While you may not guess it from looking at me, I come from a line of beautiful women on both sides of my family.
Despite the fact that my great-grandmothers were born on opposite sides of the world, Sweden and China, both had some surprising similarities.
For instance, their looks saved their lives, or at the very least, led to better lives. My Swedish great-grandmother’s parents died shortly after immigrating to the United States, leading her to be placed in an orphanage. She wasn’t there too long before a wealthy family from Northern Virgina, bowled over by the fact that she looked like “a living doll,” adopted her and whisked her off to be raised in wealth.
Likewise, on my paternal side, my great-grandmother’s looks secured her a place with a man whose family was one of the wealthiest in Hong Kong. Both women went on to have daughters that were no slouches in the looks department either: my maternal and paternal grandmother, respectively.
By the time I arrived, my great-grandmothers had been dead for decades. While I was raised in part by my maternal grandmother and was close to her, my father’s mother was the great unknown. She remarried shortly after my grandfather’s premature death from tuberculosis, and her new husband made it clear that he did not want her children in their new life. As a result, my father and aunt and were raised by relatives and had little contact with her growing up.
Therefore, I only knew about her by the little information that my dad shared. All I really ever heard is that she was beautiful. Nothing was ever said about her personality, her hopes or her dreams other than the fact that motherhood really didn’t suit her. (Big understatement there.)
On the other hand, my grandmother did go on at length about her mother. In her words, she was vain, spoilt and thought her looks allowed her to get away with everything. (If she sounded bitter about her mother, she had reason to be—per Grandmother, her mother often spent all the grocery money on a new dress or hat and left my grandmother and her six siblings to fend for themselves the rest of the week.)
Likewise, the one and only time I ever asked my father—shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer—if he hated his mother for abandoning him, he said with a zen-like calmness, “You don’t understand. She was still young and beautiful. What were her options?”
It was interesting to note that these two different women (whose paths never crossed and probably, even if they had known of each other’s existences, never would have dreamt they’d be connected), were both given passes for their respective, neglectful behavior because of how they looked.
I wondered if they would have received the same treatment had they not been so “beautiful”. I doubt it.
The power of beauty, and its effect on others is one I think about often.
It’s not just because of my family history, but as a woman growing up in Western culture it’s nearly impossible not to think about it.
As a photographer, I seek out beauty. I crave it at times. I enjoy seeing beauty in plants, animals, landscapes and people of both sexes.
I feel that liking and desiring beautiful things is natural and one of the things that makes us human.
However, as a woman, I am all too aware of the overemphasis society places on a woman’s appearance. As comedian Bill Maher pointed out last night on his show, when Hillary Clinton ran for office, there was just as much emphasis on how she looked and how she dressed (think about her choice of pants suits) as there was on her accomplishments.
Likewise, the recent controversy over actress/writer Lena Dunham’s recent Vogue appearance and the amount of photoshopping that was used for the finished images shows once again that women are still largely judged first and foremost by their appearance.
As one blogger put it, shouldn’t we actually be talking about Dunham’s art and whether or not it’s actually good especially since the byline on the cover proclaims her to be “The New Queen of Comedy”? Alas, the conversation is all about her looks.
Likewise, when it comes to my great-grandmothers and paternal grandmother, I wish I knew more about what they were like as people. I want to know what made them into the people they were. I would have liked the opportunity to ask if their looks were ever a burden.
For example, did the latter, who came from a long line of scholars but received little formal education herself, ever resent that or desire more? What happened to her emotionally as she aged, and her looks started to fade? Unfortunately, I will never know.
However, I do know what happened to my other grandmother. Like her mother, she was a striking young woman. By the time I came around, though, she was 60. She was an old lady with grey hair. Once, when I found a picture of a striking young blonde woman in a cedar trunk I asked who that was and she replied, “That was me in my 20s.”
While my grandmother was one of those people who had a beauty to her even in her old age, I do not remember her looks when I think of her. Instead, I remember her intelligence, her fierce love for me, and the fact she had a way with words.
She never explicitly said it, but she taught me that there is far more to life than looks. Frankly, it was a beautiful lesson she taught me.
Those of us who lament about society’s overemphasis on beauty need to do our part by passing the message on to our daughters, nieces, students, etc. that not only is there is more to life than appearance but sometimes, beauty can actually be a curse, like it was for some of the women in my family.
Even those who are reading this and have been blessed by the genetic lottery should have a Plan B and something more going on in the inside lest your appearance becomes the only thing people remember about you.
Therefore, instead of worrying about being “beautiful,” worry about being kind, being good and being able to cultivate empathy for others.
That is indeed the definition of beauty.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Jonathan Kos-Rea/Flickr