist, a cellist, and excellent teacher, people say to you in disblief, "You’re beautiful and smart/ talented/successful, too?! They think to themselves, "How unfair it is that she’s got all the breaks. I mean, beauty and abilities? Where was I when God was passing out lives?"

Men have their own take on it when they see me. I hear it behind my back, and I can read it in their eyes. It goes like this: "Nice", or, "I’d like some of that", or "Pretty girl" , or "Snob", or "not my type" or, "Who does she think she is?", or "Wish my wife looked like that!"

It’s hard to hear it and feel objectified, unless the tones are flattering, and then you get what feels like a soft caress around your heart. Strange men smile at you, acknowledging your mezmorizing power over them. Magical.

It truly seems like a great gift, to walk the road of life with a bounce in your step, and the sense of being "nature’s nobility".

Since being pretty makes you feel a bit like royalty, people see you as such. Recently, my daughter said, "You know, Mommy, you don’t look like a dog person." We were walking our rambuncious mixed border-collie, holding the leash tight so she wouldn’t accost the terrified cat in our path. "What do you mean?" I asked her. "You know," she told me, "you look too pretty and too ‘together’. Dog walkers usually look like they rolled out of a bed they share with their dog." We laughed but I knew exactly what she meant. And, that I looked too "queenly" to be picking up dog shit.

Even with my casual life-style, I work at maintaining my looks. Sometimes it’s race-walking, once in a while it’s botox, and I won’t leave the house without mascara and groomed hair. I am aware of being truly blessed with eternal youth. But even so, looking into the mirror has its good days and its bad days.

What do we see when we look into a mirror…that intimidating piece of glass? When I woke up the other day, with my seasonal allergy and the accompanying swollen under-eye area, I couldn’t make up my mind if the reflection staring back at me was Mr. Magoo or just a hag! After a shower, blow-dry and an allergy pill, I took another look. Yup, definetely a ‘babe’, even at my age! The newly shortened blonde hair was full and luxurious. Last time my hair was that short, a cute guy in my Masters program once told me I was a ringer for the young Debbie Harry!. So which mirror image is true? The hag or the ‘babe’?

Until I was in my late thirties, all; I saw in the mirror was an asymetrical Picasso portrait. When someone told me I was beautiful, I thought they were crazy! Didn’t they know ?! Didn’t they understand that the image in the piece of glass, with its reverse image of my outer self, was closer to the truth? To top it all off, there was a cute little joke my father always had when I disapproved of his artsy photographs of me. I’ d see the slight bump in my nose (which I later fixed), one eye-brow higher than the other, the two profiles that looked like two strangers. "The camera never lies!" he teased. But as I stared at my flawed profile, my asymmetry screaming to high heaven, it wasn’t funny. I was angry, and hurt, and insecure.

Even now, the prospect of taking a passport picture for a passport or driver’s license – things you have to pull out and present as you to complete strangers – sends me into

panic mode. Nowadays there are those sweet little machines which allow you to edit out the bad passport photos. But forget the Motor Vehicle Bureau! There’s always a smug camerman or even worse, a young female photgrapher, to grin cynically as they invite you in to make you as ugly as humanly possible in a photo that will be your ID for the next 20 years of your life!. I had the great misfortune to recently have to restore my driver’s license and retake the test because I had let the renewal lapse. Innocently, I assumed I was just picking up a form. No such luck. That day, I was bloated with cortizone for my allergy, sweaty from the Tel Aviv weather of 40 degree Celcius, and there , facing me, was a pretty girl barely out of high school, who didn’t know the first thing about sagging facial contours, and pulled out a blinding computerized flash camera. As soon as I saw the photo (which I felt was a picture of the ugliest woman in all creation) I asked,… no, I begged for a retake- I’d even pay again. "No way. We have rules", she insisted. I wanted to kill her right then and there. I wanted to punch her out and then take her photo. That’s how irrational a poor-self image can distort the gentlest of natures. I felt like Dorian Gray; one moment beautiful, the next, a freak!

So what is real? Who really has our image right; our mind, our sense of oursleves, or our the mirror? Which is closest to the truth?

