Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's all Relative to the Size of Your Steeple

Society, as a whole, has hit a whole new low. Kids who have severe acne are a higher risk for suicide.
Some precision is needed here; it's unclear whether it is the actual condition of acne that is causing the suicide risk or a particular medicine that has been used to treat acne since the 1980's, but considering the majority of suicides (both attempts and completed) occur within six months of the cessation of the treatment, it may either be an unanticipated result of the sudden drop in chemicals in the body, or a psychological reaction to the fact that one's social life is only moderately based on one's physical attractiveness (or "worse, once a loser, always  a loser" in the minds of heartless high school hyenas), and so a sudden increase in attractiveness doesn't necessarily make a perfect life. It should be wondered at, however, when we have evolved to a point where we would allow our children the risk of being depressed (clinically, by the way, not just sad, which is healthy and builds character) or suicidal, just to eliminate some facial problems.

But that's what we tell kids. That's the message they're hearing, through the media and Hollywood. Unattractive people deserve misfortune. They don't look like us, they don't deserve respect, or good fortune; they don't have dreams, hopes, or moments of great happiness. They don't have stories. Oh, they have a part to play, but in the synopsis of life, we've relegated them to "Ugly Man on Street #2". There's the distressing tendency to view them as a tool, or a method to achieve an end, or just plain evil. Let's look at some historical or Hollywood examples:

Nanny McPhee
 A lovely, feel-good story, which is well-done by all accounts, about a Nanny who comes to teach her young rebellious charges lessons about life and good manners. She appears at the beginning like a witch (snaggle-tooth, gray hair, etc.) but as the children learn their lessons, her disfigurements gradually disappear, leaving her young and beautiful. My first objection is that gray hair equals age or unattractiveness, which is just not true but I digress, the personal choice is an opinion. The question that we must consider is what are we teaching our children when a person's worth increases with their physical beauty? It has been suggested that it was a convenient way for the media to indicate that the children's perceptions of Nanny are increased as they learn to value her, but the linking of physical beauty to mental or spiritual beauty is precisely the link that produces the problems we're discussing.

The old cartoon, not the new live-action series. When kids watch the show they are immediately aware of who the bad guys are by their attractiveness; the bad guys were always dark haired and dark eyed. When we allow this ease of association (bad equals dark), it reinforces the connection in people's minds that ugliness equals badness, or that all the bad guys are dark (fortunately this stereotype is dying out, or we'd have a bigger problem with racism than the insidious City of Edmonton).

This beloved children's book was one of my favorites throughout my formative years, and I am forever grateful that I didn't return it to the library because it has popped up periodically in my life when I'm cleaning or milling through my books. The story is simple (it is a kid's book, folks). A mother wishes for babies so badly she meets a witch who gives her magic flowers that grow under her bed while she sleeps. When she wakes she eats the beautiful flower, but it tastes so good she eats the ugly one as well (The "women have no restraint" rant will air later) and nine months later births a hellion girl who torments the entire world, but nevertheless reassures her mother that soon one will come who will "delight her heart". Anyway, long story short, it turns out later after many heroic feats that Tatterhood is really beautiful beneath it all, so she gets a handsome prince, who was impressed by her feats before but would only consider her a love-interest once she was hot. The strange thing about the process of becoming beautiful in this book however, is when the prince says "I see you choose to ride a donkey" she acts surprised by his view as he watches it turns into a magnificent charger, and so on until she is conventionally beautiful, with the phrase, "As you see me, so I am". As a child, I recall being happy she was beautiful (I always thought she looked like how I'd look when I grew up) but sad that she had to give up her butt-kicking weapons (they turned into lame crystal wands - how much ass can one kick with that?)

UPDATE 19/02/11
I have found an alternate version of the story, with some subtle differences. When she meets the young prince, her future husband, he is mostly interested in her story and when he begins to notice the changes he voices that he feels she "chose" the less attractive options because they do not change who she really is. The final change, her features, is also altered in that the book specifies we have no idea if she was beautiful or not because it did not matter to the prince. I did not think I could love that story more, but I guess I can.
Hat tip to my sister for finding it! 

