Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#61, November 16, 1999


by Marylaine Block

A porno entrepreneur announces that he's selling the eggs of beautiful models on his web site. A six-year-old beauty queen is found murdered in her home. A new Miss America is crowned. People offer fantastic sums for the dress Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang Happy Birthday to JFK. The press speculates that Ally McBeal's Callista Flockhart might be anorexic. And in a survey of vanity, 17% of US men and 27% of American women agree that they "constantly think about their looks."

What do these news stories have in common? First that, in spite of not being very important, they ARE news at all. Why? Maybe because they evoke our complicated feelings about beauty -- awe, lust, envy, suspicion, fear.

The models' eggs story provoked outrage among pundits, ethicists, feminists, theologians, and cartoonists, who have a knack for pinpointing the nature of our fears.

In a political cartoon by Steve Breen, a homely woman becomes gorgeous courtesy of a perm, dye job, dental work, rhinoplasty, makeup, and breast implants, and then a couple offers her $50,000 for her eggs. Cartoonist Tom Toles shows doting parents leaning over the crib saying "We chose your sperm from a genius sperm bank! We chose your egg from a fashion model website!" while the baby thinks, "Why would I want to have anything to do with you two ugly stupid people?"

There you have it: we'll do anything for beauty, but you can't trust it and it doesn't make you kind.

We don't trust empty beauty. The only beauty contest that has icon status for us is the Miss America Pageant, which insists on "girls who are more than pretty," and demands of its contestants talent, poise, and earnestness.

Odds are that Jon-Benet's murder would not have been a major news story outside of her home town, were it not for those videos of little girls in make-up, wearing high heels and bustiers for nonexistent breasts. It's the idea of six-year-olds being tarted up and trained to flirt that bothered us. There's something so deeply unwholesome about sexualizing little girls that we were suspicious of parents who would push them into such competition.

Marilyn Monroe is our great object lesson that worship and desire are not love, and that beauty can die lost and alone, but we still remain fascinated with the power of her beauty that made powerful men lose control.

We like to be around beautiful people. I roomed with the reigning Junior Miss one year at college, and was amazed to watch little clusters of men magically forming around her wherever she moved, like ball bearings that have no choice but to follow a magnet. Girls wanted to be close to her too, as if to share in her aura.

And we want to BE beautiful people, or at least as close to it as we can get. Why else do we spend billions on breast implants and tummy tucks? Why else are even men having face lifts and taking Rogaine?

In fact, it's almost demanded of us that we make the most of our looks. Women's magazines tell us how to dress and style our hair and apply makeup. They show us that the ultimate sin is fat, so we spend fortunes on diet pills and liposuction, while some of our little girls, and big girls too, binge and purge, or starve themselves to death to avoid committing bulges.

The funny thing is that we want to be beautiful even when we have perfectly acceptable, pleasant-looking appearances, and even though we have no trouble finding people to love, who love us as we are.

It's not that we don't notice each other's bald spots or love handles, but they don't matter as much as the things that charm us -- the warmth in their eyes, a sassy grin, the courage to take what life hands us. We love our children equally whether they're ordinary like us or beautiful.

Beauty will always fascinate, but we do seem to understand that it doesn't nourish us. What we NEED is love, kindness, friendship. When we have that, we don't envy movie stars, because we can answer the Beatles' question. How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? Fine, thank you. Really, really fine.

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