“My daughter is very physically unattractive. She’s got the worst traits of both my husband and me… And, as she gets older, kids have begun to notice her looks. Some have made rude comments. A couple of kids in the park have asked ‘Why does that girl look that way?’ to their parents.”
These are the shocking words of the mother of a nine-year-old girl in an open letter on Reddit earlier this year. Shocking because all parents are supposed to think their children are beautiful – admitting publicly that you don’t is one of the ultimate parental taboos. The distraught mother continues: “I just don’t know how to handle my feelings about the fact that my child isn’t physically attractive… How do I answer the ‘am I pretty mummy’ questions?... I just want to help my daughter grow to be a healthy, happy young woman, and not let her appearance get in the way of letting the world know what a wonderful person she is.”
It’s a heartbreaking letter, on every level. Not least because it sheds light on the narrow-minded appearance obsession in our society. We spend so much time preoccupied with the way we look, dreaming about the next magic potion to enhance our features. But the fact is, we can’t all be beautiful. Some of us are born with conventional good looks, and some of us simply aren’t. So what happens if you’re one of the less lucky ones – or the mother of one of the less lucky ones? In a society that places so much value on external appearances, what is your worth?
“Air-brushing has become the norm; and any sign of normal ageing is seen as failure,” says Katharine Wright, assistant professor of the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which explores ethical issues in medicine. “If we simply accept these ‘ideals’ and seek to conform to them, what are the implications for ageism and racism? How about people with disabilities? And what about if cosmetic procedures go badly – or even are just too obvious? The gloating in certain sections of the press over celebrities perceived to have made poor choices with respect to cosmetic procedures bears unpleasant similarities to the freak shows of the nineteenth century.”
It’s an uncomfortable truth – we have become rigidly intolerant of imperfection in our modern world. Instagram, for example, has come under fire time and time again for banning images that don’t fit standard beauty ideals – pictures of plump, unwaxed female flesh get taken down, where skinny, hairless flesh goes unnoticed.
It’s caused an outcry among body-positive bloggers like artist Petra Collins – whose account was deleted by Instagram after she posted a photo of herself that showed an unshaven bikini line – as well it should; but you take a look at those ‘imperfect’ images and see if you don’t do a double take where you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a smooth, Barbie-style stomach. We’re so conditioned to expect filtered perfection that we don’t even realise how judgemental we have become about what are, after all, perfectly normal human bodies.
The normalisation of plastic surgery is just another example of this. It is so easy to be swept up in the aspirational, celebrity-endorsed game of achieving the perfect nose, waistline or cheekbones. I would never judge anyone who chooses to have such surgery – indeed, on some days it feels as if I’m just a pay cheque away from rushing to the nearest clinic and doing a full-on Joan Rivers – but we should realise that the idea that it ‘affects no one but yourself’ is not entirely true. Every time any of us decides to ‘fix’ ourselves in some way, we’re reinforcing the message that our natural, ageing bodies aren’t lovable enough as they are. Which is all very well for those of us old and ugly enough to look after ourselves, but it’s a sad message to pass on to our young. A bit like answering ‘Am I pretty mummy?’ with a resounding ‘no’.