Monday, November 28, 2011

On Failure and the Contradiction of Beauty

When I was 16, I failed my driver’s license test. The details are fuzzy, but it involved a collision with a curb, and a generous interpretation of LEFT TURN YIELD RIGHT OF WAY TO ONCOMING TRAFFIC. The instructor had me turn back immediately. I didn’t have a chance to parallel park.

I sobbed the entire way home, my mother doing her best to soothe her despondent daughter, who wasn’t having any of it. The minute we got home, I went to my mother’s bathroom cabinet and swallowed two of her antihistamine pills. One was enough to make me fall asleep for hours. Two, then, would do even better. I slept all day, woke up for dinner, took another pill, and slept some more. Failing my driver’s test was, without exaggeration, one of the worst things that had happened to me in my life.

I mention the pills because as childish as taking them was, it seemed like the only way I could handle a truth I discovered for the first time that day: You can be a smart, level-headed, "good" girl, and you can still fail. I possessed the sort of intelligence that meant while my critical thinking was frequently lazy, tests, papers, and good grades came easily, despite conspicuously infrequent study sessions and lackadaisical homework habits. Failure simply wasn’t on the radar. I’d been disappointed, sure—not getting the lead in school plays, my French class partner not asking me to the winter formal—but I hadn’t failed before. But there I was, “did not pass” circled on top of my driver’s license application.

Failure is acutely uncomfortable. It’s something we don’t speak freely about, preferring to move on to how to not fail next time, or perhaps to inspirational quips about how our failures aren’t measures of us as people—which they’re not. We’re so afraid of failure that we turn it into a unique, private sort of shame. Rather, women are so afraid of failure that we turn it into a unique, private sort of shame. Women fear failure more than men, and we take it harder too: There’s a strong correlation between academic failure and depression for young women, but not for young men. That’s not to say that men don’t fear failure—of course they do—but the intensity of that fear, the hold it can have over daily life, seems to have a particularly rattling effect upon women.

The particular intensity of women’s failure makes me wonder about how we absorb our failures of beauty, which by their nature can’t stay private and include the shame of having others know we’ve failed. Is there a failure more immediately public than trying to look beautiful and falling short? This is why we ridicule women who make no bones about the fact that they goddamn well are trying to look beautiful—the “fashion victims” of the world, the plastic surgery cases gone wrong. It’s why the cruelty Todd Solondz inflicts in Welcome to the Dollhouse is in sharpest relief when Dawn Weiner is trying to look pretty, not when she’s her normal dorky self.

It was the effort-filled image on the left, not the ordinary dork one on the right, that was selected for the iconic poster design of Welcome to the Dollhouse.

Our attempts at achieving conventional beauty can actually become conventional beauty—part of why I know I look “right” (if not babelicious) when I do office work is because I’m neatly dressed and wearing “professional” makeup. But we also know that attempts at beauty can be seen as a mark of failure, and that if our sleight-of-hand fails, humiliation waits. Witness the anecdote from Siobhan O’Connor of No More Dirty Looks after she’d issued a “glam makeup” challenge to her readers: “We had people privately e-mailing us and saying, I just can’t do it... I guess the mentality was, Well, if I look bad with no makeup, no big deal. But if you look bad with makeup—it’s like you’ve said to the world, This is the best I can do.” In other words, we were scared to fail.

I’d like to think that the amorphous nature of beauty makes it something impossible to fail at. Logically it should be impossible to fail at something there’s not a clear standard for. We might not look as good as we’d like sometimes, but to call that failure seems inaccurate. When I am feeling good about myself, beauty is not something I can fail at. When I’m feeling less than my fullest self, however, beauty becomes something that not only can be failed, but something I feel I’m destined to fail. In the moments when I’m feeling not “pretty enough” but “never enough,” the efforts of my beauty work seem futile. There is a reason the phrase "lipstick on a pig," which has nothing to do with either lipstick or mammals of any kind, conjures such a potent, damning image.

None of this is to say that women who meet every standard of conventional beauty without particularly trying are exempt from the fear of failure I experience at my lowest. When I think of why I took driver’s exam failure so hard, I now see it wasn’t just because I’d failed, but because I’d mistakenly equated it with other gifts I’d been given. Because I did well in school without ever having to try, I began to believe that my innate, unchangeable intelligence was responsible for every success I had. Like plenty of other bright little kids, at least according to the Harvard Business Review, I'd learned to see making effort as a sign that my intelligence had reached its limit. I understood the mechanics of driving, but unlike writing an English paper, I couldn’t get by on my inherent ability. It takes skill, not talent, to learn to naturally keep one’s eyes scanning front, sides, and back, and to learn how traffic works. It would take practice for me to become a good driver. Practice meant effort, and effort meant failure—which, when you’re a bright kid who’s never failed a test in her life, means doom.

