When did you last encounter a person so attractive, so gorgeous, you could not look away?
The last time I did the staring-at-beauty thing, was many years ago, at a meeting of infectious disease experts. Dr Richard Besser was presenting. Perhaps you remember seeing him when he was a medical editor for ABC news.
I have zero memory of Dr Besser’s presentation topic. Vividly, though, I recall that as he spoke in front of the room, gesturing to the gigantic projection of his research results, a female acquaintance of mine who was sitting on the opposite side of the room, stood up and walked around the side and back of the room, behind the people-filled chairs, to where I sat. She leaned over, lips close to my ear, and whispered, “Oh. My. Gawd.”
Dr Besser’s 6’ 5” stature alone commanded attention. But add to that his striking good looks — he fairly riveted the eye of everyone in the room. His obvious intelligence completed the trifecta. He exuded quiet confidence. Effortless, yet relatable charisma. Even the males in the room were charmed.
I know many smart people. I know many people who have distinguished careers. But there’s an edge possessed by a beautiful person, that is simply not available to the rest of us plain folk.
I’m short, and perhaps not hideous. But for one afternoon, I was a gorgeous person (Not pretty. GORGEOUS.) and the difference in how I was treated and its effect on me was quite remarkable.
Here’s how it happened. And what I learned.
As a sophomore in college I befriended Sue, a woman whose family had emigrated from Vietnam. One weekend not long after we met, she invited me to her parent’s home, “Come for lunch,” she said.
Lunch turned out to be an elaborate, sit-down affair with several courses and the company of her entire family.
I was seated at the head of the table, with Sue’s brother on my right and her mother on my left. Cousins and other siblings were arranged further down. Sue was opposite me, at the other end of the table. I was quite taken aback at the formality, and wished that I had realized this was not just another college student pity lunch. I should have brought flowers or wine. Or anything.
I was apparently forgiven, however, because everyone seemed very happy — eager — to see me. It was puzzling.
A steaming bowl of crème de volaille was placed in front of me. What I previously had known to be chicken soup was swill that French pigs would refuse, when compared to the dish before me.
After I resisted licking my bowl, I was served a small but exquisite green salad, quickly followed by the main dish — duck a l’orange but with a spicy Asian sauce. I’d never eaten duck nor had I any idea that Vietnam had been invaded and colonized by France, lending much culinary complexity to an already-rich Vietnamese tradition. The embarrassment of my 20-year-old self over not knowing the cultural, culinary, or colonial history of Vietnam was brushed off easily, as one would pardon (and then assist) a beloved child who had stepped in dog mess.
As we lingered over dessert, some kind of amazing sponge cake with berries, I realized that I was feeling quite uncomfortable.
Each time I spoke, every eye was on me. Why were they hanging on my every word? Did they think I was someone else?
I had been placed atop a pedestal, without preparation for the height. I was sure that at any moment someone would notice toilet paper stuck on my bare foot.
After we finished eating the exquisite lunch, I drew Sue aside and asked her why everyone was staring at me. (I didn’t think it was to gauge my approval of the menu.)
Sue laughed. In Vietnam, she said, if you have a tooth that is set back a little bit from the others that is considered pretty. But if you have two teeth set back from the others, then you are very beautiful. She cocked her head a bit, looking at my teeth rather than in my eyes, and giggled at my confusion.
Apparently, I had a mouthful of gorgeous.
I had never known such approval. Such admiration. Such willingness to forgive ignorance. A complete fascination with every syllable that dropped from my lips. Every motion of my hand admired, each fleeting expression on my face examined with approval.
It was confusing.
It was exhilarating.
I was on top of the world. I could do no wrong. I was the object of such positive attention that I no longer felt my short mediocrity.
I felt empowered. Unafraid to speak. The world was on my side. Helen of Troy and I were sisters.
Then, I returned to my dorm room. And realized that I am exactly who I think I am. A regular person with somewhat crooked teeth, little insight, and no special skills. Just me.
But was I?
What makes beauty? Or worth? Is it what others think of us? Or how we think of ourselves? At what point are those the same thing?
Studies of academic achievement in children show that the chief mediator of success is the parent’s expectation of the child’s success. If a parent believes their child is successful, then the child is more likely to be successful.
Researchers tried to tease out exactly how this works. Are parents with high expectations for their children more involved and provide a better learning environment? Or is it that the child’s success is mediated by how the child perceives herself?
The answer is complex, of course. Young children do best who have an involved parent who structures the home environment to support learning.
But as children age, the mediator of success shifts. By 4th and 5th grade, the best predictor of a child’s academic success becomes their self-perception. And that self-perception extends from their parents’ views.
Is this surprising? I don’t think so.
Others attitudes about us deeply affect us. In the work place. In our homes. In our relationships. In health care.
Black women in the USA are two to three times more likely to die from childbirth than women of European descent, partly because they are more likely to be mistreated during their hospital stays. The most common mistreatment is verbal abuse, followed by being ignored, and then lack of responsiveness to reasonable requests. (This kind of mistreatment is also common for Indigenous and Latina women, who also experience higher rates of maternal mortality than white women.)
However, direct mistreatment by health care workers is not the full reason why Black women have a higher mortality rate. In the words of one researcher, the “constant and omnipresent stress of experiencing and combatting discrimination and inequality tied to gender and race contributes to metabolic conditions that exacerbate existing pregnancy-related risks.”
Research ruled out differences owing to socio-economic status, incidence rates of specific illnesses, educational level, and differences in health care treatment interventions. And what was left? The effect of racism on the body.
Black women are dying because others judge them for their blackness.
And that judgment leads to detrimental “metabolic conditions.”
How does that work? Here’s one example: Our breath unconsciously increases when we are upset. Breathing is one of the ways that our body maintains the delicate and crucial balance of acids and bases (pH) in our blood. When we breathe shallowly and rapidly, even a little bit, it decreases the level of dissolved carbon dioxide in our blood (known as hypocapnia), which leads to the constriction of blood vessels. (And that isn’t good for many reasons.)
The instruction to breathe deeply when upset is not just a platitude. This simple act can keep our body’s pH in balance. A balanced pH not only helps our body conduct business normally, we can even think more clearly and have better self-image when our pH is balanced.
In my life, no one has ever said to me, you really are not that very attractive or your teeth are kind of ugly. But I certainly felt my mediocre-ness. And during my epic Vietnamese lunch, no one said, “Wow, you are beautiful!” No one said, “Hey, we really are glad you are here and can you tell us more about yourself?”
Their quiet admiration, positive regard, and delighted attentiveness, assured me of their belief in my worthiness. And my body drank that in like sweet wine.
I had never known how unvalued I was, until I experienced the opposite.
When your world is arranged, purposefully or not, to ignore you, to devalue you, to distrust you, it becomes part of you.
A slow-acting poison, the weight of these toxic judgments ooze their foul way around the body, not resting solely as a thought in the brain, but seeping into cells, trickling through the interstitial spaces, borne by the body’s own hormones and cytokines.
This is not metaphor.
Our judgments about others have power.
Let’s wield them with care.