On the first day of each new semester, I have my students get into small groups and introduce themselves. Along with sharing some details about themselves with their classmates, they have to share these two details: what they find emotionally attractive in a person and what they find physically attractive about a person.
After all the groups have completed the exercise, we share our observations with the large group.
What do you find emotionally attractive in a person? I ask, and hands shoot up.
Humor. Confidence. Kindness. Passion. Compassion. A sense of adventure. Intelligence. Hard working. Perseverance. Selflessness.
The answers come rapid fire. And easily at least 25 different ideas are shared.
What do you find physically attractive in a person? I now ask. When I first asked the groups this question, a silence had fallen over the room. “Is it okay to say that something catches your eye while in Body Image class,” my students wondered until I told them that it would be silly for us to just pretend that nothing physical ever catches our eye. And so, relieved by the fact that they aren’t bad people for sometimes being visually stimulated, they share.
Eyes. Lips. Chins. Hands. Curly hair. Big eyes. Full brows. Dimples. Cheekbones. Dark hair. Red hair. Light hair. Facial hair. Jawbones. Tall. Short. Wide shoulders. Freckles. Imperfect teeth.
What are your thoughts about those answers? I ask. And there are usually two pretty sudden realizations.
First: the answers are so different. Not everyone is attracted to the same thing. Attraction is so incredibly personal. And as the class continues to share, there are always people in the class who are struck by the fact that someone else has shared that they love something that he or she detests about him/herself.
“I cannot believe you like freckles,” one student will whisper to someone in her group. “I hate my freckles!”
“Oh, I love them,” the person will answer.
Second: The answers almost never includes the beauty standards that we have been fed by the media. I cannot recall anyone saying I like a tiny waist or strapping musculature.
And my students notice that.
“No one said any of the things we see in the media.”
And that’s both the beauty and irony of this exercise.
The media projects standards to us. Standards that will keep us on the “chasing beauty standard bus” forever if we buy into them. Why forever? Because the standards they feed to us are deliberately unattainable. It’s not just that less that 5% of US women have the body type reflected in the media (that body type is chosen on purposes because it’s an exclusive body type that most of us cannot attain but will spend mad money in our attempt to attain it). Then, those very models with that rare body type are airbrushed into something other, something not even real, fully rendering the aspiration impossible to physically achieve. Because if it is impossible to achieve and, yet, we desire to get as close to it as possible, we get on a consumption bandwagon that keeps us spending and our power small (because our focus is elsewhere, a focus that gives millionaires banking on our insecurities even more money to vacation on). So we fall in love with the media’s standards for ourselves. We chase them with fervor and shame.
And, yet, what we want for ourselves is not really what we expect of other people. What lights our fire is usually purely personal. It comes straight from our heart, not influenced by what Men’s Health or Vogue told us we should want, but by what our soul tells us is right for us.
Suddenly, we see that what makes someone else beautiful to us is often of our very own creation. And, yet, we don’t use that standard for ourselves. We don’t have to be so disparate in how we approach things. We can go on a journey that will allow us to see ourselves the way we see others.
As my students prepare to leave class that day, I encourage them to have this conversation over and over again with their friends. What are your favorites books, movies, songs? Who are your favorites actors and actresses? Who lights your fire? What do you find emotionally attractive in a person? What do you find physically attractive in a person?
Ask these questions, I tell them, and realize how incredibly subjective the world is.
So many of us strive to achieve one beauty ideal when people don’t perceive things in the same way. Everything is so subjective. It is impossible to please all people with just one aesthetic or sensibility so we should not try to make ourselves over into someone else’s version of ideal.
We chase an ideal because we think it will make us more desirable. But what we don’t realize is that we don’t need machinations or modifications to be lovable- we simply need to be who we are. We are already lovable. If you want to be partnered one day- and you certainly don’t have to want that- what I want you to see is that you don’t have to be any different from who you are right now for that to happen. You are perfectly poised to light someone’s fire right now, I say to them. But the first person’s whose fire you need to light is your own.