Likewise, the effortlessness of the “natural beauty” can be a mixed blessing. Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth that women who are genetically blessed with good looks often wrestle with the beauty myth more than average-looking women; they come closer to the societal ideal, so the sting of falling short is forever closer. That’s one way in which “natural beauties” and natural (smarties?) are parallel, but it’s not the only way. I remember a friend of mine who was always “the pretty girl” growing up talking of how she’d flare up with anger whenever someone would tell her how beautiful she was. “It’s like being complimented on your shoe size,” she said. “I can’t help how I look.” The idea of your value lying not just in your looks but specifically in something you cannot help can short-circuit a woman. It can keep her from daring to fail. Not necessarily at beauty, but at other things we associate with beautiful women: femininity, docility, power, for starters. Not all these things need to be failed at in order to be reckoned with, but they need to be examined in order to be assimilated or rejected. An inability to fail can turn a woman into a different sort of female eunuch.

Smart kids can be praised for their effort instead of their natural intelligence to help ensure they’ll actually try at difficult tasks, but carrying over that approach to beauty makes little sense: Praising the effort of beauty denigrates the praise itself, because the point of much of our beauty work is to hide the effort. I can’t help but feel the slightest bit dissatisfied when my gentleman friend tells me I “look nice” when I’ve dressed up, because it feels like he’s complimenting my efforts—my curled hair, my well-chosen dress—instead of the way I look. To receive direct praise on those things calls attention to my efforts, leaving me embarrassed for not having been naturally gifted enough in the first place. Yet if all the genetic gifts in the world were mine, I may well suffer a feeling that I have no control over my “giftedness,” and effort might seem even more shameful. It’s one thing for a 16-year-old girl to melodramatically swallow two allergy pills in order to sleep away the shame of failing her driver’s test. It’s quite another for a woman riddled with insecurities to walk through the world with a mantle of that shame every day of her life.

Our accomplishments—jobs, recognition, awards—are things we achieve. Beauty, we’re told, is both an achievement and who we are. It’s both our essence and our goal. We live in this awkward space between the effort of beauty and surrendering to nature’s assignment of it; as long as we treat beauty as both the essence of woman and her fundamental goal, its importance will fester in each of us like mold. The contradiction between achieved beauty and natural beauty sneers at us every time we put on a full face of makeup and still feel lacking, and every time we eschew makeup because it wouldn’t matter anyway. It’s damning to the woman for whom conventional beauty is an “achievement,” and it’s damning to the woman for whom it’s a genetic gift.

Living in contradiction is so uncomfortable that it’s become a logical puzzle for philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche; Marx believed the contradictions of capitalism (very rich people living alongside the very poor) would eventually become so unbearable that it would eventually collapse, giving way to a revolution. As much as I’d love to see a sort of psychic revolution come to every woman who has struggled with feeling confined by beauty or her perceived lack of it, I’m not sure what that would look like, much less where to begin.

What I suspect is more likely—and, given how many women actively enjoy aspects of beauty work, more desirable—is something less like a revolution and more like what Hegel termed Aufhebung, or sublation. The idea of sublation, as I understand it, is that two contradictory ideas can be held in tandem, so that each reflects upon the other. That is, the ideas can coexist without necessarily fighting to the death for their survival.

I’m not entirely sure what the sublation of beauty’s contradictions would look like. Perhaps it’s so familiar that I’m unable to recognize it. Perhaps every time I sweep up my hair, put on my lipstick, and waltz out the door feeling unassailably together, I’m participating in the sublation of beauty’s contradictions: maneuvering the artifice of beauty to allow my humble version of “natural beauty” shine, regardless of how well I match the template. The achievement aspect of beauty work can, under the right circumstances, unshackle us from the fear that our natural gifts won’t help us make the cut.

There’s another aspect of Hegel’s sublation that I think applies here, and that gives me greater hope. Part of sublation is comfortably existing in contradiction instead of ironing out all opposition, accepting conflicting concepts as forming a truth more genuine than any party line could allow for. There’s no absolute knowledge, because nothing can be true at all times in all situations. So as painful as the experience of beauty’s contradictions can be, they reveal to us that just as there is no absolute knowledge, there is no absolute beauty. Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder, but is subject to changing conditions, to shifting contexts: What is beautiful in one moment may not be beautiful in the next. But our conditions and contexts are ones we can create.

