I spend a lot of time lately thinking about appearances. Maybe because, at forty-six, I’m chuffing along on degradation’s slow train, time holding me in its lap and having its way with me. Or maybe it’s because I’m the mother of a teen-aged son. I don’t know if teen-aged boys are more attached to physical manifestations than the rest of us, but I find them unabashed and enthusiastic, brazenly unashamed of their judgments of other people’s bodies.
I have bumped up hard against this a number of times in my life. In high school, I spent an unfortunate lunch period, the only girl at a table of boys, listening to a running commentary on every female who entered the cafeteria. Whether the girl was deemed attractive or not, the comments were ruthless, ranging from, Look at that one, a hot cherry bendover to, If she had a bag over her head, I could probably bring myself to fuck her.
This past summer, I spent an afternoon listening to my son and his friend, both bright and kind young men, as they discussed the girls and women who walked along the beach in front of us. Their comments were not as crude or as mean as my high school lunch mates’, but they focused exclusively on bodies and faces and on whether or not those bodies and faces measured up to our cultural ideals. Not one time did their conversation turn to whether a given woman seemed kind-hearted or spunky or interesting, not once veer from what our society has relentlessly trained them is important.
That day in high school, I sat quietly, hoping to avoid drawing attention to myself, as those boys savaged the other girls. Over the summer, I tried to talk to my son and his friend. About how dehumanizing their comments were. About how it would hurt them if they were judged in the same way, held to the same standards (particularly seeing as how they both had acne, one of them carried at least twenty-five extra pounds on his frame, and the only six-pack they possessed was in the cooler).
I tried to tell these two young men how ultimately meaningless looks are, how little actual difference they make in the quality of a relationship. This last point was met with particular derision. How could I say that looks were not important? Surely, being physically attracted to one’s mate is of paramount importance to forming a lifelong sexual attachment to them. I didn’t and don’t disagree with that. But I have never understood why physical beauty, as defined by a given culture, is deemed worthy of being the foundation stone of sexual attraction.
A person’s beauty is an arbitrary, fickle quality to assign value to. It is a quality that hasn’t to be earned, a quality bestowed upon a person at random. It is profoundly perishable. Even the best plastic surgeon can’t return it once it goes. And—sooner for some, later for others—it does go. A person’s packaging does not reveal what their personality is, whether they are interesting to talk to, or whether they will have your back in a bad moment. And the only thing, after all, that a long-term relationship absolutely guarantees two people is an abundance of bad moments.
I told my son and his friend, though they didn’t believe me, that, especially if they intend to raise children with a person, what will turn out to be most important about that person will not be how they look or what size breasts they have or whether their biceps are well-defined. It will be whether they have a ferocious work ethic, a strong stomach, and a wicked sense of humor. Whether they are skilled at cleaning canine diarrhea out of carpeting. Or at being fair. Or offering forgiveness. How good-looking a person is will not matter at three in the morning when every family member is projectile vomiting. What will matter is whether your partner is willing to run for the towels while you grab the bowls, and whether you are able to share a good laugh about it later.
I tried to talk my son and his friend into considering falling in love in a different order than our culture prescribes. Fall first for a person’s smarts, or wildness, or eccentricity. Fall for the way they look right at you when you speak. For their punctuality. For the way they dog-ear their favorite books. For the fact that they have favorite books. For the times when you’ve laughed so hard in their presence that you’ve had to change your underpants. By the time you have fallen for those qualities, you will also have fallen for how that person looks. I promise. You will love that face and that body, not because the media have trained you to, but because they are the face and the body of your beloved.
When I met my husband, I found him smart and funny and wildly eccentric. I don’t remember what I thought of his looks, and I have seldom thought of them since. When I think back on the life we have shared, I never think of his face or his figure. I think of little things, like when he surprises me by filling my car with gas on a Sunday evening, or when he retrieved cat food from the bin in the garage without being asked, just because he knew the smell of it made me sick during my third pregnancy. And I remember the way, in 2008, when the financial crisis descended on the world, that he worked twice as hard in order to replace clients as quickly as he lost them. He called it “running fast in order to stand still.” He came home ashen-faced every night, but he kept on getting up each morning and heading out the door to work. Our family did not struggle during those tough years because he absorbed that struggle for us. He protected us from it. Which, I can tell you, made him pretty goddamned alluring.
As for Mr. Bell’s early impressions of my appearance, well, the first few times we met, he did not find me even vaguely attractive. He admired my intellect and found our conversations thrilling, but he admits that, visually, he found me plain and pale. He recalls that I had a disappointing tendency to wear clothes so baggy and unappealing that they most resembled worn-out pajamas. He admits that he was interested in me despite my looks. My son and his friend don’t believe me yet, but it was a perfect place to start.