Eye of the Beholder
Seven out of ten. That is what I would give you. That was how I was rated based on my looks by a close friend. My attractiveness quantified in a lonely number. The scale ranged from one to ten – one having a face that would grace Elm Street while ten could launch a thousand ships. I was initially shocked at my rating but then it quickly evolved into curiosity. How did I get a seven out of ten? Who determines this numerical ranking? And more importantly, is there an appeal system?
At first glance, seven is a pretty good score. If the average is five, then a seven is above average right? If you think so then here’s something to think about, when you received a 70% on a test, did you jump up and down, wave your hands in the air, shout at the top of your lungs to how happy you were? Maybe, if you were a failing student. However, most average people would be disappointed. I remember a 70% as being the lowest D you could get without failing. A 70% to me is like being the second to last kid to be picked on a team. You are not the last but being the closest runner up is not very comforting either.
Whenever something is quantified, in this case, beauty, it implies degrees, pluses or minuses if you will. If you are rated as a one, you are considered ugly. Interestingly, even the word ugly is ugly. A score of one means all the minuses are stacked against you. On the flip side, coveting a ten would be like winning € yea you guessed it, a beauty pageant. To calculate your rating, you add the pluses and subtract the minuses. In theory, the end tally determines your attractiveness – a high score gets you roses and a gleaming crown, while a low one leaves you with a paper bag and a broken mirror as parting gifts.
But what gets under my skin is how subjective judging beauty can be.
What is attractive to one may be repulsive to another. How can this be? I believe we find beauty in others what we feel are lacking in ourselves and vice versa for what we consider as ugly. If others lack the qualities we possess, we, in return, deem them as unattractive.
The perfect body, chiseled facial features, thick luscious hair, and luminous teeth are all qualities traditionally associated with beauty. If we are missing these features but see them on others, we instantly comment on how beautiful those features are. It is what I call the I wish I had syndrome. I wish I had your hair it is so voluminous and shiny. I wish I had your body it is so tone and fit.
The things we demote as ugly fall under the At least I don’t have category. At least I don’t have bad teeth because bad teeth are ugly. At least I don’t have bad skin it makes you look unattractive.
What complicate the beauty equation are the differing views from different countries. The standards are vastly different, as are the inhabitants. More often than not, an agrarian society tends to adopt a utilitarian concept of beauty. Sure, Olga is blond, thin and pretty but can she give birth to five children and make goulash? Yes, Minh is tall and thin, but what happens when the ox is sick, can he pull the plow?
Beauty is definitely a cultural aesthetic. In African cultures, wives are sent away to fatten up before they are married while indigenous, South American Indians insert large disks inside their lips to stretch them. Due to an emperor’s extreme foot fetish, Chinese women voluntarily bound their feet. All this for the sake of beauty with each group adhering closely to the standard set by their cultures. It is not until a stranger tells them that fat is ugly, disfigured lips are repulsive or that misshapen feet are unappealing do they began to question their culture’s definition of beauty.
Growing up, I was a happy go-lucky kid who liked to smile and laugh. Never one to shy away from conversation, I love to talk and make new friends. I was a normal looking kid except for one teeny-weeny flaw: my teeth were discolored and crooked.
My teeth were overcrowded – I had more teeth than mouth. My canines, embedded higher than my other teeth, protruded forward leaving me with a vampiric smile. Meanwhile, ruff housing and bumping into the edges of tables and walls successfully knocked several upper and lower front teeth out of alignment. My teeth resembled the disjointed keys on a broken down piano.
The color of my teeth was also another issue. They were stained from taking tetracycline anti-biotic as a child. The medication washed a dingy yellow-gray film over them. Most of the stain was polished away when I began brushing my teeth with baking soda, but a noticeable stripe still lingered along the center.
Even with the state of my teeth, I didn’t think there was something wrong. Vietnamese culture views teeth as nothing more than necessary masticatory instruments. It didn’t matter if your teeth were even or crooked, white or yellow, what mattered was that you had them. I maintained this indifference until I started middle school.
My attitude changed one cold, gray morning while my sister and I were waiting at the bus stop with several other kids. We were laughing and carrying on when a girl looked at me and then leaned over to her friend and whispered something in her ear. They started to giggle. Typical girl behavior I thought. But then my sister pulled me close and said in a low, desperate whisper, Close your mouth, they are making fun of your teeth. My sister had already experienced their ridicule so she knew the target to their laughter. I, on the other hand, was clueless but my cluelessness was shattered after that incident. On that fateful morning, those girls handed me a forbidden fruit and I, with my crooked teeth and all, took a big bite.
Afterwards, I became so self-conscious about my teeth that I shied away from smiling or covered my mouth when I laughed. I pleaded with my parents to get me braces. My parents, unsurprisingly, did not see anything wrong with my teeth. Why do you need straight teeth? You are lucky to have so many. Your cousins in Vietnam would love to have your teeth. They continued in this vein while I calculated how long it would take for me to learn sign language since I would never open my mouth again. In the end, I finally got my teeth whitened and straightened but only after I finished college and when I was able to afford it.
I often reflect how much my uneven, discolored teeth affected my self-esteem. I allowed one person who laughed at me, who pointed out my flaw, who thought I was ugly to change the way I looked and felt about myself. It’s so easy to allow other order viagra no prescription people to influence how we look and feel. We fall prey to their judgments believing them to which is better viagra or cialis be so true that we make them a part of our mantra. Over the years, I thought I had developed an impenetrable armor deflecting any negative comments that impacted my self-esteem. Jabs about my sloping chin, cracks on my slanted eyes, slights on the size of my nose only fortified my armor. I had grown to appreciate what I called my character traits.
But history has a way of repeating itself and I find myself once more being judged on my appearance. No matter how much I thought I’ve moved forward, I still find myself regressing back to that little boy standing at the bus stop. But something had changed – the little boy suddenly wasn’t so little anymore. I had grown considerably since that incident. It’s true others may rate me as a seven out of ten but it no longer mattered. I’ve learned over the years that it’s not important how others see me but how I see myself, whether it’s a seven, a five or even a ten. Once you start to create your own values, you’ll stop using other people’s as your own.
Seven out of ten huh? Fine by me. Just means the rest is a treasure waiting to be discovered.
June 26, 2009