Another childhood favorite that broke my heart. Ms. Honey is beautiful and good, whereas Matilda's real parents are quite unattractive, but also desperately try to make themselves up into attractive people. I do want to point out that being conventionally unattractive never bothered her father, who considered himself gorgeous, and did not hinder her mother from stealing the show with what I've always felt is the most poignant moment (I shall weep as I write this); Matilda asks her mother to allow Ms. Honey to adopt her, and Matilda's mother looks at her and says "You're the only daughter I ever had, Matilda. And I never understood you, not one little bit...." and she scrutinizes her daughter's face for a few moments, as everyone waits expectantly, as if she could find the understanding there, then asks for a pen. I could do a whole Matilda dissemination.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame 
First of all, we're talking the Disney version, because there is so much weird and bad-feeling in the original literature that it could be a whole blog on its own, but I digress. At the end, the hunchback gives up Esmeralda to the captain (whatever the hell his name is) even though he was more devoted and even saved her life repeatedly because, let's be honest, no one wants to see the ugly dude end up with a hot girl. So hot goes with hot, and ugly apparently goes with blind in the crappy sequel.

The Beautiful all Along trope
Seen in many movies, the "ugly" girl is given a makeover which renders her beautiful, thus delivering the message that "looks aren't everything" (or so they wish it delivered), but also saves the hero from having to go out with an ugly girl which can't happen, as everyone knows, since ugly people don't deserve happiness, and we must all date within our "league".

The Wizard of Oz
The good witch, Glenda, is beautiful, and the bad witches are ugly ("Only bad witches are ugly").

No, that's not a movie title. I mean literally babies. Those little prejudiced suckers tend to look at faces previously deemed "attractive" by adults up to 80% longer than "unattractive" faces. This was also tested with controls for race, and similarity to the baby's mother (which would likely produce more interest since mommy = food) but it may be the case that it is explainable by the preference for symmetry, which has been strongly correlated with attractiveness.   

Bucking the trend
Shallow Hal
One movie that I've always really appreciated is Shallow Hal (it's a Jack Black film with a moral). He perceives people's attractiveness by their internal beauty, so people that are nicer are more physically attractive. He falls in love with an incredibly attractive Gwyneth Paltrow, but when the spell is broken, she appears to him as she appears to everyone else i.e. obese and "unattractive". In the end he meets her again and loves her with her true physical stature because of his love for her personality; it is one of the few that did not stoop to displaying her as a fox so we can all love her because she's beautiful inside. Truth be told it is a tough sell and it's a stretch to believe, which just shows how deeply ingrained the notion is. Regardless, I always hold it in my head as the counter-example to the shallow Hollywood stigma. 

Another movie that thumbs its nose at tradition is Shrek; Fiona is a classically beautiful princess who, upon true Love's kiss, takes true Love's form as a giant green ogress. It is wonderful that this movie deigns not to stoop to making them both classically beautiful so they can be beautiful together and happy ever after, but instead embraces their true nature and revels in it for subsequent movies, almost to the point of overusing fart jokes (almost).

Lord love her Precious Jones is a big girl but the majority of her visions (at least in the movie) she is famous as herself, big, but loved because of it. Until she gets really depressed, when she pictures herself as a thin white girl, illustrating the point, whereby kids think their lives would be better if they were more attractive.

The final, almost coup de grace to this argument is the Discworld, which I  have suggested in other articles should be mandatory reading for anyone and everyone over the age of twelve. Heroes are attractive (Captain Carrot) and heroes are ugly (Samuel Vimes); Villains are attractive (The elves) and villains are ugly (Edward D'eth) and there are whole ranges of each in between. It's a completely balanced view of the world, with evil usually being the result of some horrible reason, but goodness also having its own struggle with internal torment and evil. Terry Pratchett even addresses this whole idea in several books, the most salient of which is Maskerade where the main character solves all the mysteries but at the end is ignored in favor of the attractive girl, who has no talent but looks nice in a dress.

Anyway, regardless of where the idea has come from, it is obvious that we are dealing with the repercussions in the form of child depression, body dimorphic disorder, and suicide. It is nice that recently we have become aware of the issue and are working to combat the problem, but we must be vigilant. I hope it is not too melodramatic to point out that Ted Bundy is believed to have gotten away with his crimes for as long as he did because he was attractive and charming, thereby leading people to believe he wouldn't do anything wrong.

"If you are a woman, if you’re a person of color, if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, if you are a person of size, if you are a person of intelligence, if you are a person of integrity, then you are considered a minority in this world….
When you don’t have self-esteem you will hesitate before you do anything in your life … You will hesitate to defend yourself when you are discriminated against because of your race, your sexuality, your size, your gender. You will hesitate to vote, you will hesitate to dream.
For us to have self-esteem is truly an act of revolution and our revolution is long overdue."
-Margaret Cho

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