Should beauty pageants stay or go? The New York Times is tackling this question as the 87th Miss America Pageant kicks off today. Amidst all the discussions about deferential giggles and zombie smiles, I find myself echoing the conventional wisdom that Let’s face it, it’s all about the swimsuit round, and Caitlin Moran’s wisdom that You can call it the ‘swimsuit round’ all you like, but it’s really the bra and panties round.
A decade ago Little People of America entertained the idea of holding an annual beauty pageant, but it was swiftly nixed by the vast majority of members. The inherent problems were pretty obvious: Isn’t being judged by our looks the biggest problem dwarfs face? Do we really want to set a standard for dwarf beauty? And if so, which diagnosis gets to be the standard? Achondroplasia or SED congenita? Skeletal dysplasias or growth hormone deficiencies? Ironically—or perhaps not—there was also a widespread fear that heightism would dominate the judging.
What I find most unsettling about beauty pageants is not the nondescript personality types on display—although I am very concerned about that, too—but the idea that it is perfectly normal and okay to want millions of strangers to love your looks above all else. This idea seeps into every corner of Western culture, not just beauty pageants and women’s magazines.
If you’ve ever entered “body image” into a search engine, it won’t take you long to come across the phrase You’re beautiful! It’s everywhere, and it’s usually geared at anyone, particularly anyone female, who believes they fall short of the beauty pageant prototype. You’re beautiful! is part battle cry, part mantra – a meek attempt to broaden society’s beauty standards and an earnest attempt to bolster individual self-confidence. Super-imposed over flowers and rain clouds and sunsets and cupped hands, it becomes hard to tell the online empowerment apart from the online valentines. And as much as I admire the intentions behind it, I’m tempted to question it.
Making peace with our bodies is important. Diversifying our criteria for human beauty is necessary. But why should we need to hear that we’re beautiful from someone we don’t know? Of course we can never hear it enough from friends and lovers. (I’ve heard it three times in the last 24 hours and I’m not giving it up for anything!) But basing self-confidence in strangers’ praise upholds the notion that it is bad to be thought of as ugly or plain by people who don’t know anything else about you.
We all have our secret fantasies about being gorgeous rock stars and princesses and Olympic heroes with throngs of admirers dying to throw their arms around us. But, to echo Jane Devin, if most men can go through life with no one but their lovers daring to praise their looks, why do women still demand so much attention?
This past spring Scientific American revealed that, despite how much our culture suggests that most of us need to hear over and over how attractive we are before we even begin to believe it, the average person overestimates their appearance. This shouldn’t be too surprising. The world’s largest empire isn’t called “Facebook” for nothing. And as the Scientific author pointed out, the vast majority of us consider ourselves to be above-average in most respects, which is statistically impossible. He explains:
If you think that self-enhancement biases exist in other people and they do not apply to you, you are not alone. Most people state that they are more likely than others to provide accurate self-assessments…
Why do we have positively enhanced self-views? The adaptive nature of self-enhancement might be the answer. Conveying the information that one has desirable characteristics is beneficial in a social environment… Since in self-enhancement people truly believe that they have desirable characteristics, they can promote themselves without having to lie. Self-enhancement also boosts confidence. Researchers have shown that confidence plays a role in determining whom people choose as leaders and romantic partners. Confident people are believed more and their advice is more likely to be followed.
So self-confidence is good and self-doubt is bad, both in love and in life. And demanding strangers and acquaintances tell us that we’re beautiful is narcissism, not self-confidence. In the words of Lizzie Velásquez, who was voted Ugliest Girl in the World on YouTube, “I don’t let other people define me.”
This is not to suggest a ban on praising anyone’s looks ever. I still harbor adolescent crushes on a pantheon of celebrities, from George Harrison to Harriet Beecher Stowe. But between the beauty pageants and the You’re beautiful! memes, it does seem that most of us still believe that having broad appeal is some sort of an achievement, as opposed to dumb luck. And that for a woman, it’s an achievement worthy of mention on a resume.
In April, President Obama touted newly appointed Kamala Harris as “by far the best-looking attorney general.” After dealing the president a well-deserved eye-roll, Irin Carmon at Salon suggested that before publicly praising someone’s looks, we should ask ourselves: Do I want to sleep with this person? And is it appropriate to tell this person and/or everyone else that I want to sleep with them?
It’s an excellent point, though crucial to add that seeing beauty in someone is not always rooted in lust. Love for friends and family usually renders them absolutely adorable or heroically handsome. Whenever I overhear someone say, “You’re beautiful!” it will always register as an expression either of desire or affection. (Neither of which, Mr. President, are ever appropriate in a professional context.)
Yet plenty of us still envy Kamala Harris a little. And too many of us seem to think being conventionally attractive is truly important because it corresponds directly to being successful in love. This is perhaps the most dangerous myth of all.
If I hear the phrase, “She was out of my league!” one more time, I’m going to swat the sad sack who says it. My dating history is nothing to brag about, but I can brag—shamelessly—about being a trusted confidante to dozens upon dozens of different people with all sorts of dating histories. And after a few decades of listening to them spill their hearts out, I’ll let you in on a little secret: When it comes to love and lust, everyone is wracked with self-doubt.
And I mean everyone. The athletes, the models, the geeks, the fashionistas, the bookworms, the jet-setters, the intellectuals, the rebels, the leaders, the housewives, the musicians, the Zen Buddhists, the life of the party. That girl who can’t walk through a club or the office without being propositioned. That guy known as a heartbreaker because he can bed anyone he wants to and does so. That stoic who doesn’t seem to care about anything. That wallflower so set on navel-gazing that she thinks she’s the only one who’s lonely. Every single one of them has fretted to me at 2 am, sometimes sobbing, sometimes whispering, sometimes hollering, always shaking: “Why doesn’t he/she love me?!”
This isn’t to say that it all evens out completely and no one handles it better than anyone else. Outside of abusive relationships, those who obsessively compare dating scorecards and create rules and leagues for turning sex into a competition are invariably the most miserable. Some people date a lot because they’re popular, others because they have low standards. Some marry early because they’re easy to know and like, others because they’re terrified of being alone. Just being able to easily land a date or get laid has never made anyone I know eternally happy. Narcissism and self-pity come from thinking it can.
We’d all like to be the fairest of them all, but what we want more than anything is to be devastatingly attractive to whomever it is we’ve fallen in love with. And because only those who genuinely know us can genuinely love us, any beauty they see in us comprises our style, our charisma, our perfections and imperfections. It is the driving force behind all the world’s great works of art we wish we were the subject of. And unlike beauty pageants or Google’s image search, true art is constantly redefining and questioning and promoting beauty all at once.
I will always tell certain people how gorgeous they are because I can’t help but think that about those I’m awe of. (And I guarantee that my friends are prettier than yours.) But for those of you out there who might feel tempted to rebut the compliment with that age-old line, “You’re just saying that because you’re my [friend/partner/family]!” consider that a compliment motivated by true love is hardly a bad thing.
And that being desired by someone who doesn’t love you at all can get really creepy. Really fast.