Can a two-dimensional reversed image be accurate? Are we the same after we slept well as after not getting enough sleep? Do we look the same after we make love and after we’ve gotten fired? Are we the same in the morning and the evening? How do we look if we fight with our partner or slip on the ice? …if we grabbed a chocolate bar beause there was no time for lunch?

Beyond the physical there’s the metaphysical; the real self versus the self-image. To confuse matters (or to clarify them?) we are more that our outer image. Most religions speak of the immortality of the soul. Spiritual practioners and spiritual guides try to remind us, in different terms, that we are sweet peas contained in an outer pod. In fact, beauty being in the eye of the beholder is analogous to pea/pod. We are not our ‘shell’, so we look beautiful to those who love us. As our grandmothers liked to say, "Beauty is as beauty does". Isn’t a nice pretty girl actually prettier than a mean pretty girl? Features do, indeed, tend to be marked by the inner person. It is said that by age 50 we get the face that we deserve. While beauty-conscious women won’t think they deserve crow’s feet, this is not the same as having a permanently cruel turn of the mouth, or frown lines that have a devlish cast.

As a teenager, it always struck me movie villains were usually sexy, manly tempters, while Prince Charming type heroes looked boyish and whimpy by comparison. In the post-Bela Lugoi era, Dracula, the ultimate vampire, is often portrayed as the ultimate hunk. There was no sexier Dracula than that played by Gary Oldman when, restored temporarily to youth by the ingestion of blood, and dressed like a dandy, he eyes Winnona Rider, playing the heroine, through sexy blue glasses, he tilts his chin ever so seductively. The he catches her tears and turns them to diamonds, and turns a wolf into a docile puppy dog. Here the arch-villain is neither ugly nor old, nor overtly evil. He is simply Mr. Wonderful, up to this point This particular Dracula, being, as well, the ultimate heart-throb, is vanquished by his own love of another. Would the unattractive Bela Lugosi be so gallant? In the new Dracula, good looks and a lost soul (however tortured) are united.

So, do we equate ‘pretty’ with good? What is in the mirror? A misconcieved or honest image? Anorexics remain incredibly blind to their mirror image, seeing themselves as obese, while quite a few fat women I know think they’re a size 10.

Let’s not forget the most infamous of mirrors, the department store mirror… you know, the one in the changing room? The draining lighting, the poor quality mirror, and inconvenience of these booths? How do these places expect to sell clothes?. This is the only type of mirror I know of which makes my hair green and my skin grey and finds sagging and rippling which are basically non- existent in the brightest light of day. What were they thinking? Buying a bathing suit in such a place is a nightmare. At 37, I was 112 pounds, elegantly slim, even though I just had my fourth child. Of course my baby was already 6 months old, an it was summer, so I went to buy a bathing suit. My mother had warned me that things get a " a little softer", not an encouraging concept for an intrepid ‘hard-body’. I stood there, realizing I was no longer 20, and needed a one-piece, but the image that looked back at me was not… me. I saw a grey-skinned alien, with cellulite. Nothing looked like it had done. I left the try-on room in horror and didn’t’ buy a bathing suit. Since that day, department store mirrors have become my arch-enemy. That entire set-up could not have been invented by someone who likes women. Doesn’t everyone know that people look best in soft golden or pink lighting? Fluorescent cold blue doesn’t do it for me

Who truly sees their physical self? I believe none of us do. We don’t see the person others perceive. Others see us in three dimensions, not two , and not reverse (as in the mirror), and tend to respond to our personalites, which in turn reflect upon our looks, for better or worse.

As a teen, the more I was told I was pretty, the more sure I was that people were lying, or just trying to be nice to me. I looked at my move-star perfect mother, then looked into the mirror, and told myself, "no way!". But as I got older and more accepting of myself, more convinced that I was a good and loving person, the more I could do what I wanted in the name of self-improvement, the more I loved myself, and the prettier I thought I was… well sort of. It depended on the environment.

Did you even notice how beauty can feel "yucky" in the wrong place? I felt this more keenly in academic circles than elsewhere. I was here where I stood out most. I was first aware of this difficulty when I was a child. This was in the 50’s and 60’s when the world was decidedly less blonde. You didn’t hear of people working out or having plastic surgery. In fact, people in gerneral were less overtly attractive.