It’s a luxury of beauty, actually—even the most intellectually lacking or gifted students are stuck with whatever conditions the SAT boards create for college entrance exams. We create our own conditions with our beauty work, with the sleight-of-hand that makes up our morning metamorphosis. We create them with cultivating style, a “look,” a routine that allows us to walk through the world feeling our best. Most important, we create conditions of beauty through those around us: through friends, lovers, images. All of these come together to subvert an absolutist idea of beauty, as unlikely as that can seem in moment of despair. And if we create our own conditions, we prevent our own failure.


  1. I found this entry so thoughtful... I was that smart kid in grade school and high school and now, as a grad student, it's strange to see the contrast at how hard I have to work just to hit the same average baseline as my peers. And I acknowledge that it's my failing, the hubris of 'the smart kid' Similarly, I hadn't considered (not fully, at least) why I tried or didn't try certain things with make up...

    Thank you for posting!

  2. There is much to admire about this post--as my own attempts to pass a driver exam didn't bear fruit until I was 19. I was the older sister to a young woman who was crowned Miss Missouri teen. I can remember actively deciding to be the "smart" sister...though I was not unlovely, just not willing to expend the "beauty effort." Now as both sisters are in their fifties, her focus on "beauty effort" paid off in a grander financial way than teaching college. Teaching though has a spiritual value...It is a sign of maturity to be able to hold contradictory ideas within one's mind and heart. ~Terri, @RagsMachine

  3. Autumn, I should buy you dinner for this post. As a fellow Smart Kid, I learned how important it was to be the best and not to attempt anything at which I might not excel. I STILL don't have a driver's license, largely for reasons you would certainly understand.

    This attitude applied equally to beauty for most of my teen years; don't try to look like the pretty girls, you'll only make a fool of yourself.

    "...they come closer to the societal ideal, so the sting of falling short is forever closer."

    My mother once told me "the bad thing about being middle-sized is people think you're not trying hard enough." I finally know what she meant.

    A well-meaning friend once told me "Your eyes and mouth are so beautiful, with a nose job you'd be perfect!" Yes, the bad thing about being middling is the sense that you're almost good enough...

  4. As a current teenager, Smart Girl, and person with her learner's permit with the driving test looming, I found this fascinating.

    I recently wrote a post about how it's ok to fail(something I don't believe consistently, but I'm trying) on my blog for New Moon Girls which I think relates to this highly-

    Another thing this related to is Courtney E. Martin's book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. It's an excellent book relating primarily to teen and college-aged girls' link between academic perfectionism and bodily perfection (weight especially.) I'm trying to make most of my friends and teachers read it- it exemplifies the mindset of Smart Girls perfectly. Thanks for this post, Autumn!

    And Rebekah- "This attitude applied equally to beauty for most of my teen years; don't try to look like the pretty girls, you'll only make a fool of yourself."- exactly! My freshman year of high school was this precisely.

  5. Great post, as usual, Autumn! Funny, I wrote a monologue in high school about my fear of failure. I was keenly aware of the fact that I was pretty good at everything and great at nothing. OK, pretty good at most things...I clearly sucked at sports. It was so depressing to my young self to know that no matter how hard I tried I could always potentially fail. It was also crushing to my soul to know that there is always going to be someone who is better at things than I am. Or better looking...

    I found this passage most intriguing: "It’s one thing for a 16-year-old girl to melodramatically swallow two allergy pills in order to sleep away the shame of failing her driver’s test. It’s quite another for a woman riddled with insecurities to walk through the world with a mantle of that shame every day of her life."

    For me that allergy medicine never went away. I have self-medicated my entire life. Having just read this I can't help but wonder if the seed was planted back in high school. Back when I had to relieve myself from my own disappointment in myself.

  6. I failed my driving test three times.

    Also, I can't say I feel pity for pretty girls who don't understand why they receive so many compliments.

  7. "But we also know that attempts at beauty can be seen as a mark of failure, and that if our sleight-of-hand fails, humiliation waits."

    I literally gasped with surprised recognition when I read this, Autumn. The tears hit right after that. This describes so much of the latent anxiety I feel every day. So much to absorb here, all I can say right now is "Thank you."

  8. Fantastic post as usual! and I like that all the smarty pants rubbish at driving people are coming out. I also failed my first test in spectacular fashion (I rolled backwards down a hill and was about 10 cms away from hitting a wall) and although i passed second time round I still can't really drive - I moved to the UK a month later and have never owned a car. Academic work also always came easy to me, I got straight A's at school, a first in my undergrad and it wasn't really until my masters that I actually had to try. It is still a disappointment to myself that I didn't get a distinction for my masters and that I didn't excel in my first promotion board, just passed. Though neither of these things have held me back in any way and no one other than myself even remembers.

