Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Beauty & the Fickle Beast of Perception

We’ve all had days where we feel disheveled, beastly or worn, either from stress or lack of sleep. And maybe we get a concerned look from a colleague, or we simply blend into the sea of self absorbed faces at rush hour. But there are other days when we might be surprised by someone in a way we least expect. Here we are, feeling like crap, and they tell us...something to the contrary. We look good, they say. Or in our element. Or a complete stranger smiles at us. Or whatever. And we wonder who or what it is they are seeing.

Well I was standing at the streetcar stop the other day feeling pretty bland when this young, 20-something African man strolls by. And he looks at me like....well, like he found me mighty darned attractive. Like I imagine guys his age look at girls their own age. Like I was beautiful. He locked eyes with me until I looked away, my shyness getting the better of me.

I started thinking about what a lot of African Canadian men have told me – men from countries in east, south and west Africa alike, especially south. They say they don’t see age. They don’t see age. It’s irrelevant to them. Either a woman is beautiful to them or not. I’ve had often had them approach me on dating sites, and when I point out the age difference between us on the phone, their disinterest is palpable.

In a culture where who we are and what we are deemed capable of is largely shaped by our perceived age, this trait is no less than remarkable. The age we consider someone to be is foremost on our minds. It influences our professional choices, who we make conversation with at parties or who we go to bed with. Of course, there are plenty of other factors, as well. But I would argue that age is front and centre for a lot of folks. Just try for a moment to imagine what life would be like if you saw the soul of a person first: their beauty or intelligence or “vibe”, or whatever you want to call it. And then maybe later you noticed they were in a generation completely different than your own, but it didn’t matter, because you made this connection.

Can you imagine what living like that would be like?

Now I know there are many times when factoring a person’s age into our decisions is entirely appropriate. I’m not suggesting age is irrelevant – that’s not the point of this post. I am just fascinated by how culture shapes the perception of age. More specifically, I am fascinated by how culture shapes the perception of what is beautiful.

Consider for a moment one aspect of genital reconstruction, which I wrote about in my recent post, Designer Vaginas. Girls as young as 15 are so influenced by distorted and narrow sexual ideals in western culture that they are going into surgeon’s offices to have their labia amputated. Sites like Scarleteen, a sexual education resource for teenagers, typically feature ongoing inquiries from girls worried about their labia being too large.

In contrast, listen to this. I interviewed an educator (and former consultant to the World Health Organization) last week about the history of genital surgery across cultures who told me that in some countries, labia are stretched because large labia are considered to be more beautiful.

Now think about that for a moment. Think about the lengths we go to to conform to someone else’s ideas about what is beautiful, and how fickle that can be. Trends change. People change. Many of us live in an increasingly multi-cultural society, so we never really know for sure how a person’s perception of beauty has been shaped, or how aware they are as a human being. I met a Caucasian man in his early 40s once who admitted to me he found the signs of aging (wrinkles, grey hair) to be sexually arousing.

So, as hip hop mogul Russell Simmons says in his book, just Do You. Authenticity sells. And I can dig it. Find a way to get off on who you are. Life is short.

When SeptemberMay launches next year, we will be celebrating the older woman for all that she is: the beauty, eroticism and intelligence she embodies that a younger woman can only dream of. Not the 40-something “cougar”, but the authentic older woman, be she in her 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s. I am convinced there are a solid pool of men out there who can really rock with that idea.

And we’ll be opening our doors to them.


Debra L. Schubert said...

Just try for a moment to imagine what life would be like if you saw the soul of a person first: their beauty or intelligence or “vibe”...

That's one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. Ever.

Jesse Mendes said...

Debra, you just made my day, and I've been feeling pretty down these last few days. Thanks for the boost. Your feedback means the world. Jesse