The Dark Side of "You’re So Beautiful"

 My sister came to visit with her son, her new partner and his daughter for a couple of weeks this summer. It was wonderful. She came on runs with me, would meet me at work and walk home with me. We would stop at our favourite café on Parc for some white wine and delicious food before facing the hordes at home.

But I was reminded, as sisters are wont to do, of something that used to happen in our youth and doesn’t happen to me at all unless I am walking beside my sister.

My sister is head-turning, drop dead, Sophia-Loren sensuous gorgeous. The male species get all vociferous when she’s around. She almost causes car accidents. The regular homeless people on my walk home stand up straighter and smile instead of shooting out a “De l’argent!” at me. The waiters in the cafés I frequent who have never given me the time of day before suddenly feel chatty.

I think she might be part veela.

Most women would think that is a good thing- be a little envious. Well, don’t be. Being that attractive is not all that it is cracked up to be. Far from being jealous, I have learned to feel very bad for her. I have seen the damage people’s perception have done to her over the years, the weariness (and wariness) when she’s the subject (or should I say object?) of yet another cat call.

Most of all, I see how, though she be head-turning beautiful, people tend to think that’s all she is. And as a teenager, how she began to believe to it herself. I think I have talked about this a little bit in a previous post on pigeonholing, but I think it bears more scrutiny.

Mainly because her step-daughter and my daughter are at the gates of puberty with the key in their hands. And there was one incident during their visit that reflected the complicated nature of dealing with the power of physical beauty and how these young girls have to learn to manage the compliments, the looks in an even manner, without manipulating it for their own purpose (the whole Lolita thing).

My two daughters, my nephew (who is ten) and his step-sister were all going swimming. The step-sister emerges from the bathroom in a very small, revealing bikini. It fit her well.

A little too well. My nephew looks at her for a moment, stunned. Then asks, “Don’t you have another bathing suit?” He cocks his head a little to the side and narrows his eyes as if to say, ‘there is no way you are wearing that.’

Of course, the step-sister takes it the wrong way, thinks she looks bad in it. My sister and I try to smooth things over by saying, “I think he thinks you look a little too good in your suit, honey.”

 “She’s my sister! I have the right to protect my sister!”My nephew protested.

At the age of ten he knew enough to know that she looked extremely good in her bathing suit (a sign of his own nascent pubescent feelings, I am sure). He also knew enough to want to cover her up, protect her. The look on his face when she emerged from the bathroom was one of shock, something else – let’s just call it puberty, and worry. My step-daughter, after her first reaction of feeling bad, knew right away it was because she looked sexy (I shudder to have to use that word for a twelve-year old girl, but that is what she looked like). And there was her first, albeit small, lesson in being objectified. (Actually, I don’t think it was the first. She is a very beautiful girl. Extremely smart and kind as well, but who cares about that when you got a nice pair of eyes?)

Back to my sister. We talked a little about how her experience when she was a teenager. People would often trivialize her relationships with boys as not meaning anything, because clearly they only liked her for her pretty face (people would actually say this to her). It was easy to dismiss her opinion because she must be dumb if she’s that gorgeous.

Even me. Although I am not guilty of the above two sins, I am guilty to this day of relishing my invisibility as compared to her. I don’t envy her. I don’t want to be noticed on the street. In fact, it suits me pretty well to walk anonymously through a crowd observing rather than being observed. To my embarrassment however, I have remarked a certain smugness growing like a cancer in me over this fact. I may not be a head-turner, but the kind of pretty that you must get to know in order to appreciate. Which is basically saying that my beauty lies in my personality whereas hers does not. What am I thinking?

I wonder if the theory behind confession was that once you say a particular sin out loud, have to shape the inchoate badness into words, concretise them, the whole force of the noxiousness hits you. You see why it is a sin and are hereby cured of ever thinking it again (of course, it can’t hurt to throw in a few Hail Marys for good measure).

That is how I feel about the above statement. As soon as I put what I was really thinking into words,  I realised I was just as guilty of judging her as everybody else. For that I am truly sorry. Don’t get me wrong. I am still thankful for my mousy presence. I am simply no longer smug about it.

What does this mean for our daughters? The “You are beautiful” compliment comes with a dark side. If not kept in check, or regularly administered with the counter compliment of “you are smart”, they will start to feel that that is all they are, or that is all that matters… It is so easy to put people into little categories in our heads- this one is the funny one, this one is the weird one, this one is the beautiful one- that we forget people are tapestries with complicated designs, rich colours and textures.

I want to end this post on a less didactic note, but for the life of me I can’t find one pithy thing to say. Oh well. Perhaps I should call this post, The Danger of complimenting 101. Not pithy really, but at least not didactic…Okay. I am stopping now. Publish this ddarn thing already so I can go.

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