Even from my birth in 1971, I did not fit the popular standard of what was considered "beautiful", so I adapted to life as the type of person that I was perceived to be. Second best. When hanging out with any group of people, I was generally the one no one really spoke to anymore than they absolutely had to, which forced me to learn how to be funny as quickly as possible so that whatever brief conversation I got to have with someone would at least be a memorable one. Being considered unattractive and being an introvert (I sometimes wonder if the former fed the latter), I became the fly on the wall of every social situation, my lack of interaction with others enabling me to become a seasoned observer of human behavior.
I used to be mystified by certain people's reaction to me. Saying hello to people, and having them look around to make sure no one is watching before they return the greeting is a very instructive lesson in how human nature works. No one wants to be seen acknowledging someone thought to be ugly. Unless of course they are reminding you of this fact, loudly and with a great deal of derision.
I wish I could say that my experiences were unique. Perusing the website Jezebel last week, I came across a posting from a young woman who was ruthlessly catcalled by men for no other reason than they did NOT find her attractive:
http://groupthink.jezebel.com/ugly-c-nt-my-experience-of-street-harassment-1561588177/all We've reached a point in society where polite behavior is a rare commodity. Especially as it pertains to the old saying that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything. This rule seemingly does not pertain to anyone society sees as unacceptable in any way. Especially women. Women are then subject from to anything from being ignored during routine social interactions to the loud, brutal assessments hurled at the author of the piece above.
But where does all of this come from?
My friend Susan sums it all up nicely: "We're conditioned to accept the societal definitions of beauty, which seem to grow narrower every year. Women are conditioned from the cradle. It keeps us in line and pits us against one another. If we weren't so busy worrying about what we looked like, imagine what we'd accomplish."
As it stands, the societal definition of beauty runs to the Scandinavian look: tall and slim, with pale skin, hair and eyes, is thought to be the absolute ideal. The further you move away from that definition of beauty, the less worthy you are of consideration. The less worthy you are of consideration, the more certain people feel that they are quite justified in being critical about any and every aspect of your personal appearance, or barring that, simply being dismissive of you altogether. And while this is true across the board, women get the brunt of the harshest forms of this scrutiny.
The messages I have received from the media over the last couple of decades (or since I have been conscious enough to realize that there are subtle messages underlying a great deal of what we see), is that the main purpose of a woman's life is for men between the ages of 18-49 to find her attractive enough to have sex with. In order to meet this goal, you must be as close as possible to the description outlined above, and if you are not, it is strongly encouraged that you spend as much time, money and effort as humanly possible in dogged pursuit of the ideal. To be unable to spend your life chasing what for most amounts to an almost impossible ideal, due to disability, might garner you a pass from men who see the ideal as their due in life, if not their own goal to attain. If you are unwilling to devote your life to becoming pleasing to the eye of random passerby on the street due to disinterest, or the fact that less than 5% of the population possess the ideal appearance naturally, and to spend too much time wishing to be something you are not is inherently mentally unhealthy, be prepared to be shown no mercy.
You will be assailed from all sides by well meaning, if misguided, attempts to steer you back on to the correct path of low-grade self hatred. It is the economic engine on which the beauty industry thrives. Some will try cajoling, others will insult and demean you, but the larger goal is to let you know, by all means necessary that as you are, you are not acceptable to the male gaze. And if you dare to carry yourself with any kind of confidence (Those of us who have decided to be happy with our selves whether people find us attractive or not), despite being considered unattractive, many of the supremely insecure, who rely on others for validation, will make it their mission in life to remind you that, by popular estimation, you are not enough. How dare you be happy with yourself, as is! Don't you know that you are supposed to be striving to conform to what random strangers feel you should be so said random strangers won't have to tell you that you are still not acceptable to them?
If you are still unattractive, unwilling to attempt conformity, and perhaps content with yourself, you will be ignored, with an extra helping of contempt and scorn. The comments section of the Jezebel piece will bear this out. There are too many women who have been overlooked or ignored out right for no other reason than they were thought to be ugly. To be thought of as ugly, but not sufficiently humble, will earn you large doses of what I like to call aggressive ignoring. This is when someone attempts to interact in a normal way, and realizing that a horrified reaction is an overreaction, the person they attempted to interact with openly ignores them. I can't tell you how many times, I've tried to participate in a normal discussion (after weighing my words carefully to make sure that my contribution was on topic and appropriate), only to be roundly ignored as if I weren't part of the group. As I look around me, I see other women subject to this same treatment, and I shudder to think what internal processes they must go through just to get through the day. For some, it must feel like the treatment they received in childhood never ended.
My friend Lisa put it this way: "When you're bullied as a child, you know who's bullying you and why. You learn how the system works because you have to in order to survive. I think it's the same for any children who are victimized by anyone for any reason, their brains develop a very sophisticated level of insight into the situation and they become very wise about it at an early age. Part of the damage that causes is that you never truly break out of that schema for the rest of your life, even though the bullying has stopped and everyone has grown up, you still read the people around you as though they're getting ready to bully you for the same childish reasons. And you don't even know you're doing that most of the time."
It's a strange road we walk, those thought of as ugly and/or unattractive. It's a road made stranger by the fact that we live in a world where singling us out for random verbal and/or psychological abuse is thought of as perfectly acceptable as we are not considered real people, if we are in fact considered at all. Pretty people will tell you that theirs is no easy walk through life either, what with the constant belief by those in the middle of the spectrum (neither conforming to the ideal nor considered ugly),that they are coasting through life on their looks, and are unlikely to have either any real talent or intelligence. Women feel like they can't win no matter where they are on the spectrum. This subject was covered in depth, and quite well in 1990 by Naomi Wolf in her book "The Beauty Myth". The sad thing about this is that, 24 years after the publication of Wolf's book, not only has very little changed, the treatment of women, based solely on their perceived attractiveness to a specific demographic of men, has actually gotten worse. To paraphrase Wolf's opening, as women make larger social and political strides, the definition of the ideal woman becomes narrower, and those who do not conform are now met with open hostility by those who feel threatened by changes in the world, and feel the need to maintain the status quo the only way they know how. Crush anybody you feel is beneath you by any means necessary. These people don't realize that not everybody is entitled to their opinion, the person you are trying to embarrass has been hearing some version of the same thing all their life, and it costs you absolutely nothing to be polite to someone that is being polite to you.
I am an idealist. In an ideal world, what is on the inside really would count, and people would treat you accordingly. If only.....