So I’m this old guy with a white beard. What would I know about being “beautiful”?
Quite a bit, actually. I don’t know how it feels to be beautiful, having…you know…never been, but I do know how it feels to play a part that is constructed and placed on you and to know two things at the same time: 1) this is not who I am and 2) I need to pretend to be this person for the sake of the people who are expecting it.
That might seem an odd connection, but it came to me as I was watching a TED talk that my step-daughter, Melisa Jaenisch, (I am a rich in step-daughters and have never ceased to benefit from it) sent to me. This is Cameron Russell, who is, as you see, very attractive.
In her lecture, she puts up a series of pictures of herself: the professional glamor queen on the left; the actual person on the right. The pictures on the left are remarkably similar, no matter what she is wearing. The pictures on the right show her on her soccer team, at a slumber party, with her grandmother. Just a pretty little girl. The pictures on the left were taken at the same time as the pictures on the right. The day she shot the bikini and heels shot was the same day she played soccer with her team.
About the pictures on the left, she says, “That’s not me. That’s a construct they have built using me as the base.” There are, she says, hair stylists, makeup artists, photographers, pre-production (whatever that is), and post-production (whatever that is). She knows how she can be made to appear and she has a sense of just how much of that bears on who she is. Her livelihood depends on being made to appear that way; her life requires that she know that the image is not her.
But that’s really only a part of the truth. She also tells of “buying” a dress and realizing at the last minute that she had forgotten her wallet. No problem. The store was happy to give her the dress. No pre- and post-production; no makeup artists and hair stylists. Just “how she looks.” Or the time she was riding in a car with a friend, who was pulled over by a cop. The cop looked in the window and saw Cameron Russell as the passenger and gave the driver a warning and left. No problem. No pre- and post-production; no makeup artists and hair stylists.
She could have refused the gift of the dress, but refusing the favor (to her friend) from the cop is a lot tougher and the way it is tough points to a lot of other difficulties. Men will go out of their way to do “favors” for attractive women. These may be “favors” the women would not have chosen and do not like, but they will be offered anyway, because the men are paying homage and will not be deterred. Women in that circumstance really can’t get away with saying that they aren’t attractive or that they are tired of being attractive or that they wish to have some other aspect of themselves recognized. The most socially agile women I have ever seen deal with this issue, grant the premise, express appreciation, and change the subject. If they are unable to change the subject, they leave.
The man says, in effect, “You are beautiful and I am doing this for you as a recognition of your beauty.” The woman says, in effect, “Yes I am, thank you for noticing, how ‘bout them Steelers?” Men who are socially agile catch that transaction on the first bounce. Most men seem to get it after just a few bounces. The ones who refuse to get it need to be dealt with more directly. That isn’t pretty, but it is necessary.
On the other hand, some women make a career out of being beautiful and find it more enjoyable than not. I remember a line from a movie called The Mirror Has Two Faces in which Barbra Streisand is supposed to be the ugly sister. The other sister, never shown in the movie, is supposed to be more attractive, but the mother is a beauty. She is played by Lauren Bacall, who knows how to do it, and is resented by the younger (ugly) daughter. Streisand’s character experiences a romantic catastrophe and has to move back home. At that point, thoroughly humiliated, she summons up the nerve to ask her mother, “What is it like to be beautiful?” Her mother hesitates, to see if her un-beautiful, anti-beautiful daughter is really asking the question, and then answers it. “It’s wonderful,” she says; and then says just how it is wonderful.
We can place the photographed version of Cameron Russell on one side of this construct and the personal experience of Lauren Bacall on the other. One identifies with the role and cherishes it; the other knows the role to be fraudulent, and alienates herself from it—when she can. When her friend is driving and is arrested, she overcomes her alienation and uses the resource.
I actually know a little about this myself—not, of course, because I have ever been beautiful–but I really have played a role that needed to be played and that was “not me.” I have lobbied, at the state legislature, on behalf of bills I did not believe in. I have been hired as an “inspirational speaker” at weekend retreats and have been related to in the way that people thought would be appropriate if I were “inspired.” I have pretended to be smart and knowledgeable in settings where it was either me or nobody and have graciously accepted the compliments of people who thought I pulled it off successfully. All those are “constructs” that are “put on me” and that are “not me,” but that I felt I needed to own, at least for the time being.
But those were comparatively easy. Easy? Compared to what? Compared to being the father of small children. I realize that have just divided my reading public into two groups. The first group have been fathers and know exactly what I am talking about and know I am right. The members of the second group have not had that experience themselves and think I am overdoing it a little. Or a lot. I’m fine with both of those responses. I know what I know. I know what Cameron Russell knows. There are times when you really need to be the person they think you are or the person they need you to be.
As a father of young children, you are your son’s first coach and your daughter’s first boyfriend. You know “how things are” and sometimes “why.” They see you as vastly experienced; you know people in a bewildering variety of styles; you are paid money to do things; you have authority, and should worst come to worst, power.
In a collective society, a new father moves into the phalanx of fathers. He is “one of those” and acts correctly when he acts the way they do. In an individualistic society, being a new father is all improv. It’s not that you didn’t have a father. It’s that your father succeeded (or not) by playing his part with the resources available to him. Since his time, the part has changed and you are not him and the resources you have access to are different. It’s improv. And if you are recently married, your wife has never seen you “be a father” either and, in addition, has different memories of how it should be done. Her father was, after all, her first boyfriend and she remembers what “doing it right” looked like.
But it turns out that playing any of the parts I’ve described, even the role of “father,” works the same way being an attractive woman works. You can’t deny a “truth” people are committed to. Saying that you don’t feel like that about yourself only makes you “humble” and besides, it pulls the rug out from under them. Ordinarily, people don’t like that. The only way I have ever seen it done well is by people who find the words and actions that amount to: “Yes, what you think I am it real. Thank you for noticing. How ‘bout them Steelers?”
 If you don’t know the short lectures available at TED.com, you have a treat coming. You can just pick one of the ones they are featuring or search by presenter or by subject. I have seen some I didn’t agree with, but I have never seen one I didn’t like.
 I actually save the word beautiful to refer to what an attractive woman does with her looks. It isn’t the superlative form of attractive for me. And it isn’t really a visual word for me either; it is a “generous use of a highly prized resource” word. That’s just a personal use, but it explains why I use other words when I can and why, when I do use that one, I put it in quotes.