By Hannah Mihut
I’m fairly certain everyone has, at least once, been asked what their favorite physical feature is or what physical feature they notice first when introduced to someone new. Our sense of what we’re attracted to, what we find beautiful, usually starts in the physical, so it makes sense that upon meeting someone new most of us are drawn to one or two features of the other that we find especially pleasing; for me, there are three. First, my eyes wander from wherever eye level is (which, since I’m only 5’2’’, is usually up) to the bottom of their face, stopping at their mouth. I always hope to find their mouth turned up at both corners, with teeth revealed through a bright, welcoming grin. There is something about a good, friendly smile that I find irresistible, which immediately makes me want to know the one who possesses it. Then, my eyes make their way farther up the face of the stranger until they meet their counterparts, hopefully gazing back, slightly squinted with pupils dilated and a hint of pleasure reflected in them upon seeing mine. It’s not just the amazing array of colors which can be found from eye to eye that makes them such striking and beautiful features, but also the way they light up when viewing something pleasing to their owners and reveal hints of things left unsaid. And finally, after having taken in most of the rest of the stranger before me, my eyes rest on their hands. This one is a bit harder to explain because I’m not entirely sure what it is about hands that I find attractive; maybe it’s because of how they’re frequently symbolized as “givers of blessings,” or maybe it’s just because there’s something inviting about well-cared-for hands. Ironically, even though these are the three features – mouth, eyes, hands – that I find most attractive on others, they are the three features on my own body which connect most intimately to my greatest physical insecurities.
The physical feature I first remember being insecure about is my two front teeth. I have always had an overbite, but I never paid much attention to it until a member of one of my earliest soccer teams stopped me on the pitch during practice to ask if I knew the gap between my front teeth was pretty big, and, come to think of it, those two teeth right in the middle of my mouth were pretty big too, like a beaver’s. I felt my face flush and begin to tingle with heat as the embarrassment spread from my mouth to my cheeks to my whole being. I looked at myself in the mirror for at least an hour later that night, repeatedly plastering on a fake smile and then stretching it thinner with my fingers in the corners of my mouth to get the best view of my tree-choppers. Were they really that big? Did they make the rest of my face look like a rodent as well? Since then, I know the rest of my mouth has “grown into” a size that matches my front teeth a bit better, making them appear less like the G and A keys if these were the only white keys left on the piano, surrounded only by shorter black ones, but the image of myself with long, protruding teeth preparing to shave down the next birch tree has not left me. I still press my tongue against the front and underside of my oversized central incisors as if that might gradually push them back and up into my skull, bringing them in line with the rest of my pearly whites. I still look at myself in the mirror and wonder if having them shaved down a bit wouldn’t make me prettier. And since that teammate’s comment, finding things I don’t like about myself, specifically my face, every time I look in the mirror is a habit I have not yet been able to shake.
Growing up in a culture that idolizes physical appearance and, because of this, has determined we (particularly women) all spend at least our formative years, but probably far beyond that, constantly glancing into mirrors to see how we compare to others and the “acceptable standard of beauty,” I have grown used to being dissatisfied when I see the reflection looking back at me. Out of the countless things I see in that reflection I would like to change, it has been, maybe rather appropriately, my own eyes that I consistently settle on in that ultimate feeling of dissatisfaction. Brown. My eyes are brown – boring, bland brown – and have always been for me a reminder of how common and average my features, like my eyes, are. I don’t know who it was who decided brown eyes and hair on a peach-colored girl were undistinguished and uninteresting, but for as long as I’ve been conscious of how I look and able to compare myself to others, I’ve been aware of this and, conversely, the intrigue associated with blonde hair and blue-green eyes on girls with complexions like mine or brown hair and dark eyes on girls with darker complexions. It might be that where I’m at in the world, there are simply more women who share these features with me, making us more common and less exotic, and therefore less interesting. But this can’t be it, can’t be the only reason these features seem to look so bland on me because there are plenty of other brunettes with brown eyes I know or have seen whose beauty I am all at once amazed by and envious of. Maybe it’s also the experiences of feeling invisible to boys and the countless times I’ve accepted compliments for my stunning blonde-haired, green-eyed younger sister that have caused me to look at my own melanin-filled hair and eyes with the same disinterest I’ve felt from others. Whatever the reasons, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt genuinely beautiful, and it’s not every other moment I’ve felt ugly, just overwhelmingly average and unworthy of notice.
Though many of our initial decisions about the attractiveness of another focus on the face – which is not surprising since our primary form of communication (verbal) is done through an organ on our faces (mouth), and facial expressions also influence communication – the rest of the body is in no way safe from scrutiny and judgment. The focus on bodily imperfections may have been inevitable, but it wasn’t until my mid-to late-teen years that I began to notice everything wrong with all the parts of my body below my head and to judge myself for it. What might have been the catalyst to those concerns, what broke my ignorance of body size standards and awareness of my own bodily shortcomings was a comment from a friend about the chubby nature of my fingers. I had never cared nor noticed the shape or size of my fingers, but on a chilly fall day when my hands were probably more swollen than normal and this friend decided he had the right to point out how fat they were, I became startlingly aware of their chunkiness, especially when compared proportionally with the rest of my petite body. I still think about that moment almost every time I look at my hands, and I have continued not only to believe that my fingers are too short and thick to be attractive but also to view nearly every other part of my body, at one time or another, with the same unloving appraisal. I’ve picked at and attempted to improve each and every area of my body out of feelings of dissatisfaction and sometimes repulsion: maintaining strict cardio and strength workout routines to shave the fatty rolls off of my abdomen while, at the same time, hoping the tearing down and rebuilding of muscle will provide me with more toned arms and legs, or looking for clothes that better accentuate my figure because I cannot help but feel that, compared to other women my age, my proportions are not adequate enough to be considered attractive or desirable.
It’s certainly untrue that I’ve never received compliments on my smile, eyes, and hands – the parts of me that represent some of my greatest insecurities. I have, but there’s something about the mean or simply unthoughtful things that people have said, our unrealistic yet ever-present cultural standards of beauty, and the way we women are taught to be so critical of our appearance and how we present ourselves that make it ever so easy to forget about the compliments, or, worse yet, make them sound insincere in our memories, turning them into lies. That I can look at the same three things – mouth, eyes, hands – on another and see the immense beauty in them but see them on myself and fail to witness any beauty, wanting only to tweak, trade, reshape, especially when I know my value as a person beyond the physical, is a great and terrible mystery to me.