I remember walking into class and being glared at. I’d think,"Sorry I’m late and bumping into your desks,…… sorry I’m… uh, pretty." I was more often punished for prettiness by being ostracized by classmates or singled out negatively by a teacher who equated pretty with stupid. In university, and later, when I went for my Masters in my early fifties, the situation was sex-charged, and the old treatment was exchanged for cruel and unjustified professorial treatment. I felt a lot better when there was a prettier or younger girl around so that the focus was taken away from me.

For some reason, the mirrors in the university bathrooms were always awash with sunlight. In this environment, the reflection that looked back at me was too glam to go back into the classroom. It made me shy and defensive and affected my posture. I felt guilty somehow. I hadn’t the look of one who is huddled in a corner of the library, preparing a seminar paper, or who is buried in books and literary criticism on weekends (which is what I was). The mirror image in refracted sunlight was too gloriously blonde and attractive. However, after this period of awkwardness, I since realized that my best photographs are those taken outside.

So, is the mirror my friend or my enemy? It all depends on circumstance. Did I just get new highlights? Did I get a compliment that day? Or did I wake up tired and grey-faced or with an allergy? Mirrors reflect and refract light., and according to Feng Shui, it is important to place them appropriately. Placing a mirror opposite your front door or directly opposite a window can, according to this philosphy, reflectively pull all the negative forces outside into the home.

Mirrors have played a sinister role in literature, due to the mirror’s innate magical qualities.

Feminist literary theory often promotes the idea that a character’s double (the doppleganger), effectively the character’s twin likeness, or, ‘mirror image’, is a threat to the wholeness of the self, i.e., the degrading or belittling of the actual person. A woman can become the observer or critic of what she sees as her double, thereby subdividing her identity from the facial and body images of the self. This splinterring of selves is cited by Jessie Givner (Mirror image in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Lady Oracle’, Studies in Canadian Literature). She cites how Umberto Eco contends (Semiotics and The Philosopy of Language) that mirrors create "a duplication of both my body as an object and my body as a subject, splitting and facing itself." Is the fear of seeing, or not seeing out true selves, of seeing another self, what makes us cringe before the mirror?

It was a mirror which played havoc with Snow White’s fate. An evil queen seeks the advice of her mirror with "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?"

When the queen finds it is not herself, but Snow White, the poor girl is poisoned.

Women, however, are not alone at this contemplation of one’s own beauty, or lack of it. Notably, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray), is made aware of his own beauty and is encouraged to keep it at all costs. He makes a fatal deal with the devil, in which his real and reflected self stays unrealistically young and handsome. However, his increasing propensity for severely evil deeds, for the purpose of ‘experiencing life’, turn an admiring artist’s portrait of him into a downwardly spiralling image of horror. It is as if the portrait (or his double) is his true mirror image, his real self, for it reflects his soul.

In another Gothic novel, Le Fanu’s Guy Deverell, the hero becomes aware of a mysterious guest. This guest is the exact copy of his younger self and portends his own death. Here, a ‘double’ of the self is the self’s nemesis.

So mirror images and mirrors can be uniquely threatening. A mirror is where the self becomes a stranger looking at a stranger. It is where we are powerless against the observing image facing us It is where we abandon ourselves to become the assertive critic, mentally noting our impressions of the reflection we see. We are both the observer and the observed Most of us are the relentless critic, ruthlessly casting negative energy toward that face peering back at us. It is as if we are sizing up the image we see through a window. It is you but it is not you. You are not a two-dimensional representation, nor are you a single part of the greater whole of self. In the mirror the critic is the observer, the observed, and the psychology of both.. The mirror does not always show us our souls, and depending on its reflective quality , does not always accurately reflect the subject. What mirrors do is objectify the subject. The minute we peer into one, we are a slave to the observer. Observers are not always kind.

Many of us have a natural longing to to look good, but there is a dark side to being beautiful. Though not experienced by all attractive people, many of those considered ‘beautiful’ can readily relate incidents of how their pleasing appearance illicits a negative response.

This journey is not for the faint-hearted. In the Western world, where the majority rules, and where the majority of humanity consists of the ordinary, it is sometimes painful to be different, even if this means being beautiful.

Beauty can open doors, ellicit deferential behavior, inspire art, and encourage acceptance.

