The plain one

Downton Abbey's Lady Edith and Lady Mary
"The pretty one, the plain one."

Have you ever heard this distinction made about sisters? Or perhaps you, like me, had a girlfriend so stunning that you might as well be invisible walking beside her. (Jeanne had Elizabeth Taylor's violet eyes and heart-shaped face, masses of black hair, and a perfect figure that she showed extensively.)

The less-alluring woman feels like Lady Edith in "Downton Abbey", a few teaspoons short of a full service.

This is physical beauty at its most superficial and competitive, but among many, the wish to achieve at least an average level is an obsession, especially in a woman's young adulthood. 

Britain, however, has long venerated actors who are not "10"s. Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith, or the marvelous Ruth Sheen, who often appears in Mike Leigh's films, are not conventional beauties, yet command a screen.

Laura Carmichael
Above, Carmichael escapes the Edwardian in a wee bit of Gucci: Go boil your bloomers, Lady Mary. One tactic: shift the eye to legs long as any showgirl's.

In "Another Year", Ruth Sheen plays a social worker. She's in easy, straightforward Marks & Sparks-type pieces, a woman comfortable with who she is, busy with her work and garden. (By contrast, Lesley Manville, as her desperate and damaged friend, is costumed in clothes too young for her.)

"Another Year": Manville (l) and Sheen

Those of us not born storied beauties (and older than Carmichael) will forgo slashed Gucci, but might borrow a few pointers from Sheen, especially as she appeared at the London Critics' Film Awards last February.

Sheen steps out

Her dress fits perfectly; the fabric creates movement. Black downplays a generous bust, gold satin lights her face. She has wisely left the neckline uncluttered. The wrap adds texture but does not overwhelm. The pale leg and shoe create an unbroken line that lengthens the leg.

Sheen's dramatically made-up eyes and lower-key lips lift the gaze from her receding chin to her cheekbones.

Sheen claims her beauty

Whether genuine or faux, diamond and pearl earrings are the pièce de résistance, the accessory of a glowing, confident woman celebrating a notable achievement. That's why I post on jewelry: the right pieces not only highlight loveliness, they amplify it.

Sheen wore that dress to the Toronto Film Festival screening of "Another Year", the London premiere, and the Critics' Award event. Brava! If you have a look that works, wear it often and vary the accessories.

I admire Sheen and women like her, luminous and lively. And that makes them beauties in my book.

Paloma Picasso
Another approach is that of the jolie laide, the woman who's not conventionally appealing but has presence, style, spirit; often-invoked examples include Diana Vreeland, Paloma Picasso, Chanel, Anna Magnani, the French chanteuse Barbara, Bette Davis.

This woman holds an inner conviction that symmetrical, standard-issue prettiness is simply one type, and she's  another, just as esteemed. The more narrowly a culture applies standards of beauty and the more pressure a woman feels to conform, the more hard-won the respect for the jolie laide. I find her splendid.

Kirn's appreciation in Elle
If you think this is rationalization, click here for Walter Kirn's essay (on Elle's site), on how "the hottest girl in the room is not necessarily who you think".

If you are mother or friend to a young woman who mourns her invisibility next to a Lady Mary, Kirn's piece could allay angst—though of course she would never behave as badly as the tattletale Lady Edith, although hasn't she improved in Season Two?

"Pretty is as pretty does", as my mother used to say.


Susan B said…
Ah, such a loaded and familiar topic! I could write chapters having been "the plain one," the funny sidekick in so many of my friendships....but will keep it short and say I've learned that there's beauty, and there's *attractiveness* and even those who aren't within a football field of beauty can be attractive (someone who draws you in and makes you want to get to know them better). Yes, there are the things we can do to enhance our physical presence, but I also think it comes down to attitude and confidence too. (And I do hope that now Lady Edith has found some of her better nature, that she finds some romantic happiness too.)
materfamilias said…
I love Sheen in that movie -- I think I want to see it again already. As for your overall topic, a worthy post, but too tough to respond properly too before heading to work. I'm sure the discussion will be interesting.
Swissy said…
Duchesse, this is such an important topic. I spent much of my youth in the shadow of two lovely sisters and a belle-mere who was a great beauty. I sought solace in my books and studies, art and music. It tooks me years, no decades, to realize that these devotions transformed me. Well, these and self-knowledge. And being admired and loved greatly by the one I loved is and always has been the grace note.
Oh what a thought provoking post. As the girl of a gorgeous friend from my school days I am nodding with understanding.

Love how Sheen has highlighted her best features, she looks happy and confident and so she should as she gave an outstanding performance in that film.
M said…
My first reaction to your post was...why is she writing about this? A topic for the teen demographic, something any mature adult would have resolved long ago. But no, there is evidence that this kind of superficiality is still alive and thriving and has even been turned into mass entertainment, i.e., the "Housewives" series. So sad.

