The other day, I watched, what for some reason was the highly controversial film, I Feel Pretty. I liked it overall, and thought it had a positive message about character and the things in life which matter most. If you haven’t seen it, Amy Schumer’s character, Renee, struggled with her weight and body image throughout the film, until a hint of magic caused her to perceive herself in a more favorable light, seeing herself as being beautiful. Despite its critics, Schumer was a perfect fit, not because she wasn’t attractive, but because she was, despite not fitting Hollywood’s mold of beauty: I think that was one of the film’s poignant messages.
Throughout my life, I’ve struggled with Body Dysmorphia, and most recently Muscle Dysmorphia, which is the perception that one isn’t muscular enough. Whether or not my perception of myself is accurate is secondary to the question of why I feel the need to look like a magazine model in the first place. From childhood, our culture subtly imbues us with messages of beauty, informing us that love and self-esteem belong to the beautiful, the very best that our society has to offer. We see it in film, television, books, and in our own environments, as adolescents and teenagers compete for the highest quality partners, shunning all of the rest. I remember, when I was a teen, doing the same thing, believing that I could only feel good about myself if I landed the hot girl, and that was when my Body Dysmorphia began.
As kids and teenagers, we seldom question the circumstances of our lives, and merely attempt to adapt. Some of us adapt better than others, but there’s never a point in which we take a step back and ask ourselves why. In the film, Renee simply accepts that to be happy, she has to be beautiful, only questioning that belief in the end, when the magical spell is lifted and she’s once again her old self; and, I felt the same way. I was constantly comparing myself to the taller, more athletic, muscular guys in my classes, and couple that with an upbringing that fosters toxic masculinity — bam, you have yourself some freshly brewed Muscle Dysphoria! However, as I’ve gotten older, delving deeply into philosophy, I’ve started to question the shallowness of my mentality, trying to figure out what a good life truly meant.
In my simplistic understanding of the world, I thought that beauty meant love and happiness, and a subpar appearance relegated one to a lifetime of misery. But, my present interpretation is more nuanced, as Renee’s became when she discovered a crying super model, who told her that she had just been broken up with; beauty does not, and can not, preclude suffering. And after some consideration, I found myself asking, why do we even need to? In terms of relationships, and rejection in particular, we need a modest amount of it to appreciate those who see us, and accept us, for who we are; that’s just how it is. Without rejection, we wouldn’t be able to vet potential partners, and we wouldn’t feel grateful for those who stay. (There was a great op-ed article written in the Washington Post about a year ago by a woman who vetted her dates by seeing who was, and wasn’t, okay with her persistent stutter.) Simply put, without rejection, we would become the physical embodiments of the tale of Narcissus, who couldn’t care less about those who desperately sought his companionship.
And, beauty can be as tragic as it is useful; it can attract as much as it can push away. Highly narcissistic individuals tend to push others away through insults and boasting, and those who aren’t, can be bullied for simply being too attractive. Psychologist Gail Gross writes:
It is important to note that not only are the weak targeted, but often a girl that is considered to be too pretty, too smart, too nice and therefore making the other girls feel inferior. In fact, bullies may describe a target as ‘too full of herself.’ And, because of the competition and striving for popularity as well as positions of power, peer groups may form alliances to cast out and isolate the offending girl.
So, beware the next time you believe you’re sure of how magical someone’s life is based on their appearance alone.
Despite my insecurities, I veer more toward the direction of Renee in the film’s ending these days, trying my best to accept my flaws as mere parts of my overall self. Yes, I do have body fat, and yes, it jiggles; but, I’m not going to give up the foods I love to try to meet some expectation that most others, if not all of us, can’t. We have to strongly consider the culture we’ve perpetuated because, although we’ve inherited it, it’s on us to change it.
Appearance, like intelligence and height, are mostly outside of our control, but character isn’t, and neither is compassion. People don’t deserve to be bullied because they’re deemed to be too unattractive nor do they deserve it for being too beautiful. Renee was beautiful, but not in the way which Hollywood dictates, hence why the film’s critics were wrong. In the end, she realized that being herself was more important than being beautiful, and it seemed that she had learned an invaluable life session, one which required suffering.
In the words of the great Stoic, Epictetus:
Females are especially burdened by the attention they receive for their pleasing appearance. From the time they are young, they are flattered by males or evaluated only in terms of their outward appearance. Unfortunately, this can make a woman feel suited only to give men pleasure; and her true inner gifts sadly atrophy. She may feel compelled to put great effort and time into enhancing her outer beauty and distorting her natural self to please others. Sadly, many people – both men and women – place all their emphasis on managing their physical appearance and the impression they make on others. Those who seek wisdom come to understand that even though the world may reward us for wrong or superficial reasons… what really matters is who we are inside and who we are becoming.