The beastly notion of keeping beautiful

People today seem to have lost track of what beauty is. Which is partly why the idea of “letting yourself go” has always appealed to me. It sounds so deliciously liberating, and it conjures the wonderful image of a balloon floating over the horizon to another, better land. Imagine bumping into an old friend on the street with your hair stuck out at odd angles, wearing purple with plaid and mismatched shoes, and explaining: “Oh, sorry, didn’t anyone tell you? I’ve let myself go.”

We’re not allowed to let ourselves go anymore. The reverse has occurred – once women, and increasingly men, hit 30, we have to step it up, suck it in, sweat it out, eat less, try harder to be “fabulous at any age!” Whatever you do, and however you do it, you must also be perceived to be hot at the same time. It’s what historian Stephanie Coontz has called “the hottie mystique,” and it’s boring. Aging is no longer seen as natural or inevitable, but rather as somehow negligent. Wrinkles will soon be like leg hairs – things you have, embarrassingly, forgotten to whisk away.

In an era of constantly updated social media self-portraits – when even school portraits are photoshopped – we seem to think smoothness, and an ability to photograph well, means beauty. We also foolishly assume beauty brings happiness. That those with regular, well-spaced features, unlined skin, and lean, luscious bodies are those we will flock to, celebrate, admire. But do they have the best lives? The most devoted partners? Just look at the patchy, tawdry love lives of some of our sparkliest celebrities. On a simpler level, are these people the ones you’d most like to spend time with?

Whatever we think of beauty, it is clear that we have consistently undervalued what a boon ugliness can be. I am not talking of Cyrano de Bergerac: We all know pretty smiles can hide dull brains and mean spirits, and gnomes can harbor horse-hearts. I am thinking more of those who have been somehow freed from expectations of beauty, who have been forced by their plainness to live by their wits – much as they may have longed to be prom queens.

Think of Eleanor Roosevelt. Historians go on endlessly about her buckteeth, her awkwardness, her lack of conventional beauty. They have wondered, offensively, how the golden boy Franklin Delano Roosevelt could have married such a plain woman.

But Eleanor is one of the greatest women America has known – remarkable for her decency, integrity, wisdom, and keen sense of justice. She said we should do one thing each day that scares us. That people can make us feel inferior only with our consent. That happiness is not a goal, it is a byproduct. “Do what you feel in your heart to be right,” she said, “for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

We also seem to have an increasingly static sense of beauty today. Something that can be still, snapped by an outstretched hand, pasted online, has become a marker of beauty. Not the warmth in people’s faces, the way they talk, move, and laugh. The way they make us feel when we speak to them, which is the essence of charm. (Charm is something else we have forgotten, because we wrongly confuse it with seduction.)

Today, when we think of beauty, we think of how much we’ll be looked upon, how much people would like to strip us, or admire us. We forget freedom, longevity, the security of being valued for something that will endure into old age, the pleasure of being taken seriously or truly loved. And something else: The ability to create or work, unencumbered by having to look good while doing it.

Pity the poor actors who hobble about with lumpy lips and removed ribs, straining not to look as if they have had children, as if they have lived, trying to prove they are still fit to be followed by paparazzi. Such efforts may extend their time of employment briefly, but does anyone enjoy life more around them?

It’s a cliche, being comfortable in your own skin, but I have a hunch Eleanor Roosevelt was. You can tell she’d be brilliant company. Perhaps what’s important is not so much letting yourself go as letting yourself be.

Originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer April 26, 2011