From a purely physical perspective though, I think society has lowered its standards with regard to good grooming. I've always believed anyone can be physically attractive if they are clean, wear clothes that fit and flatter, have good posture and smile occasionally.
Vildy said…
Anna Magnani! My idol since early childhood when I saw The Rose Tattoo. Unfortunately, I'm fair and strawberry blonde and short. But, finally, in late middle age, I could fill out that black slip.

Magnani: "I EARNED these wrinkles."
laurieann said…
Duchesse, I find that I am having difficulty carving out a look and feel for myself in late middle age. Stereotypes of 'letting oneself go' along with always having been plain are really making me question what is the right level of commitment to my appearance for me. 'Comfortable in my own skin' has never really applied. Much to think about here.
Duchesse said…
pseu: Yes, you have written about this a lot. Attitude is key, and I have also known some stunning women who did not accept their looks, because of low confidence.

materfamilias: All of Mike Leigh's films bear repeated watching, IMO! And Ruth Sheen is in many.

Sissy: I once asked a man if his wife was beautiful and he replied, "If you love someone, she is beautiful."

hostess: I am guessing many of us had one of those movie-starish girlfriends. Alas I have tried to find her; she vanished a decade ago.

M: In order to be assessed as "physically attractive" by *mainstream* social norms, I'd add teeth in decent shape and maintaining a relatively normal weight to your list. (I know some absolutely knockout large women, and I don't prize thinness, but North American culture as a whole does.)

But a lot of women (even women my age) do not wish to be merely "physically attractive", just like few want to be thought of as "average"- even though most of us are. They try to harvest a few more bushels of beauty out of their genetic allotment.

Vildy: Yes, Magnani was on my mind too. I read once that she had the most exquisite lingerie of anyone, and can believe it. You wear that slip!

laurieann: All of us have let ourselves go due to stresses and fatigue at one time or another; it's part of coping with life. Rescue is usually only a good haircut (and colour if wanted) and maybe a mani-pedi away. Oh, and sleep!
Anonymous said…
Your topic reminded me of a rather animated discussion that arose while watching the Academy Awards. One friend's husband casually remarked on how rare it was to see a beautiful woman anymore. When pressed, he explained that, to his eye, too many of the female actors were indistinguishable from each other. His favorites--Anna Magnani, Tilda Swinton,Audrey Tautou, Helen Mirren--were, according to him, beautiful because he could not stop looking at them as individuals. They grabbed his eye and "wouldn't let go..."
Lin said…
hmm...reading the first paragraph or so, I gazed at the Downton Abbey photo trying to guess which was the "pretty" woman and which the "plain" one... they both look lovely.

p.s. that is Lesley Manville with Ruth Sheen in "Another Year"
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: In the eye of the beholder, once again.

Lin: Maybe not so much in the photo, but on screen it is apparent who is the classic beauty. Thanks, I'll change the name.
Lin said…
Yes, and that's another thing, some people are very attractive in person, but don't photograph well, or vice versa. Flattering dress, flattering lighting and a great photographer also help!

I suppose Lesley Manville could also be considered "plain" but she is a wonderful actress. Actually I sort of feel real beauty is...hmm, how to put it...almost too dazzling for good acting. At least when certain actors are on screen, I have trouble seeing past their gorgeousness, but that may just be me! Conversely, the animation and competence displayed by good acting, makes everyone "attractive" in some way, I feel.
Margaret said…
When I was a teenager, and my friends and I figured out we weren't ever going to look like models, we used to say, "If you can't be beautiful- look F-ing cool." We might have appropriated the phrase from somewhere, but I've no idea where. This motto, although I rarely speak it aloud anymore, has served me well, emphasizing as it does, the importance of style, rather than beauty. And wouldn't you know it? The women in the world who catch my eye are rarely gorgeous,but always strikingly stylish. Beautiful is kind of over rated. Interesting how it seems the Brits expect their actresses to be able to act rather than just decorate the screen. Talent is often much sexier than out and out 'sexiness'
Anonymous said…
I read the linked Elle article and was a little squicked out. It felt patronizing. Like, oh, look ugly girls! I'm a guy who likes you. Aren't you lucky?

I am a woman who falls outside the norms for conventional beauty. I have a big nose and a big butt.
I know this is going to sound obnoxious, but I have never lacked male attention, and sometimes get too much of it (I'm happily married.) I have an outgoing personality and a relatively quick wit, and many men take this for flirtation. I suppose I AM flirtatious, but harmlessly flirtatious, and it seems there are some men who take all flirtation quite seriously. As in, oh, she just joked with me. That must mean we're going to sleep together.

