I was once rated by a man. Not behind my back to his buddies at a bar, which probably has happened much more than I would like to know, but to my face, in a private conversation. He gave me my rating on a scale of one to ten. He was surprised by the look on my face when he gave it to me, because he intended for my relatively high rating to be received as a compliment. It wasn’t, it was a seven. He insisted to me that it was a compliment. Stumbling around for an explanation, he claimed that, due to the existence of super models, he couldn’t just give away tens to everybody. He wasn’t so articulate, but that was his message. It wasn’t the number seven that bothered me (I happen to love the number seven); it was that it was a number at all. I know I’m not a super model, and I have no complaints about that. However, I am also not a number seven, and, as much as I may love that number, I will not take it as a compliment.
I felt deeply bothered after that conversation, and it is something that has stayed with me for years. The feelings and thoughts that have lingered are not so much around the fact that a man felt comfortable enough to degrade me to my face with a number rating and expect me to thank him. Although that is troubling, Donald Trump is now president, and there are bigger beasts to worry about. What felt particularly sad to me was his perception of beauty as something that is limited to a scale between the numbers of one and ten. And the sadness persists, because I know that he is not the only one who carries this scale around, measuring something that cannot be measured. As much as I don’t personally adhere to this scale to judge people on a conscious level, it is there, floating around in our collective psyche, and the implicit affects that it has on the world and ourselves are just as endless as beauty itself.
When I was around the age of twelve, I remember my sister and I used to read beauty magazines together. After awhile I started to notice that when I finished reading these magazines, I would have two lists running through my mind. The first list was a list of everything that I was convinced was wrong with me, and the second list was a list of everything I “needed” in order to fix what was apparently wrong with me. These lists started to feel so heavy and anxiety ridden that I finally made the decision around the age of thirteen to quite reading those magazines. It was about a one-year stint of willingly paying for and swallowing our culture’s shit, until that first moment of grace.
The second moment of grace happened soon after, when I had an extremely clear and meaningful experience around beauty that has stayed with me my whole life. I remember it so well. I was in the airport, waiting to board a plane with my family, deep in thought about the effects of those magazines and this prescribed idea of beauty that is so embedded in our culture that it becomes almost impossible to see. I was amazed at how naturalized those ideas were that I had never even questioned them. So I started, in that moment of grace, to question. Why is young beautiful? Why is one body type more beautiful than another? What if beauty had nothing to do with what I read in those magazines? What is beauty? It was when I arrived at this question that my whole perspective shifted. I asked the question with such an intense curiosity that suddenly the whole world looked different. I remember it so clearly. I was boarding the plane by that time and every person I passed became an answer to my question. The shape, contour, color, expression…the grace that held each face I glanced at down the aisle, was filled with beauty. It was a deep understanding that beauty is created equal; it falls on and pours through everything. I believe that what changed for me in the moment that I asked that question was that I opened up to the possibility of what beauty is, and for a second it came flooding in and washed over all of those other cultural perceptions that had been limiting my vision.
Although I am not always blessed to look at the world with such a stunned sense of wonder, something of that moment has always stayed with me. What I think stayed with me in my core was the understanding that beauty is everywhere and could not fit into one definition, or number. Rating every person on that plane the number ten to describe the beauty I saw that day seems absolutely ridiculous. I think that the gift of beauty is that its expression is infinite, but the cultural lens has been scratched, painted and thrown through the gutter so many times that one can see maybe only a few forms of beauty through it. Maybe as few as ten. The thing about beauty is it is nothing special, and yet it is the specialness in everything. How fortunate are we to live in a world with so much beauty? How stupid are we to try and measure it and contort it to our standards?
It’s amazing how sometimes it can take years to make connections between to seemingly different and brief moments like the day I was rated a seven, and the day I questioned beauty. But, there you go, today I made that connection.