“You look great” is one of the conversation starters that I most despise. When someone says that to me, it always feels like what they are saying is that the last time they saw me I looked terrible. Or is it that they are surprised to see me not bed-ridden or comatose? Or, maybe, they simply have nothing interesting to talk about other than our superficial appearances. Regardless, I hate it because it reminds me how much people are constantly looking at each other and judging others’ entire lives based on thinness, youthful appearance and shallow versions of beauty.
I thought of this last week as someone remarked to me that she had seen my daughter and that my daughter “looks great.” My first thought was, duh, of course she looks great; she’s an active 13 year-old and has a beautiful spirit and she looks exactly how she should look. My second thought was, why are you observing and judging my daughter’s appearance? What are you looking for? What are you expecting to see? And what does “good” even mean? Does it have any meaningful interpretation at all?
My next thought was, you don’t even know my daughter at all. If you encounter another human being and come to all kinds of conclusions based on the person’s appearance, you have not actually connected deeply with the other person at all, other than to judge her. The more I thought about this tiny little comment, the more I felt violated, for my daughter and for myself.
It reminded me of the time when I was around my daughter’s age and came home from summer camp, only to hear certain relatives say, “You look great!” I remember looking at myself in the mirror after those exchanges thinking, “What do they see?” I didn’t know what “great” meant. All I knew was that I had a lot of really fun, new and exciting experiences over the summer that I had not even shared with those adults, that they had no idea who I was or what I was doing, but they decided that I looked great. It was a formative moment and I remember the confused feelings associated with it as if it happened yesterday.
I know this little rant may sound a little extreme, because after all, the “You look great!” opener is so common. But it just really makes me bristle. I don’t want anyone looking at my body, watching, measuring or evaluating it. And I certainly don’t want anyone to make entire determinations about who are what I am, whether I am “successful” or “doing well” in life or otherwise, based on how my hair is coiffed, how well my make-up is done, or how thin my waist happens to be at that moment. But this is what’s happening all the time, at almost every social event, and it shapes our entire culture.
Lately I’ve been writing about the male gaze on the female body. But the fact is, there is a female gaze on the female body as well. It’s about this: women seeing other women and determining how they measure up. It’s about women seeing how other women “take care of themselves”.
That’s another expression that I abhor. When we hear about a woman who “takes care of herself,” we are basically talking about spending a disproportionate amount of time, money and energy on plucking, waxing, Botox, mani-pedis, hair dye, tips, straighteners, extensions, lenses, creams, tucks, fixes, facials, make-up and Spanx — not to mention clothing, shoes and endless accessories. To take care of oneself means to make a massive life investment into the beauty industry in order to be guaranteed a spot on the receiving end of the “You look great!” exchange. What a waste of women’s lives.
As I read about how this beauty industry, the one so destructive to women’s spirits, is frighteningly on the increase rather than on the decline — as illustrated by last week’s New York Times piece on the increase in breast augmentation surgery — I cannot help but feel a profound sadness and loss. Wasted human energies, how all that time and money could be used to bring more humanity into the world.
Compounded by the events around us, the war, terror and human catastrophe that have cut short so many lives, these thoughts leave me to wonder what will be said about women — about me — after we die. I wonder how many women will be left with nothing to write on their tombstones other than, “She always looked great. She really took care of herself.” It breaks my heart.
I do not want to be on the receiving ends of superficial judgments at all. I do not want to be gazed upon and measured, especially if what’s being measured is how my body looks. But I will say this: If you want to judge me, don’t look at my body but just at my hands. Look at what my hands produce in this world, my creations and creativity. Judge me not by how I look but what I do. My arms and hands that work and write and hug. In the end, that’s all I really am.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author and feminist researcher, educator and activist. She is currently studying to become a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and is blogging about her journey at www.jewfem.com
Why I Hate Hearing 'You Look Great'