Rev. Valerie's Reveries

This blog contains personal reflections from Unitarian Universalist minister Valerie Mapstone Ackerman.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Social Benefits of Being Ugly

Maureen Dowd's recent column about a woman who got fired for being too attractive caught my attention. She points out that there is plenty of evidence that attractive people reap social and material benefits from their beauty, thus it is especially ironical that some one could get fired for being so attractive that she became a workplace nuisance.

I once got hired for having parts that the boss found attractive, but I didn't know it until later. I would have taken the job no matter what, but it is disgusting that a nice ass was my most important asset (no pun intended) when I was 18.

My friend Chris ages beautifully and is not afraid to utilize medical science to assist her. Her red hair might be enhanced chemically, but you can't tell. One of my favorite things about her beauty is that she lives and dresses for herself, to please herself, not to make an appearance that is for the gazer, but rather to perfect and enhance what she was given.

My friend Linnea was also given great beauty and it has provided for a life of great adventure. At age 70+ with the lines one might expect in a Scandinavian face that has seen many sunny days she still stops traffic. At dinner recently we walked up to a table to claim possession as a man of a certain age was leaving it. He looked at Linnea and blurted: You are VERY attractive!" Grocery clerks young enough to be her grandsons openly flirt with her. She's the Betty White of her community! Her inner beauty contributes to this phenomenon, no doubt; her spirit exudes tranquility and envelopes anyone within 30 feet.

My daughter, similarly, was blessed with great beauty. People have been known to cause accidents while being distracted by her beauty. More than once I have witnessed a man run into a stationary object while craning his neck to continue to look at her as he passed. Perfect strangers snap her photo as though she COULD be a celebrity whose name they can't place. One time as we arrived by limo at a relative's elegant wedding in a ritzy part of NYC (was it The Ritz?) tourists clogged the sidewalk gawking at the guests disembarking from the row of limos. When Heather slid her perfect 18 year old self out of the car and onto the sidewalk, the crowd pressed in and camera flashes exploded the twilight. When she stood to her 5'9" + four inch heels height (probably weighed about 100 pounds then) audible gasps could be heard.

As I followed out of the limo a woman pulled me aside and said, "I know her, I know her, who is she?" No, I retorted, "You don't know her, that's just my daughter."
"Yes, yes, I understand but WHO IS your daughter? I can't come up with her name."
"Seriously you don't know her, she isn't a celebrity."
"Well," the woman shot back, "when I figure out who she is I am going to send a nasty note to her because fans have the right to be acknowledged!"

Heather meanwhile remained completely oblivious to the chaos spilling into the evening all around her. At the wedding the photographer persisted in finding reasons to take pictures of her. So many Heather photos showed up on the proof pages that the relative negotiated a partial refund for the photog's failure to focus on the important people--the bride and groom!

No one would mistake me for anyone beautiful. It is possible to see that Heather and I are related, but clearly she was given (thanks to her father's genes!) a perfected canvas--eyes set the right distance apart, jaw line crisp and well formed, the perfect oval face with apple cheekbones and a full-lipped smile. Eyebrows that arch just so and a nose that sits perfectly symmetrically in the center of her face (her maternal grandmother's nose for sure). Smooth milky skin with no lines even at age 35. The camera loves that face. The face opens doors of possibility. With sleek almost-black hair, she could be Latina, Or Italian? Greek maybe, or Native American? (Answer: Welsh, English, German, Irish, Dutch, Native American)

Take similar features and pull them apart like silly putty: squeeze the eyes close together, elongate the face, add a too-prominent brow bone, an oddly masculine hairline, a nose that flares too widely and then really bad skin--and you get me. I am not complaining, just describing an average to homely face with ambiguous ethnicity. It is a face that makes many people comfortable (homely after all can mean unpretentious), or it used to. People who have known me a long time deny this, but I am definitely starting to look increasingly masculine. I can read it in strangers' eyes--has she had a sex change? Or just cross dressing? I can hear strangers think this, I swear.

But my face has always looked at least a bit masculine. My five brothers and I sat for only one family portrait--in 1968. I had three dresses I could have worn. Two had lace or ruffles or embroidery details conveying femininity. But my mom thought they were too dressy and the brothers were going casual for the sitting, thus I wore the third one: a shirtdress with a button down collar and placket. My haircut: a side parted bob--just like my brothers' Beach Boys style longer locks. so there in the center ("a rose among thorns," my daddy said) is just another smiling Mapstone boy!

Recently I had the opportunity to spend an extended time in close proximity to an extraordinary number of intelligent and attractive women of various ages. Almost to a person, I found that they couldn't readily make eye contact with me until after they had a reason to speak with me. Did they think ugliness could be a contagion perniciously poised to leap onto them? It almost never is.

I try to smile almost constantly as a mater of spiritual discipline and self-defense against my naturally aging ugliness. Should I forget to smile, someone who does not know me will likely take it upon him or her self to remind me to do so. Smiling evinces the joy that is always available should I choose to pay attention and the smile mitigates against the universe's need to send messengers to remind me to find that joy. The bell of mindfulness can ring internally.

The older I get, the more contented I feel in being alone with my thoughts. As I become less and less attractive, I can almost disappear. I have become so good at disappearing, that sometimes I have to wave and get noticed--here I am --like when I am in the front of the line, but the clerk asks the person behind me if they need help. Probably I wasn't smiling just then. Disappearing means, one can listen and observe unobtrusively. Disappearing protects one from interruptions. No one says to me "do you come here often?" or "don't I know you from somewhere?" when really they mean "Please! I want YOU to notice ME!" People don't want to be noticed by people they don't notice. I like it this way much more than I would have imagined I might. I have always preferred introversion to extraversion. Now it is easier to be left to my own devices.


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