Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Found Beauty
by Marion Winik

Shortly after he started kindergarten, I was talking to my son Hayes about the kids in his class. I asked if he'd noticed the little girl with cafe au lait skin, snapping black eyes, and long wiry ringlets. She's so cute, I told him. Oh, yeah, he said, that's Tami. A feminist psychologist friend who was visiting at the time looked at me a little askance and commented, Not focusing the kid on the superficial, now are we?

My immediate reaction was to feel caught in the act, unthinkingly passing on throwback values to my impressionable son. But in the end I decided it's undeniable: physical beauty really is something I care about. Something everyone cares about, for that matter. Your first meeting with any human being begins with a look, an evaluation, a chemical reaction. Your first mention of any new love interest to a friend doesn't take long to elicit the inevitable "Is he cute?" And there are definitely days when the only redeeming quality I can think of about my children is that they're so adorable. A sweet little bare foot, perhaps with an 101 Dalmatians bandaid on the fourth toe, can almost make up for two hours of whining and a spilled jug of Gatorade.

To pretend that appearance doesn't affect us or isn't important is no solution to the downside of beauty's power -- the idea of "ugliness." She's a dog. He's a slob. It all goes back to the famous eye of the beholder. When that crucial eye is jaundiced, when it lights up only for movie stars and models and civilian approximations thereof, well then, superficial is the nicest thing you can say about it. If beauty means only straight nose, tight butt, white teeth, I'm outta here. Not to say such features aren't delightful. But I go for a broader definition. I love hair, I love eyes, I love wrists and clavicles. I love all the many versions of the human face and form. There is some mystery about the way that the spirit of a person is expressed in the physical that is amazing. The eyes, mirrors of the soul. The lips, marquees of the heart.

I don't love someone automatically because they are beautiful, but I think beautiful all the people I love. Every time I look at one of my friends, and sometimes I think I could sit and gaze at them forever, it's as if I understand their features better. How each emotion is expressed in the symphony of a face. Why an unexpected freckle on the soft skin above the jawline might be called a beauty spot. One woman I know would prefer to get a trade-in for her slightly hooked nose, her dark, thick eyebrows, her trace of a moustache. But when I regard them in combination with her smoldering eyes and olive skin, I see the passionate face of a Greek war widow, perhaps one of her ancestors, and she is beautiful to me. Another friend thinks her fair features drab without makeup. I have no eyelashes, she complains. My skin is too pink. But to me the creamy shadings of her naked skin and eyes are as appealing as the higher drama of cosmetic glamour.

The point is that love creates beauty as much as beauty love, so there's nothing to be afraid of. You can be interested in someone first for their wiry ringlets, or their resemblance to Claudia What's-her-name, or the perfect way they inhabit a pair of blue jeans. Then you get to figure out whether or not they have a personality, and exactly what kind. On the other hand, you can like someone because they're kind to you, or because they tell a funny joke, and have the pleasure of discovering their beauty. How his hair curls down the back of his neck. How her eyebrows move when she talks. The aesthetics of the human heart are generous and flexible, and ever-widening in their embrace. In the end, what your mother told you was true: everybody looks great when they smile.
After 20 years in Austin, the hometown of her heart, Marion Winik lives in a farmhouse in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania with children and stepchildren ranging in age from 1 to 14. This piece first aired as an NPR commentary back when her oldest was a tot. Winik is the author of The The Lunch-Box Chronicles and Rules for Unruly.