4. The Ultimate Selfie: How We Look

 “Because I’m worth it.”

That’s a slogan that was launched in the 1970s by the cosmetic line L’Oreal of Paris. The “revolutionary” idea was that women do indeed have fundamental value (which at that time was a rather novel idea); therefore, pampering ourselves with beauty products was a sign that we have discovered and deserve the right to flaunt that worth. The TV ad was born out of a feminist movement going on at the time, and yet for decades before then and since, women have fought for their rights in the marketplace and in the home. They have struggled for redefinition of their value—and rightly so. As a result, they have had great successes in sports, academics, and in the workplace; and yet they still haven’t gotten away from the idea that appearance is often upheld as an even greater attribute than perseverance, aptitude and wisdom. As we all grow up, messages are “recorded” in our brains that come back to tell us lies about ourselves. It’s very hard to erase those messages—to peel off those labels.

One of the early recordings in my brain was a message on the 1960s popular TV sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show.  In one episode entitled “Ellie Saves a Female,” the storyline follows a farmer’s daughter, an only child, who is denied the use of makeup, hairstyling, and perfume— “pleasures of being a woman.” Against the protests of the lady druggist, Ellie Walker, the farmer, who is a widower,  refuses to let his daughter Frankie (real name Frances) dress and present herself as a woman because he needs her to be his farm hand. However, Andy, the local sheriff intervenes and convinces the farmer that his daughter, who is just an average worker because of her gender, would be more valuable to play the role of beautiful girl so that she can attract a strong young man who would ultimately benefit the farm. Andy calls Frankie a “fair farmhand,” which is compared to a phrase he coins upon her as “quite a girl,” and he convinces the farmer that he isn’t using his daughter correctly. Though today this conclusion would be an outrage, the theme may still be hidden somewhere in my mind. I am still letting my worth be driven by such skewed philosophy. And the recordings are still running.

Question: How many times do you need to hear that you’re ugly before you start believing it?

Answer: One.

But that works the other way, too. A little girl is told that she’s beautiful once (or many times), so she’s likely to begin to think that her worth, her price tag, is in her looks. As her body develops, she may waiver in that assessment depending on her weight, her complexion, her hair, and her shape. If anything, puberty can be a major game changer for any young girl.

It’s been long believed that a human brain calculates the value of another person they’ve just met in thirty seconds or less. However, according to a recent study done by a group of Princeton psychologists[i] , first impressions (which they say are critical) are formed in less than a tenth of a second. And it’s all about the person’s appearance—an idea that appearance is closely tied to a person’s worth. As women trying to find our places in this world, we are just as confused as ever about what makes us significant.

Another cosmetic slogan launched in my generation by the mascara brand Maybelline, speaks to the role of heredity in a woman’s looks: “Maybe she’s born with it.” Somehow this is to raise (and answer) the question: Is she wearing makeup or is she naturally beautiful? That point leads to a hair color product slogan: “Does she…or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” The company L’Oreal recognized the role of heredity in appearance long ago. The company has even been involved with its own study of genetics and technology called “geocosmetics.” This research has determined desires and needs of women all over the world. The quest for appearance perfection based on skin types, climate, and environment has encouraged average women to continue searching for those products that boost their self-esteem and therefore their value to society.

And this is not a new trend. It goes back centuries, even to biblical times.

Sarai (later renamed Sarah) came from a good family. Her father was named Terah, but her mother isn’t named in the Bible. However, we do know that she became not only the wife of the biblical patriarch Abraham, but was his half-sister, too. Because of this and her marriage to Abram (later renamed Abraham), she is considered the first female Jew. This is her first claim to fame.

However, Sarai’s most valuable asset seems to be her looks. Even her husband revered her (and perhaps used her) because of her beauty.

Abram went down to Egypt to live; it was a hard famine. As he drew near to Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “Look. We both know that you’re a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you they’re going to say, “Aha! That’s his wife!” and kill me. But they’ll let you live. Do me a favor: tell them you’re my sister. Because of you, they’ll welcome me and let me live. (Genesis 12:10-13).

When Abram arrived in Egypt, the Egyptians took one look and saw that his wife was stunningly beautiful. Pharaoh’s princes raved over her to Pharaoh. She was taken to live with Pharaoh. Because of her, Abram got along very well: he accumulated sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, men and women servants, and camels.

Another biblical sister, Esther, used her beauty to wield power in a foreign land. When the king decided to find a new, young wife, Esther became his choice. The scripture says that, “[Esther] had a good figure and a beautiful face.” (Esther 2:7). Then, however, she and the other potential royal candidates were put through “twelve months of prescribed beauty treatments—six months’ treatment with oil of myrrh followed by six months with perfumes and various cosmetics.” (Esther 2:12) Then because of her beauty, she became queen of a nation.

STOP: Do your looks define you? Are you often looking at yourself in the mirror? Do you evaluate yourself (and your worth) based on your looks?

LIE: *I’m not “born with it”; therefore, no one sees me as worthy of attention. *I’m worthless and ugly and I’ll never attract a mate.

TRUTH: Ecclesiastes 3:11 “…God made everything beautiful in itself and in its time…” Luke 1:26 (to Mary, Mother of Jesus) “You’re beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out!”

[i] First Impressions: Making Up Your Mind After a 100-Ms Exposure to a Face 1.    Princeton University

Alexander Todorov, Department of Psychology, Green Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544-1010

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