I’m in the middle of reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. I will blog about it in full soon, and will no doubt have a lot to say, but wanted to mention one thing that really struck a note.

According to Wolf, the beauty myth equates sexuality, love and desire with “beauty” in a way that leads many, if not most, if not all, women to internalise the idea that: If (and only if) I am beautiful, I will be lovable and desirable.

The trouble is that they also wonder: If someone loves me because I am beautiful, how can I know whether he loves me for me or just for my beauty, and whether his love will outlast my beauty?

The result is a no-win situation, a beauty trap.

In your mind there are then only two possibilities: (1) He may think you are “beautiful” and therefore he may love you now but he cannot be relied upon to love you when your beauty “fades” with age or when someone even more beautiful comes along; or (2) He may not think so, in which case it cannot truly be love – for who when they love does not adore the beauty of the beloved?

He cannot win, and nor can you.

Ring any bells?

Have you ever been told “you look nice today” and felt an implied insult that “normally” you don’t look nice? Check.

Or have you ever made an effort to look extra nice and been miffed that there was no comment about how nice you look today? Check.

Have you ever had a compliment paid to, say, your eyes/face/hair/legs as being especially beautiful and wondered “well, what’s wrong with my nose/arms/body/face then”? Check.

Or felt a resentful urge at someone, even a partner, feeling entitled to comment on (and therefore pass judgment on) your body parts as beautiful or not beautiful in the first place? Check.

I always found this aspect of my relationship with my body and looks, and how I am viewed and “appreciated” by a partner, wildly confusing.

It seemed completely illogical and contradictory and inexplicable, yet it was how I felt. I could not explain to my confused partners (or male friends seeking clarification of their own girlfriends’ reactions) what it was all about. I only knew that it is hard to pay a compliment to a woman about her looks, because it is so easy for such a comment to be taken in the wrong way and for offence to be caused – yet it is equally wrong to ignore special efforts or new haircuts. It made no sense and there were no easy answers and that was maddening.

Now at last I understand.

It makes perfect sense when you see it in the context of the irreconcilable tension between the beauty myth, which says you must be “beautiful” (as defined by the patriarchy) to be loved, and the obvious wisdom that if you are only loved for your “beauty” then it isn’t real love, because real love sees real beauty irrespective of (patriarchal) “beauty”.

But understanding the problem is only half way to solving it. Where is the other half?