Abnormal Beauties

Long live jolie-laide

In a recent poll by Travel + Leisure that rated the cities with the most attractive citizens in America, my home city garnered a curious set of rankings. The residents of Portland, Oregon, were rated as the second most fit in the country (behind Denver), but they were thought to be only the seventeenth most attractive, behind the populations of cities that don't exactly spring immediately to mind when one thinks of hotties. Despite our tight abs, firm thighs, and healthy glow, the nation considers Portlanders to be less attractive than people living in Kansas City or Minneapolis.

How can this be, given our national convictions that the first step to looking like Jennifer Aniston is to take up Ashtanga yoga, and that it's impossible to be beautiful without triceps of steel? Travel + Leisure was equally perplexed. The magazine's explanation: despite Portland's mad devotion to 10Ks and bicycles, when it comes to our looks we simply don't “conform to most visitors' standards of ‘normal' beauty.”

“Normal” beauty? Isn't that an oxymoron? Doesn't being beautiful always include an aspect of individuality, which is heightened and underscored by how we manage our appearance? Maybe the readers of Travel + Leisure were confusing our lack of beauty with our general lack of style. Setting aside our love of Gore-Tex, we're a city where you can attend a black-tie function in dark-wash jeans and no one will bat an eye.

The redoubtable French designer Coco Chanel, whom I've just published a book about, spent a long lifetime manufacturing timeless quotes about the way appearance enhances beauty. “Dress shabbily, and they remember the dress,” she said. “Dress impeccably, and they remember the woman.” On a related note, she also sniffed that a woman who leaves the house without perfume has no future.

But the French also think Jerry Lewis is the greatest comedian who ever lived. Clearly, there are issues on which we disagree. Recently, I taught a writing workshop at a local high school; when I asked my students to make a list of things that made them angry, three kids listed variations on “ugly girls who try to look good.” It does seem that in the United States, among a certain class of people (mine) on certain coasts (the West and East), there's an unspoken notion that unless you're pretty, there's really no reason to bother too much with your appearance. Wearing lipstick on an insufficiently sexy mouth is viewed as being sort of pathetic. We prefer total-body makeovers, dramatic diets, and bodies by Bowflex over simply buying a pair of better-fitting slacks and cutting our hair so it frames our imperfect faces. We sniff at women who wear padded bras but give a big “you go, girl!” to women who opt for implants. (Within reason: see below.)

This is probably as good a time as any to report that I'm not bad-looking. I inherited my Polish father's head of unruly dark hair, his high cheekbones and paisley-shaped hazel eyes, evidence of a Tatar in some far-flung, windswept woodpile. But I grew up in Southern California during the late 1960s and '70s, and unless you looked like Joni Mitchell on the cover of Ladies of the Canyon, you might as well have been the twin sister of Quasimodo.

My mother tried to console me for not being a Joni clone by telling me that beauty was only skin-deep. The point of this was to reassure me that even though I wasn't gorgeous, I did possess many unseen virtues that resided deep in my internal organs. Their very invisibility was supposed to make them superior to silky, center-parted blonde hair. My mother's wisdom formed the foundation of a handy system: every time some pretty, blue-eyed mean girl dissed me, she was unwittingly furthering my evolution, helping me become a better person inside, where it was supposed to count.

I found myself saying something similar to my own daughter not long ago, but the difference is that I secretly suspect for most of us, skin-deep is deep enough. Is there one among us who would choose saintly and stray-dog homely over bitchy and beautiful? Plus, you can pretend to be soulful and deep, but you can't pretend to have Angelina Jolie's bone structure. If you doubt me, consider this: for every eight hundred best-selling books written by interchangeable, bony-assed TV actresses telling us how to find God/happiness/balance, there are exactly none penned by ugly women about how to be hot.

Perhaps it's because our nation was founded by Puritans (when in doubt, blame the Puritans), but we're not completely enslaved by beauty. On some level we still feel the need to agree with my mother. There's a famous picture of a sexy blonde in a bikini posing on a beautiful beach above a caption that says, “Somewhere, some guy is sick of her shit.” Ha ha! We laugh, because we're relieved at the possibility that beauty eventually gets boring. Given how much we worship the beautiful, how could this be? Especially since putting up with a gorgeous woman's shit is a badge of success for most guys; it's the equivalent of owning a yacht or a racehorse.

It's of note that the blonde on the poster could be, well, the poster girl for “normal” beauty. Normal beauty circa 2010 is celebrity beauty, blonde, pouty-lipped, DDD beauty. Whether you're a red carpet–friendly starlet, an American Idol finalist, or a marquee-level athlete (hello, Serena Williams), all roads lead to the kingdom of peroxide, collagen, and implants. Even women whose glorious manes of other-colored hair helped catapult them into the limelight wind up ditching the very thing that made them singular (Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman, I'm talking to you) in favor of Stepford appeal.

The most impressive example of the quest for celebrity beauty is the recent plastic-surgery binge of Heidi Montag, a C-list celebrity—it doesn't matter what she's done—who was already a large-lipped, large-breasted fake blonde. People magazine and the somewhat tonier Huffington Post, fell all over themselves reporting on the ten procedures undergone by the twenty-three-year-old in a single, delirious, scalpel-filled day.

Both publications' online comments sections bulged with moral outrage: Heidi Montag is a crazy narcissist! Heidi Montag is self-absorbed and vain beyond belief! Heidi Montag was prettier before; now she looks like an alien! Who is Heidi Montag, anyway?

The consensus seemed to be that someone who's already so beautiful should be spending her time developing her inner beauty by building houses in Guatemala or enrolling at Yale or helping out in Haiti—something other than fine-tuning her own nearly perfect blonde celebrity appearance. But really, why should she worry about inner virtue? Beauty is far and away the most valuable coin in the realm. We're furious because we don't want to believe it. It turns out that few of us want to fail to conform to the standards of normal beauty.

The French—yes, them again—have a term for unconventional beauty: jolie-laide. The literal translation is “beautiful-ugly.” To be thought jolie-laide in France means to have a huge, unsightly nose or strange, fangish teeth or a receding hairline—physical traits that really are laide all by themselves but nevertheless manage to combine with a woman's other traits to make her mysterious, erotic, and captivating. In the United States, of course, every woman who doesn't own a flat-iron is jolie-laide.

Portland may be the exception. We are serious about our tattoos here. We like our earflap hats and frizzy curls. Our pale complexions are fashionable because of all the recent vampire hoo-ha, but everyone still and always looks better with a tan.

Maybe it's because we bicycle so much and have thus become a city of slightly sweaty people with bike-helmet hair. Or because the weather forces us into bookstores, movie theaters, coffee shops, and microbreweries—all places that support the development of my mother's much-vaunted inner virtues. I suspect it actually has more to do with the fact that Oregon has the highest number of atheists in the nation; we eschew dogma. We don't like people telling us what we're supposed to worship, and that includes what everyone else finds beautiful.


Culture, Values, The Human Condition


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Also in this Issue

A Closer Look

Go Ahead and Look

Abnormal Beauties

Just Look and Read

Designing the Good Life

What Remains

Seen Though Not Heard