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Bill's Values

Figuring Out Beauty for Herself

Bill Radke

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Susan Davis today
(Courtesy Susan Davis)
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My daughter turns 16 months old today. The older she gets, the more people comment on her looks.

"Oh, she has her mom's little nose!"
"And her dad's big lips!"
"I see the Chinese in her eyes."

And so it begins: a lifetime of the world telling her what she looks like. I'm sure someone's going to think she's pretty and no doubt someone will find her ugly -- or at least, not right-looking. And I wonder how she's going to react to these appraisals. I'm doing a monthly series about the values we pass on to our children. Today's topic is beauty and self-image.

Meet Susan Davis. She's a radio producer in North Carolina. On your left, you can see what Susan's nose used to look like. This is how she describes it:

"It was very masculine-looking, so it was big and it had no curves. It was kind of the only thing you saw when you looked at me -- certainly the only thing I saw when I looked at myself."

In school, Susan's classmates called her "schnoz." When she realized her happiness was never going to come from her looks, she fed her imagination. She read and wrote. She found her happiness somewhere else. Still, she was never allowed to forget what she looked like. And one night, when she was 12 and her parents were out, she says she broke down.

"And I managed to gather a bunch of photographs of myself. I stabbed myself through the face in every one of those photographs with scissors or a knife -- I don't remember exactly -- stabbing and stabbing and stabbing. And my parents came home to find me in their room -- I had done it in their room -- curled up in the fetal position, surrounded. I was like an island in this sea of ruined photographs."

Six years later, at age 18, Susan was in a doctor's office to have a benign tumor removed from that nose. And the surgeon looked at her and said, "We can fix that."

After the bandages came off, it took months for her nose to heal. By then, she was a college freshman. That's when, for the first time, the world told Susan she was pretty.

"I woke up in the middle of the night to a chorus of young men singing -- I think it's an Everly Brothers song -- 'Wake Up Little Susie.' I remember peering out of my third-story window down at this group of drunken men and not understanding what was going on... And my roommate coming in and saying to me, 'They're singing to you! There's a group of men outside our window singing to you -- do you know them?' For a solid 10 years, I have to say, life was kind of like that. Strange men would sing to me.

Susan says it wasn't the singing of drunk men that moved her. It's that when men sing to you and strangers smile and want to talk to you, it begins to occur to you that the world and other people are something to be enjoyed.

"There's a whole sensual world that opens up," she says. "There could be a whole intellectual world that opens up that goes with the sensual world. And there's an independent life, that you think, 'I can do this because you know what? It seems like people want to know me, people want to talk to me, people want to hear what I think. At least people want to sit next to me in a bar. So, why not? Let me try that, why shouldn't I try that, whatever it is?' It seems small and you think, 'Doesn't everybody have that impulse?' But really, the pretty have more of that impulse."

Today, Susan Davis is a published author and poet. How much of that is because of the inner life she developed when she was an ugly duckling, and how much because she looks good on a book jacket, she says she'll never know.

What strikes me about her story is that we tell our children that looks don't matter: "Beauty is only skin deep -- who cares what other people think of you? It's what's inside that counts." I want my daughter to feel that way. But is it true?

I asked Susan what she would tell her 7-year-old if she came to her as a teenager and said, "Mom, I want to change the way I look," whether that's a nose job, or a boob job or something else. She told that she wants to say that boobs are different than your nose -- but that in theory, they're not.

"I can't tell her it's a terrible idea because I just know otherwise," she says. "I would not undo this (her nose job). I'm not sorry, and I don't think that my parents should've stood some ground and prevented me. If I can fund her nose job and she wants that and it's gonna make her life better, that's great. But I'm hoping that she won't feel that need, that she's going to feel great about herself and her body and feel beautiful regardless. That's what we all want."

So what would she say if her daughter said, "Mom, you went through this before-and-after experience. What did you learn about what's important? Teach me mom, I want to know -- I'm getting my values from you now, mom."

Susan sighs: "Oh God, isn't that the worst thing about parenthood? Well, I think it's important that she's asking me this -- I'm 43 now -- and it's not just before-and-after. It's before-and-after-and-after. Because I was an unattractive girl and then I was a babe and now I am middle-aged and what babe-ness I had is on the fade, it's on the decline. I'm learning how the culture does and doesn't see women as they get past 40 and what privileges are slowly revoked from pretty women as they age out of a certain range of desirability. So you have to have created for yourself an inner life, a spiritual life, an intellectual life, and friends and lovers and family and reasons to live that have nothing to do with being pretty -- because it won't last."

Not everyone's experiences with cosmetic surgery are so positive. I interviewed Susan because hers is a minority voice, at least among my friends. Most people I know look at cosmetic surgery with disdain. It goes beyond concerns about safety. They see cosmetic surgery -- especially breast implants, but even Botox and collagen -- as an act of shallowness and weakness and self-absorption. It's just wrong.

