While standing in the checkout line a few weeks ago, the cover of this “magazine” caught my eye and I had to breathe deeply and count to ten. Of all the lies we are told and tell ourselves, this is one of the most insidious: the notion that by changing our appearance we become a different person, the one who gets to live the life of our dreams.
I’ll concede that losing weight has probably opened up some opportunities for Jennifer Hudson. She works in an industry that is generally unforgiving of women who dare to go above a size 2, so she’ll probably get a wider range of work as long as she keeps the weight off. She’s probably made some good money shilling for Weight Watchers. And maybe now she can line up for some designer samples for her red carpet appearances. But a “new life?” Seriously? She is still the person who was a finalist on American Idol and won an Oscar (both at her larger size, incidentally), still the person whose mother and brother were tragically murdered. She was a beautiful and talented woman before and is still a beautiful and talented woman.
Maybe my perceptions are a bit skewed and my antennae a bit too finely tuned in this area. I’ve posted before about my parents, who instilled in me the idea that nothing mattered for a woman as much as her appearance, and that being Pretty (capital P, culturally-sanctioned, Homecoming Queen, Breck Girl pretty) was the key to the kingdom. I assumed that if I could just get thin I’d be Pretty, as I’d always been told “you have such a pretty face, if you’d just lose some weight….” My parents divorced when I was in 9th grade; I latched with a vengeance onto the idea that somehow being thin/Pretty would make my life “normal” and began dieting in earnest, spending the next decade and a half in the narrowed world of eating disorders. I believed that solving the “problem” of my body would solve the problems of my life. So during those years, rather than being focused outward toward the larger world and my place in it, I was focused inward in a never ending struggle to be “thin enough” to cross the elusive threshold into Pretty, when all of the chaotic pieces would somehow fall into place, and my *real* life would begin. Though I managed to get good grades both in high school and college, had friends and the occasional boyfriend, did well in the various jobs I held, my thoughts were often consumed by what I was going to have for lunch and what the scale would show the next morning and whether I’d ever look like the image of the 5’10”, 110lb models I’d torn from magazines and pinned up to inspire me on those nights when I was losing the battle with my growling stomach. I have trouble remembering the dates of my first (brief) marriage and divorce, but I could probably tell you what I weighed in any given month and year between the ages of 15 and 30.
In my early 30’s, I had a friend who was not just Pretty, but traffic-stoppingly gorgeous. I’m talking a cross between young Susan Sarandon and young Michelle Pfeiffer gorgeous. We’d go out, and she’d be swarmed by men. I can’t tell you how many times some alpha male would sidle up to her and say all googly-eyed, “you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!” When I’d remark on her beauty, she’d say “yeah, that and fifty cents will get me a cup of coffee” (the actual price of a cup of coffee at the time in those pre-Starbucks days). She complained that men could never get beyond her looks, and weren’t interested in getting to know who she was. No one ever praised her intelligence or sense of humor (she had both in spades). Her prettiness didn’t save her from troubles. She battled with substance abuse, bad relationships, money problems. Since then I’ve seen countless examples reinforcing the understanding that even great beauty doesn’t save us from struggle, from loss and grief, from sickness and death.
The currency of Pretty is widely accepted, but it only goes so far, only buys so much. Yes, it might open some doors, and smooth some roads, but ultimately the quality of our lives is mostly up to us and the choices we make. We give too much power to Pretty. Losing weight or changing some other aspect of our appearance may do much to boost confidence, allow us a broader range of sartorial choices, and be received generally more positively from the world at large. But Pretty doesn’t erase an unhappy childhood or replenish a ravaged retirement account or keep us dry when life is raining down shit.
The attributes of confidence, attitude, kindness, curiosity, a sense of humor, generosity of spirit, poise, character, and yes, style, will take us to all of those places that Pretty goes and then far beyond, and these can all be cultivated and sustained at whatever age, long after Pretty has flown the coop. For those of us who don’t make a living in the lens of a camera or walking red carpets, Pretty is fleeting and of little value on its own. Being known and loved, loving, being able to enjoy the moment, making a contribution to this world in whatever capacity we have…these are the things that determine the quality of our lives and aren’t dependent on being a size 2 or having flawless skin.
So the next time we find ourselves caught up Before and After daydreams, it’s good to recall the words of Buckaroo Banzai, “Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”