Anon for this one, regular poster!
LPC said…
Sigh. Some day I will gird my loins and write the post that's been in my mind for months on "prettiness." I'm glad you take on these meaty subjects.
Monkey said…
Yeah, I thought the article was kind of obnoxious too. Because if you happen to BE a beautiful woman you are now by default also uninteresting, catty and unhappy? Enough with the beautiful on the outside = ugly inside and vice versa stereotypes. Women are more complicated than that.
Anonymous said…
Really great post and topic. Would love to comment more but am rushing to catch a plane!
Duchesse said…
Margaret: "Beautiful is kind of overrated" may well be the new slogan.

Anonymous @ 11:08: Your men friends sound a bit naive. Flirting is not "a quick wit", unless that wit veers toward playful, personal and a bit frisky.

Flirting has a frisson of sexual attraction even if (and especially if) it's not going to happen.

Flirting does not mean "yes" or "no" it means "perhaps", even if that is in another lifetime. If the men you speak of do not know the difference between wit or an "extroverted personality" and flirtation, they are inexperienced in social intercourse. If you enjoy flirting, you will get the attention you desire, and maybe more.

LPC: Look forward to it!

Monkey: Women are more complicated, but his audience (Elle's market is mostly under 30) is young. His characterization of the pretty girl is harsh, but I took him to mean a subset: the girl who has learned to trade on her looks and seeks settings where she is shown to advantage. (Ever seen it? I have.)

I've heard too many conversations among men in this publication's target age to not appreciate Kirn's basic point, which is to appreciate a woman who is not model-pretty. The most blatant cases that I've seen of age discrimination based on looks are among men in this age bracket. Older men do it too, but hide it better.

Lin: The quality of being telegenic is essential to actors. Some are both beautiful in person and on screen (Garbo, Ava Gardner), others look quite ordinary in person but the camera loves them.
Mardel said…
I haven't seen that movie yet, but think Leigh's movies all bear repeated watchings. Sheen is in a few and also always worth watching.

Not surprisingly I too was the sidekick of an unusually beautiful friend long ago and I too learned that there is beauty and, as Pseu stated, "attractiveness". In my 20s I thought it strange that although my beautiful friend would set me up with dates, I fended off three marriage proposals before I met my spouse, and my friend remained unattached (still). Much food for thought and an education in that people are not stereotypes, and beauty is only a part of the picture.

I thought the article was interesting and that sometimes it takes broad strokes (and a few stereotypes) to make a point.
Lin said…
Duchesse, yes, I agree re (screen) actors being telegenic, it wasn't clear that I'd started extrapolating to ordinary people, sorry! (it was clear in my head...) Being photographed well is a skill too.
Anonymous said…
I must agree with those who distrust Kirn's tone. I detect an edge, a bit of anger or vindictiveness, and, yes, something patronizing that seems to pervade his novels as well. And in the end, I'm not even sure I believe him.

My younger child is one of those who fall outside the (painfully narrow) category of "pretty girl" in her high school, so I read this post with great interest. I will not be showing her the Kirn piece, but I do think it's worth asking: How does one develop that important conviction you speak of, with negative messages coming from so many directions? Years ago, when a friend said she hoped that my husband told my small daughter she was pretty (her own father had believed that compliments led to conceit) it shocked me a little. My father had always made it clear that he considered his daughters beautiful; I'd taken his admiration for granted. It made me realize how crucial a father's influence is to a girl's self image. Mothers can help, too, clearly, as can good friends. But beyond these, what can help a not-conventionally-pretty girl to find her own attractiveness? I know too many middle-aged women for whom that discovery has never happened.

Duchesse said…
C.: I have not read his novels, except for excerpts, but have read a number of essays and articles and liked "Lost in the Meritocracy". He can sound peevish, yet I would not distrust him for that. (What is not trusted, his sincerity? His experience?) His Elle piece is aimed at a demographic that receives so many messages to the contrary.

Though I think it's positive for fathers to give sincere compliments to their daughters, by the teen years the peer group has far more influence. I would like girls to hear their parents complimenting not just them, but a whole range of people, so that they have more diverse images of attractiveness. I would like parents to expunge all Fat Talk from their conversation. This would be a start, from the parent side of the issue.
Anonymous said…
Duchesse, I like your idea of letting our children hear us admiring all sorts of beauty--and luckily there seem to be plenty of unconventional beauties worthy of notice these days. But the high school peer group, as you point out, still holds an awful power.

As to Walter Kirn, I guess I do doubt his sincerity. The story of the two girls at the bar feels staged, a sort of "gotcha" intended to bring every pretty girl down a peg. What is his message, after all? Don't bother trying to look attractive--I'll be the judge of whether you're appealing or not, and what it is about you--your big hands or odd nose--that makes you special. Maybe I'm overreacting; after reading Up In the Air, I just couldn't shake the feeling that Kirn was a sad, angry writer trying to make readers feel sad and angry, too.