My view, so far anyway, is that changing our bodies seems to be human nature. We've always pierced ourselves, and painted our faces, and tattooed our skin and done everything to our hair. I can't tell when that's a sign of poor self-esteem and when it isn't. And it's not my job. My job is to live by my own values and help my daughter be happy. I might not like how she defines happy, but that's her job, and it'll be interesting to watch her figure it out.

  • Music Bridge:
    Instrumental
    Artist: Tones on Tail
    CD: Tones on Tail (Beggars Banquet)
More stories from our Bill's Values series

Comments

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  • By Marty Ganser

    From SC, 03/07/2013

    Funny I complain and yet I'm the one who cheats on my wife left and right.

    By Hammad Ahmed

    From Boston, MA, 06/10/2008

    The question is not whether body alteration should be performed or not--the question is what kind of problems it can and can't solve.

    It can solve many problems for children born with cleft palates, for example.

    But getting a face lift won't necessarily solve problems relating to clinical depression, poor self-image, and social anxieties.

    I mostly agree with Bill that it's up to the individual to decide whether cosmetic surgery can help them, but I think that they should be given lots of information about other cases before they go under the scalpel. As it is, too many people are fooled into thinking that being attractive will solve their problems. For example: penis enlargement devices--who really buys them? Apparently a lot of misinformed men.

    By Julia Dole

    From Santa Monica, CA, 06/08/2008

    My mom had a huge nose that completely threw her face out of whack. Worse, her own mother habitually called her "you long-nosed thing" from early childhood, severely damaging her self-esteem. (Imagine, not even your home is a safe haven from ridicule.) This left her with a deep need for approval and love.

    Luckily, music gave her real joy, so studying voice (and languages) became a beautiful and productive refuge for her.

    Predictably, when she finally bought herself a nose job in her 20's, her family gave her crap for that too, as if she was supposed to be strong enough to withstand the relentless judgment and ridicule.

    She had a successful career singing opera in Boston and New York, and quit a European tour to marry my dad. I am sure looks helped, but she had a beautiful, strong, and professionally-trained coloratura voice.

    Unfortunately, as her looks faded, so did my dad's respect for her. Ladies, beware of this, and choose men wisely.

    I'm proud of all the choices my mother made. She didn't have it easy. She also supports any choices I may make to change my looks, if I choose. (I only felt I needed braces, as an adult.)

    A person's changing their looks is between their doctor and themselves. Of course people judge looks, from childhood on, and beauty is power, though of course, it is not everything.

    Beware peoples' shallowness; build yourself as you see fit, inside and out, and choose people wisely.

    If you can, please be kind to people who look imperfect. And teach your kids likewise.

    By Sarah van Ingen

    From Detroit, MI, 06/07/2008

    Mr. Radke,

    I appreciated you diving into such an important topic. I consider it brave of you to have aired this segment because it sure elicits a wide range of strong opinions. One of the best things that we can do for our children is to discuss these ideas-- to discuss them frequently, seriously, and with open minds. I have thought about ideas relating to women and beauty, women in the media, etc. for many years. I too have a little daughter now, and that certainly makes the topic all the more intense. I think one of the most important questions that we can ask is "Why do we feel the way we do about beauty-- about our own looks and those of others?" Psychology has taught us that our feelings come from thoughts, and so the deeper question is, "What are the thoughts that we have that lead to our feelings about beauty?" This is where the real work comes in. It is difficult, very difficult, to step back from our feelings and ask ourselves about the thoughts that lead to those feelings. Part of the reason that this is so difficult is that we are fed a frenetic diet of thoughts on beauty from mass media. Often these messages are buried in visual imagery, and it takes concentration to think about the messages that lie behind certain ads/shows/songs, etc. As you may know, Jean Kilbourne has written extensively on the topic of advertising and how it relates to our understanding of beauty, among other topics. If you have not read her book, Can't Buy My Love, I would highly recommend it.

    Our little daughters are just like sponges; they soak up all the messages around them as they form an understanding of self, the world, and their places in the world. As parents, I don't think its advisable to tell our children what to think. They need to form their own opinions. Yet, I think it our responsibility to be aware of the messages that our littlest children are digesting on a daily basis. Are the messages from the mass media truthful? Life-giving? There are so many messages that are designed to make young women feel insufficient so that they will buy more product. As a parent, I think we have responsibility to alert our daughters to these messages and to discuss them openly. Only then will our daughters (and sons) be free to make up their own minds about beauty.