    I actually think it's one of my biggest personal growth achievements to learn to not beat myself up about things going wrong. Though I also completely acknowledge that my career success and general life achievements are due to a fear of the negative rather than a drive towards the positive. I'm actually not that ambitious, and the reason I have moved up at work relatively quickly is not because of a drive to the top but a fear of stagnation. I now try to do things that scare me, because I actually find the fear of them (which is everlasting) worse than the temporary floundering when I first do them.

    Anyway, now I've just talked about work all the time!

    On beauty, I actually have a slightly different way of resolving the contradiction. I can't be conventionally beautiful, but I don't react to this by not doing any beauty/style work, but by aiming for a different ideal of beauty, a quirky, colourful, explicitly styled thing, not something seemingly natural. As such, I am completely happy for my attempts at being beautiful to be visible. I actually much, much prefer compliments about my clothes or what I've done with my hair to compliments about how I look in general.

  9. I failed my driving test the rest time and felt absolutely humiliated. I coasted through high school and finished as class valedictorian only to find out that in university I needed to work hard, something I had never learned to do. And I know I'm not very pretty (and definitely aging) yet want to look as good as I can, realizing sometimes that it just doesn't work.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful piece that resonated very strongly with me.

  10. Nathalia, Terri, Rebekah, Alexa, Cameo, Courtney, DeeDee, Franca, and Véronique, I just wanted to thank you for commenting. This was a difficult piece to write (still afraid of failing!) and reading similar experiences is comforting and a good reminder that this stuff is all too universal. Thank you.

  11. Autumn, I've just found your blog and I can't stop reading it. It's great!

    And I have to confess: I have been the "Smart Girl" for all of my life and I also have failed my driving exam the first time. What makes it worse, I didn't tell it to anyone when it happened and I've kept hiding the fact ever since. I know it's stupid, but I can't help myself.

    I started to dislike the "Smart" label since my teens, because the first adverb everyone (parents, teachers, classmates etc.) could think of when characterising me was plain "smart". It felt as if I didn't have any other valuable and more interesting qualities in me, and in my opinion it was somewhat insulting. So, I found friends who weren't smart, but who knew how to have fun, how to obey rules, how to do things a typical good and smart girl would never do. I stayed remarkably above average, because lowering my grades even more would look very suspicious, but I was never referred as "the best in (anything)" again during highschool. And even now I'm not sure if that was the right choice.

    What I wanted to tell by this story, is that although I'm around different people now, although I know that we all have our flaws, that teenage girl is still there in me, waiting for others to pay her compliments on everything, but brains in the first place, and meantime being sad about failing to be the best at anything, except from being brainy. I guess I have to finally find a way to deal with this lack of self confidence, and this post has been a good kick-in-the-ass. Thank you and keep writing!

  12. Signe, we should form a club of delayed-driving Smart Girls! Pleased to meet you.

    That's an interesting point about how the "smart" label begins to override all other points, and while I've connected it here to prettiness it certainly applies to other areas. I always wanted to be a writer, but suddenly I changed my mind and decided I wanted to be a Great Actress. I wasn't a terrible actress, but I wasn't great at it either; I didn't have "it," and I knew I didn't have "it," but it was freeing to do something that had little to do with intellect. Acting is in part about presence, and I now wonder if I pursued it in order to show that there was a whole person, not just a Smart Girl. Oh man! I'm glad the fates gave me some brains to work with but that doesn't necessarily mean it was an easy path.

  13. Do you have room for another member? ;) Article-surfing led me to this piece, and I'm really glad I found it, because this has got to be the most relatable post I've read in a while.. So many things ring true to me!

    I'm turning 18 this year and I definitely feel like I'm at that stage - being a Smart Kid up until about a year ago, I struggle with the fact that I now have to *try* in order to avoid failing/being hideously 'average'. I'd rather have people think that I didn't try, than know that I failed and I really do feel like making that effort = not being smart enough.

    Even though I *know* that it's about hard work and not talent, it's so hard for me to put in the effort and now I realise why!

    I now see, as well, why I was so bothered when I didn't look as good as I thought I could at prom.. With an evening dress, hair and makeup all done, my efforts were painfully obvious, and I felt more vulnerable because of it. Also why I started a recent workout plan without telling anyone (although my family eventually found out halfway through it) - it would be too embarrassing if I saw no results. And why I, too, am scared to learn to drive even when most of my friends all have their licenses now! :P

    I don't think I'm quite ready to let go of the 'trying and failing -> shame' mindset just yet, but it feels good to acknowledge my behaviour and some of the explanations behind it... Thank you for the new insight. I'll be back to read more of your work from now on. :)

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