When Beauty Interferes with Your Life

A therapist learns more about private lives than almost any other professional. Such knowledge informs him of the double-edged nature of many glorious qualities.

Take beauty.

Take beautiful women.

The upside of their charm is well-known: admiring glances, an expansive range of potential suitors, the possibility of marrying into a superior status. People who will do more for you, show you great kindness, pick up what you’ve dropped, and make exceptions for your failings because you dazzle them with bright eyes, a smile, and the symmetrical proportions of your face.

The genetic wheel of fortune blesses some of us, sideswipes others. One does nothing to earn this. Gifts of intellect, athletic talent, and disposition are subject to random distribution, but none more nakedly evident than how you look.

What of the downside of this accident of birth? As the Greek myth of Prometheus relates, we must be wary of a gift received from the gods. Here are a few observations about those complicated presents. One cautionary note: these remarks do not fit every one of those who make men look twice:

A number of the gorgeous ones become accustomed to the unearned advantages bestowed upon them. Some believe they needn’t develop other facets of themselves: education, tenderness, social intelligence, or financial independence, etc. Life demands less, so they give less.

An additional factor contributes to their confidence in a seemingly permanent entitlement. Few can grasp the reality of future unwanted changes to their physicality.

All of us believe advanced age is our destiny, but the idea is an abstraction. The magic mirror, like the one possessed by Snow White’s evil stepmother, reflects an everlasting prime. Time stretches when a rose is in bloom. Its alteration is imperceptible. A different life is unimaginable.

Perhaps we survive as a species because aging long remains at a distance, beyond the horizon, an affliction without application to ourselves.

An enchantress wonders about something else, at least early on: why does he love me? Everyone thinks about the reasons for another’s affection, but a beautiful woman confronts the plausibility her pulchritude alone is paramount.

Along with the power conferred by her sexuality, she regrets that her lover values her without knowing her. Perhaps she is an objectified prize to be displayed beside his most conspicuous trophies; as a testament to his worth and his victories in a chest-pounding macho competition.

The totality of the female as a unique, self-created, moral, emotional, perceiving entity might be obscured by the man’s singular focus on her arresting face and form. The woman’s periodic dismay at the irony of being “unseen the more she is seen” betrays the existence of an invisible depth.

The fetching lady is like a bejeweled well, so breathtaking and artistically constructed on the outside no one thinks to examine what is inside.

I met movie-star-beautiful women whose personalities, wit, imagination, generous humanity, and brains were more impressive and magical than anything else about them. And yet the floodlight of their externals blinded far too many who were already blind to the possibility something more was more important.

If a damsel’s charms are also long-lasting, females share the tendency to discount her strengths.

I recall treating a gynecologist whose appearance suggested early-20s though she was 45. Upon acquaintance, patients did not believe she was a doctor.

Once persuaded, a minority continued to question whether her medical experience justified trusting her. The physician’s presence confronted them with the contradiction between what she was and what she appeared to be.

To the extent one retains youthfulness and allure, an evergreen body postpones the portion of maturational instruction a fading flesh provides. How one adjusts to its transformation and the changing reactions of others to its metamorphosis influences everything else.

Aches and pains aren’t fun, but they are informative. Prolonged youthful skin plays the trick of extending the period in which you can act as you did in your chronological springtime.


Any of us might wish for this blessing, but wisdom is acquired not only by exposure to events and the passage of time. Sages achieve enlightenment, in part, by adjusting to alterations in the package containing their soul.

A significant number of good-looking members of the fair sex find relationships with their same gender comrades challenging. Rivalry for the male gaze creates unease among possible friends. Would-be chums and colleagues hesitate to stand in the shadow of an apparition more magnificent than the hanging gardens of Babylon.

If these captivating creatures get divorced, married women guard the home turf against the temptation they represent. Dinner and party plans leave the insecure wondering if they would do better not to invite a Trojan horse into their walled dwelling place.

