This isn’t just about beauty in the feminine sense, but let’s start there. It’s something that I’ve found interesting over the course of my relatively short life. The inverse relationship between beauty and insecurity. Everyone has them. But it seems that women and men who are universally considered “attractive” tend to be more obviously insecure than so-called average looking folks. I haven’t met someone who is seen and sees themselves as attractive and hasn’t show a sense of vanity or ego with it. From hair (or lack thereof) to nails and clothes to affect, it’s a pretty common theme. And it seems to get worse with age.
I’ve seen it firsthand. With my wife. With former girlfriends. With handsome guys suddenly finding themselves over thirty, thirty-five or forty with receding hairlines, bald spots or graying hair. Not to mention love handles. It’s a shame, because out of the span of an average life of seven or eight decades, we really stay in peak physical attractiveness for twenty or thirty years. Forty if we work hard at maintaining the physical plant. There’s got to me more to life than this.
And it’s not just the phenotypically gifted that show overt signs of worry. The mentally gifted do this, too. Oftentimes long before any signs of intellectual wear and tear are evident. When someone can no longer recall the Pythagorean Theorem, you know it’s all downhill from there, right? Of course, the beauty and the nerd in our culture have insecurities for different reasons — really two sides of the same coin. Attractive folks tend to be popular and often know only for how they look, even when they have other gifts. That could make almost anyone both arrogance and neurotically self-conscious. Plus, many people hate, actually hate, their highly attractive peers. That doesn’t help matters.
For the highly intelligent, the opposite is true, especially in the growing up years. The combination of pure analytical talent, heightened inquisitiveness, when combined with any critical thinking skills at all, makes them standout in the most uncomfortable of ways. Most folks prior to college don’t value these gifts, and in fact shun the folks who do have them. They’re uncool until college, then cool to exploit until grad school, and then envied once they make it to twenty-five or older. That could make even the most social awkward brainiac a bit nervous about themselves and others in their lives.
But what if a person is both beautiful on the outside and mentally gifted as well? Or at least, attractive with above-average intelligence? Beware of the person with multiple gifts and with the ability to hone them into skills. They can be arrogantly insecure on a scale that would scare the typically shallow — ala Tyson Beckford — or self-absorbed — ala Cornel West. They often don’t know whether their friends are their real friends or are hangers-on or are folks looking to screw them over in some way. Their enemies or foes tend to be obvious — at least at a younger age — and plentiful. With so many gifts, it’s no wonder folks blessed with them often feel like they don’t belong to anything or anyone, even with all of the success they garner in our world.
I’m overgeneralizing, of course. Because natural gifts aren’t evenly distributed. Parents play an important role in providing balance to the physically attractive or highly intelligent child-turned-tweener and teenager-turned adult. Peers who have more than coolness on their minds tend to help keep one’s head from getting too big or ego from being shattered into tiny pieces. Ultimately, having a vision for one’s life and the motivation and inspiration to live out that vision — based to some degree on one’s gifts and the guidance necessary for using them — is what keeps genius from venturing into insanity and beauty from total vanity.
I started writing this in response to the contradictions anyone can find in looking at Women’s History Month. Particularly the distance between feminist/womanist rhetoric about girls and women loving themselves loving themselves for who they are and not how they look and the everyday barrage of images about beauty and achieving it for others’ pleasure, if not for one’s own. Then I realized that this is an issue for women and men, boys and girls, regardless and because of race and socioeconomics. Then I thought that beauty isn’t the only insecurity folks who are blessed or gifted become neurotic about over time. Yes, we are all gifted in some way, but for folks who show some hint of talent at an early age, it can be a great burden. Let’s hope that we can find a way of losing some of this weight in time to enjoy our lives.