    By Barbara Husband

    From kirkland, WA, 06/07/2008

    My daughter was born beautiful, with a radiance that captures, holds, and disarms the attention of everyone she meets. I have not promoted this, I do not want her to judge her experiences or efforts by the attention from others. Now, something I never counted on is happening. She receives the attention of young men (still, about 5 years older) ogling her figure, flirting, and being overtly attentive. Her response has floored me. She is practically anorexic, has taken up chain smoking , and is an espresso addict. Her looks are no longer captivating and radiant. They are calculated, dull, and her eyes are absolutely flat. We never think that anything happens overnight. So, as parents, we have to really look at as much of the child's information as possible. But, I cannot help including our disposable, shallow, brazen pop culture as adversaries for my child's future. My daughter is 19. It has taken 4 months for this physical transformation.

    By Bill Radke

    06/07/2008

    Thanks, Mary Ann. Why especially those body parts?

    By Mary Ann Nordeman

    From Poway, CA, 06/07/2008

    We should be able to change anything we want, especially in the face, nose, eyelids, teeth, etc.

    I've had lasik surgery on my eyes and a tummy tuck and proud of it.

    By Garth Hammond

    From seattle, 06/07/2008

    Curious article, the point missed is; why is this done, piercing,nose jobs etc. what is the condition that these external choices attempt to address? you might check out Reallove.com for another point of view.

    By Bill Radke

    06/07/2008

    I'm enjoying this conversation, thanks everyone. I hadn't considered the double meaning of "boob," so I'll heed that now -- thank you. I appreciate Marty's comments. My question is, why is it only "external ridicule" that counts as causing low self-esteem? My guest Susan Davis told us that when people found her less attractive they gave her less eye contact, less reinforcement, and less opportunity. It is for us to say someone is unjustified in changing their look because we don't like their reasons? Maybe sometimes cosmetic surgery doesn't promote happiness and sometimes it does.

    By Marty Ganser

    From Saint Paul, 06/07/2008

    I honestly think there is a fundamental difference between "breast reconstruction" and a "boob job", and the same goes for other forms of "cosmetic" surgery. I also have to admit, however, that I have no idea where that line falls. I am upset by people who pursue cosmetic surgery out of pure vanity, yet I have sympathy for someone who is correcting a misfortune of illness, accident, or even "freakish" genetics (please pardon my poor choice of words).

    If a person has, for example, a nose that brings external ridicule resulting in low self-esteem or depression, that person's life might be improved with cosmetic surgery. However, if a person who suffers from low self-esteem not resulting directly from their otherwise "average-looking" (for lack of a better phrase) nose, any cosmetic surgery will not fix what truly ails them.

    I believe it is unethical for surgeons to provide "boob jobs" to perfectly healthy women who blame their sadness on their natural b-cups. They should be referred elsewhere to have their depression treated, as larger breasts -like money or anything else- are not the keys to happiness.

    I'm sure I'll draw fire for that, but I'm admitting that this is a confusing issue. For the record, my wife wants me to start using Rogaine and coloring my grays. I wish it didn't matter.

    By David Domanski

    From OH, 06/07/2008

    Susan Davis's comment about loosing desirability with age nearly made me shout at my radio. Speaking as a 39 year old male I just want Susan and all other women that may read this to understand that sexy does not stop at 40 or ever. Yes our bodies will and do change as we age, but don't think for a minute that we gent's are no longer "checking you out" simply because you are not 22. Youth may be skin deep, but sexy lives forever. Do not mourn the loss of youth, instead celebrate the wisdom that was gained from the experience! Even as an 18 year old I did not think of a woman's age as a scale by which to measure beauty or desirability. Aging is not the end of the show, it is merely a costume change.

    Regards,
    David Domanski

    By l riskedal

    From minneapolis, MN, 06/07/2008

    "..whether that's a nose job, or a boob job or something else."

    'boob job' is deragatory. challenge yourself to use appropriate words, so that she does not hear these innappropriate terms used to degrade her and the women who are important to her, and the women who make up her culture.
    Positive word choices are a critical component to a positive personal view.

    By Guillermo Cuellar

    From Shafer, MN, 06/07/2008

    Does anyone look down on braces?

    By Janet McMahon

    From Rockford, IL, 06/07/2008

    Bill Radke's story about cosmetic surgery strikes a nerve in me, but not because I have strong views about women's decisions to have cosmetic surgery. I am a two time breast cancer survivor, and have had "cosmetic" surgery to have my breasts reconstructed. I view my breasts as an integral part of my body, and the reconstruction as a logical response to the loss of them. What frustrates me is the pervasive use of the word "boob" to describe a breast. Think about the connotation that word carries..idiot, foolish person, etc. My breasts are not idiotic, nor foolish. They nourished my children, and pleased my husband. What are we teaching our daughters (and sons) about women's bodies? What part of a man's body is regularly discussed with such a derogatory word? I taught my children their anatomy with the correct terminology, in the hopes that they would not learn that some parts of their bodies have more value than others. Breasts are not foolish or silly...they are beautiful and useful. I am glad that I had "breast reconstruction" not "boob reconstruction"
    Janet McMahon

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