The signs of seniority and declining loveliness inevitably arrive, even when late to the game. The loss of a man’s instinctively turning head is still a loss, however long the delay. Grief is enlarged when self-concept is too dependent upon the vanishing thing.

Comparisons can’t be escaped. For one who caught every eye, she not only measures her effect on neighbors and friends but judges her current self against what she was.

If you are beautiful, you are aware of the downs and ups of nature’s largesse. A sense of well-being is enabled by gratitude for whatever one has. Those women who hang on to their appreciation of the whole of themselves will handle both their sexual objectification and its departure as well as possible.

When considering the beautiful, do remember that the higher they climb on the list of bathing beauty winners, the farther they must fall into the water.

While no one escapes gravity, some qualities defy it. Shoot for the stars with whatever excellences best define you today.

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All of the images above are sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago. The first is Three Beauties of Yoshiwara (1793) by Utamoro. Next comes Madam Pampadour (1915) by Modigliani, followed by Dorothea and Francesca (1898) by Cecilia Beaux. Finally, Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1881) by Renoir, Bust of an African Woman (1851) by Charles Henri Joseph Cordier, and Celestial Beauty from 8th century India.

Reality TV: From “Queen for a Day” to “Dating Naked”

How much of others’ misery can you stand? How much of their success? How much of their sexuality?

Television has an answer for us, but more about that a little later. First, let’s look at our private responses to the fluctuating fortunes of ourselves and others.

Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable, recommend your life should stay within the “Acceptable Failure Range.” Exceeding the limits in either direction — repeated success or endless unhappiness — will alienate some people, so the authors tell us, tongue in cheek?

I’m comfortable with this idea. Few wish to fall into the shadow of a friend who glories in his achievements. You know the type — towering SAT scores, career victories, and trendy restaurant visits are not just reported but repeated.

If the old saying, “Misery loves company” is true, one should limit being too full of yourself and your good fortune around friends.

Others in a fraught personal moment hesitate to describe their raw misfortune for fear of stressing out their social network. They anticipate compassion fatigue and expect to be shunned — the “Debbie Downer” of their group. USA society encourages an upbeat, “can do” attitude and expects us to “move on.”

We have an ambivalent relationship to fortune’s two-faced coin. First we separate the people we know well from everyone else. A different set of rules applies to each of these groups.

A celebrity’s high-flown lifestyle might intrigue us rather than generate jealousy, but headlined heartache is addictive so long as harm doesn’t happen to someone for whom we care.

A calamity in Uzbekistan is one thing. Distance is built-in. The disaster is both out there, thousands of miles away; and “in there” — inside the TV set. Moreover, when the media inundate us with tragedy stacked liked chipped dishes one upon another, the individual damage of each one makes little impression.

The lives of others — their “reality” — no longer seems quite real once we have become habituated to it. Our unconscious defenses protect us from recognizing that, we too, are subject to the sword of a savage Fate, both random and indifferent. In effect, the broadcast disaster is like a stage play, entertaining but soon forgotten.

That is, unless your brother-in-law calls with a message so painful even the smartphone is stupefied.

The 1950s first revealed our fascination with the sad lives of strangers, unrecognized until a national network TV program called “Queen for a Day” became a hit. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, public sorrow was thought unseemly except at funerals. QFAD turned forbidden self-disclosure into entertainment. A forerunner of the ubiquitous reality TV of today, the show featured “real people” (women who were not celebrities) telling the emcee the unfortunate circumstances of their lives and sometimes breaking down while doing so.

This was preceded by an unconscionably upbeat welcome from the host, Jack Bailey, a pencil-mustached man with glistening black hair and the attitude of Harold Hill in The Music Man: a fast talker far too cheerful and insincere for the occasion, whose pores oozed Hill’s flim-flam slipperiness. Four “contestants” sat behind him, all looking as if they awaited crucifixion, chests heaving, scarcely in emotional control. Each was about to bare her tragedy to a theater/restaurant audience of ladies having lunch with a side-order of Schadenfreude, the German word that describes our amused, but guilty reaction to watching someone else slip on a banana peel.