In Western society, the average woman, the awkward woman, the ‘Plain Jane’, the obese woman, the shy woman, the female intellectual, and competitive woman, are all cruelly subject to a concept of beauty defined by the modern media. This creates an impossible standard by which women must measure themselves. A world which confronts us with a barrge of beautiful images air-brushed to ageless perfection, can be a difficult environment from which to attain self- acceptance or realize professional or personal accomplishment.

In a job interview, one’s appearance may cancel out the most prestigious of resumes.(We already know that tall men get the top jobs). For the beautiful ‘other’, this same reality can be a place of opportunity, or alternatively, a land of nettles and briars.

Good looks can be a source of pain, and the cause of derailed relationships and family connections. This gift of the gods is sometimes dipped in anguish. The beautiful woman can sometimes remain isolated and inhabit a desolate, lonely moonscape, a terrain tread by the outwardly blessed and the inwardly distressed.

In his book, Awakening Beauty, Anthony Napoleon, Phd., tells us:

Consider that unattractive women in pursuit of beauty often hate, with a passion, those women who already possess the beauty they so desperately desire.

My book is a tool for all who are seeking some insight into the puzzling aspects of being beautiful, or not. It is is also a way for me to exorcise some of my own demons.

Blessed with imperfect, asymemetical, but better-than-average looks, I was as unalike as can be from the perfect looks of my beautiful mother. I don’t measure up to my own ideal of beauty, but have always been pretty enough for insecure women to hate me. As long as I can remember, I have had to to straddle the gap which seems to exist between my deeply artistic, intellectual, and spiritual self, and my superficially glamorous outer self. Sometimes these two coexist comfortably within my consciousness, because of my artistic temperament, and my own appreciation of the aesthetic. And though I am not all that confident in my own attractiveness, I often fear the misconceived envy of other women, which has, at times, actually ravaged my life and destroyed important relationships. Ironically, I dread the physical ravages of aging, in equal measure.

There is a social and psychological aspect to good looks. As a child in a house where education was what really mattered, I was a geek bookworm who hated math, played the paino and the viola barely tolerably, and loved and produced art. In fact, everything beautiful affected me; a new rose, a rainbow, a painting. I am in love with color, and less aware of the structue of things….maybe because my mom had a perfectly classical beautiful face, so I saw an asymmetrical Picasso painting look back at me from the mirror. At the same time, mean girls envied my straight blonde hair,my green eyes, and my delicate frame and punished me for it in catty teenage fashion. As an adult not at all of the Hollywood mold, I have had the distincition of being attractive enough for other women to punish me by way of social ostracism, seemingly benign negligence, outrageous statements ("How are you going to be blonde when you’re 60?") and even outright hostility ("Did you know that you have one boob lower than the other?"). At times, this hostility lingers like a huge white elephant between me and other women. I am also aware of occasional inexcusable behavior by men, such as professors and bosses, who, feeling unable to attain a woman like me, take it out on me by giving me poor grades on a good paper (giving me sadly unjustifiable C’s while I got lots of B’s and A’s elsewhere), or unfairly criticizing fine work.

Negative, ignoble reactions to good looks, such as jealousy, is a dirty little secret, never mentioned, never breathed, never admitted even in one’s heart of hearts, either by the offender or the offended, for it is a social taboo. For the offended, it is repugnant to say "she hates me because I’m pretty". The offender, on the other-hand, will manufacture something else offensive about the victim; pride, snobbery, a poor work ethic.

In this book, I will explore the perks and the negative aspects of beauty. Included are: personal stories portraying the positive aspects and darker side of being beautiful, some psychological and scholarly references, historical and literary discourses on beauty, and how the media manipulates our reactions to beauty.

We ask ourselves, "What is that enchanting, ephemeral and yet quite physcial quality we call beauty? Why has humanity always been so fascinated by it? Is it a purely aesthetic value? Does beauty reflect the inner person? Does having it really give us power?"

Is physical beauty, a delicious but fleeting gift of the gods, in fact, a curse? A burden? A double-edged sword?

Ever since the supermodel has become a social icon, ever since scientists have discovered that babies prefer symmetrical, beautiful faces, our curiosity about the beauty phenomenon has intensified.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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