Duchesse said…
C.: He may indeed be sad and angry. I didn't read "Up in the Air" but the film version revealed what I have seen of that corporate "rationalization" work, mostly accurately. (Maybe he seeks out those themes?) I take his message in Elle as, guys, don't ignore the merely pleasant-looking girl and look only at the pretty one. Maybe I should look deeper.

I, too, feel angry and sad too when think back on those years, how many women were treated quite badly, all based on the most superficial qualities. Even now I think of the young man who told me he would not date any girl he had not seen in a swimsuit. (I asked him if he would parade in his suit for me, too.)
Anonymous said…
Yes, and I don't think those days are over. Think of that Sex in the City episode about men obsessed with dating models (I notice that Kirn felt compelled to mention the model he dated.)

But maybe we are wrong to consider this so much a cultural or moral issue. After all, scientists tell us that human males are visual creatures, and that the physical features most find beautiful are still those cues which signify that a female is young, healthy and fertile. The attractiveness of the Stone Age male would presumably have been based on very different criteria signaling the ability to provide and protect. Maybe Ninotchka was right: "It's a chemical reaction, that's all."

Duchesse said…
C.: Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology offer many insights. (I recently read Jonah Lehrer's article "Kin and Kind" in The New Yorker, Mar. 5.) They would have hope for Kirn's success in enjoining men to consider less than optimal mates to continue their genes.

They would also nod knowingly when my friend R., who operated a successful introduction (not escort!) service for male executives, found that, despite her tests, interviews and careful attention to the qualities the men said they wanted, they picked on looks, every time.
Duchesse said…
C: Sorry, meant to write, ..."they would have little hope for Kirn's success"...
Anonymous said…
Like deja pseu, I could write a book on this.

I was the "plain" sister, and I think my parents and siblings liked it that way because it meant that they could count on me to stay home and take care of mundane tasks while they were out socializing and traveling. When I broke out of that role and gave myself permission to own my beauty, it shook things up a bit, not just in my family but among some of my friends as well.

And I do feel strongly that a father's influence is extremely important. And not only should a father make his daughter feel beautiful, but more importantly, he should make her feel lovable.

Throughout my adolescence and early 20s, my own self-esteem was so skewed, that the first time a guy actually fell for me, I had a hard time believing it was true.
Duchesse said…
Ms M.: Thirty years ago, a friend sent a poem written by his friend Peter Meinke, and I have literally carried it with me since; it's called "Untitled" but usually known as "A Poem to My Son Peter". Your comment once again reminded me of the lines,

"I thought you knew
you were beautiful and fair
your bright eyes and hair
but now I see that no one knows that
about himself, but must be told
and retold until it takes hold
because I think anything can be killed after awhile,
especially beauty..."

The entire poem is here:

I am moved to hear that you did claim your beauty and encourage you to write about it, in any form you wish, as it would inspire others.
Adrienne said…
I have sort of lived vicariously through my two daughters that look nothing like me and are stunningly beautiful. I so worried that they would never be taken seriously in a job or would not be evaluated for their skills but on their beauty. I fought hard to make them soulful caring women who don't manipulate men to take advantage.Perhaps I am exaggerating but it is difficult to be beautiful and a good person to many people ascribe qualities to you just on your looks. As a mother it has been difficult to keep them on the right track. I never had to worry because I was always the plain girl. It was so eye opening to have been put in this situation.
Duchesse said…
Adrienne: I had a friend who was a great beauty and said that in her 50s it was such a relief not to have people "see" that aspect of her first. However, she too had to adjust to not being seen through that lens.

I know many women, both conventional and unconventional beauties, who are "real". That is a credit to their mothers as well as to them.
Anonymous said…
Duchesse, thank you for that poem. I love poetry, and that is a good one to keep and share. :)
Rubiatonta said…
It's taken me a while to put together a coherent and concise response; this one really hit home, and I thank you for giving us all something to think about.

In my family, the dichotomy was "the pretty one and the smart one." I was the smart one. And my father made it very clear that I'd better use my smarts, as no man was going to find my physique (one that I inherited from his side of the family, I might mention) attractive. He also made my sister, who is dislexic (another paternal biological legacy), feel like an idiot. Both of us have carried these messages around with us for years.

A few years ago, in my coaching course, we examined the stories that we'd been told about ourselves, the ones that stick and rankle years and years later, and this was what came back to me. When I shared it with my group, they all looked horrified, and my friend Sid, one of the few men in the course, said, "How could a father do that?"

How indeed?
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duchesse said…
Rubi: Having met you, I'd say he was severly mistaken!

Once, in maybe 6th grade, I brought my school pictures home and my father said, "Well, can't make a rose out of a cabbage." I remember how that hurt, but adolescence seemed to have wrought some changes Dad did not foresee. (Maybe that is behind these kind of remarks, father's fear of their daughters attracting male attention.)

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