Queen_for_a_Day

This was pre-civil rights television. White women desperate enough to endure this humiliation were asked what they would like if crowned; usually medical equipment or household appliances.

Once all the tragedies had been recited Jack Bailey requested applause for the opponents in the order in which he’d interviewed them. A meter registered the audience’s measure of their pain’s sufficiency. Sort of like a latter-day Roman Colosseum, the spectators determined who among the lady “gladiators” got a “thumbs up.” The program was some form of “See if you can top this,” with each contestant hoping to surpass her competitors in terms of desperation and heartbreak, diseased children and poverty.

Once coronated, the “Queen” was robed and seated on a makeshift throne to the tune of “Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March #1, better known as high school graduation processional music. Her majesty then received not just the requested item, but a carload of other things, often including a vacation.

I can only imagine how the losers felt, having once again been consigned to the anonymous trash heap of human misery. Perhaps they wondered, “Wasn’t my life bad enough?” Defeat added to their already long list of disappointments, despite a few consolation prizes.

The TV writer Mark Evanier called this program “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced,” further finding it “tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit.” A confession here: I viewed it as a kid.

Of course, the misfortune itself was not demeaning. But, the fact that these women had to plead for and parade their need in front of a national audience and strangers nearby — all in the hope of some material reward (however, necessary) — was lamentable. The discomfort of the contestants was not disguised. To add to the irony, they were surrounded by beautiful models in skimpy outfits, all wearing their own crowns. Every one of them looked ready for the Miss Universe bathing suit competition. Compared to these youthful and comely human stage props, the rest resembled victims of a recent mugging. The objectification of all the featured females, from the leggy sexuality of Bailey’s nameless assistants to the throw-away dismissal of the three losers, was appalling.

Many of today’s reality TV “stars” require no such financial incentives to lay bare (sometimes literally) whatever is most personal in this more shameless moment in history. TV channel VH1 debuted a new series called “Dating Naked” on July 17th. Three couples quickly go on nude dates in this cut-rate version of the Bachelor/Bachelorette enterprise. Surely this is the final defeat of mystery in romance. To their credit, the producers blurred the naughty parts and included contestants who look like real people, not models.

Think about it. We are scandalized if someone finds a way to watch women in the shower room without their knowledge. We find it outrageous, and welcome the legal prosecution of the “Peeping Toms” who do this. Yet, when the TV reality participants agree to national emotional or physical nakedness, many of us salivate in anticipation. Yes, there is a difference between the “Toms” and the rest of us, but not in terms of our curiosity and prurient interest in behavior once thought of as private. Are we better off today than before “Queen for a Day” led the way to “Dating Naked?”

In fairness, “Queen for a Day” wasn’t the real starting point. One could go back to the gory glory of the Roman Colosseum, whose inaugural games in the first century A.D. are said to have involved the slaughter of 9000 animals in hunts staged before tens of thousands. We know about the gladiatorial contests of the time, while boxing matches and bull fights continue in the present day.

People can and should learn from the lives of others — what to do and what not to do. What seems a shame — but oh, so human — is our penchant for paying attention to things from which we can learn little. A more charitable stance, however, is to recognize we need the distraction. “Gapers’ blocks” produced by “rubbernecking” happen despite knowing we are contributing to a traffic jam. By comparison to “Dating Naked,” actions worth emulating are usually quiet, private, and boring. The class clown gets us to laugh, while the valedictorian goes home and reads.

Having said all that, should you dare, you can witness various episodes of the show that picked up and transformed the voyeurism of the Colosseum and adapted it for television. The YouTube link at the top of the essay includes a complete 1956 QFAD show. When it is over, you might think a second about today’s reality entertainment and the Roman audience 2000 years ago. For me, there is one conclusion: Darwin was wrong!

The publicity photo of Jack Bailey and his “Queen For A Day” assistants was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by We hope.