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Redefining Beauty

I’ve been seeing a lot of great articles and videos redefining beauty – the means by which we measure a woman’s worth. The new definitions make it more inclusive: you don’t have to be extremely thin, you don’t have to have perfect skin, you don’t have to be white, you don’t have to be able-bodied. You don’t have to measure your worth based purely on physical appearance. You can include attributes such as compassion, intelligence, determination, physical & emotional strength, etc. – basically, any characteristic one may find desirable in a human being can be included in the definition of beauty. They’re all valid ways to measure a woman’s worth.

One thing I find especially beautiful – or, to be more specific, inspiring – about women is their ability to redefine ideas in their culture that, to an outsider, appear to be oppressive (and may be, at least the way they are defined by the mainstream of the culture). It is an indispensable means of self empowerment in a world where a select minority are far too keen on keeping all the power for themselves. I want to applaud the people (men included) who are working so hard to redefine beauty to the point where they’re essentially telling all of us: You have worth. Whatever characteristics you have, something in there is of value to society. Be proud of who you are. Nurture and love yourself. I hope people will continue to do this because it’s a message we all need to hear, as frequently as possible. You don’t have to conform to the standards of beauty you see in the mainstream media. You have worth.

I can think of 2 lines to complete that message. The more commonly accepted one is probably: You’re already beautiful. The one I resonate with, though, is: You don’t have to be beautiful.

In other words, you don’t have to measure your worth, and you don’t have to prove it to others. You can just be yourself. You may have characteristics that are undervalued by our society, or things you’re not so good at, or even things you want to change about yourself… and that’s okay. You can still be fully who and what you are in this moment – and hold yourself in high esteem. No one has the right to treat you as anything less than their equal. (You don’t have the right to look down on anyone else, either.)

Using the words “beauty” and “beautiful” oversimplifies the way we talk to and about women. It limits our ability to acknowledge the impact women have on ourselves and on society. If I call Lupita Nyong’o’s speech “beautiful,” all I’m saying is that there was something I liked about it – for all you know, it could be the sound and rhythm of her voice or even just her physical appearance. But what if I said she made me more aware of a privilege I have as someone with light skin, because that aspect of my appearance is held as a standard she – an Academy Award-winning actress! – could never hope to attain? What if I said she is encouraging girls of color to focus more on being compassionate than on their physical appearance, particularly the darkness of their skin? What if I called her someone to look up to? An inspiration.

We don’t have a nice convenient word like “beauty” to use when talking about men. We have to be more specific. He is very charismatic. He knows everything there is to know about computers. He’s a firm but compassionate leader. He knows a lot of good jokes and is great at delivering them. He is very dedicated to his family and takes excellent care of his children. He’s the best composer/musician/writer/artist/etc. that ever lived. He’s an openly gay professional football player.

By describing specific characteristics of a person, we acknowledge their ability to influence us, and by extension to shape social ideals. We make them the acting subject who can change the world.

In contrast, all calling someone “beautiful” does is let others know we have a generally positive attitude toward them. It objectifies the person; this vibrant, complex, active human being becomes the object of our evaluation… and all we have to say is that they do indeed have worth.

So I’m going to ask people to take the redefining of beauty a step further, to make the most of an awesome thing women around the world have been doing to empower themselves for centuries. Let’s define beauty as a means of evaluating objects – art, music, architecture, machines, etc. – and not people. Let’s make a commitment to describing specific characteristics of and actions by women whom we admire. And more importantly, let’s collectively decide that everyone has inherent worth and treat each other with compassion.

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12 thoughts on “Redefining Beauty

  1. I love this, even though I don’t entirely agree with this. Let me explain… For many of us, “beautiful” is a very important and empowering word, and to say it shouldn’t be so or shouldn’t be necessary is a bit invalidating and patronizing (though for the record, I know this was not your intent at all). Yes, “beauty” is often associated with “feminine”, but why is that bad? A big part of my feminism is saying “there is absolutely nothing wrong with stereotypical femininity”… It just shouldn’t be forced on anyone, or restricted from men. The way we, as a society, look down on “feminine” (including undervaluing “beauty”), is definitely absolutely related to the undervaluing of other things “feminine”, like childcare, stay-at-home-motherhood, even female sex. Saying “feminine is POWERFUL”, and getting people to believe us, can make life better for people for whom that is a very important, perhaps defining, positive identity. I refer you to @tutusandtinyhats on this topic, but also me. I don’t define myself by my beauty OR femininity, just like I don’t define myself by my queerness, or disability, or religion, or whatever else. It is one identity, an important one, but not all of it. That doesn’t mean I should abandon it though, or feel that because I care about being beautiful including in appearance, that that makes me less of a feminist (in fact, as I said, it’s kind of a huge part of my feminism…choice feminism and sex positivity etc).

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    • Thank you so much for both your comments.

      My apologies to you and anyone else who finds any part of what I wrote invalidating or patronizing. It was not my intent to say anything that could potentially be harmful to anyone.

      Can you please help me understand how the term “beautiful” is important and empowering for you? Is it still invalidating or patronizing if I say that the term “beautiful” isn’t empowering for everyone? To be honest I wrote what I need to hear; I hope some people can benefit from reading it (or at least considering another perspective) – but I can accept that it’s not necessarily what everyone needs to hear. I just haven’t really seen it anywhere else, so I thought I’d share.

      Out of curiosity, what did you like about the post?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like the idea of redefining beauty overall. For me and others though, redefining beauty does not mean valuing it less. It just means saying, for instance “I am fat AND beautiful”, or “beautiful is having purple hair and tattoos”, etc… I’m not pulling this out of thin air, I recommend reading up on fat acceptance and fatshion overall, also other cultures/communities such as drag, and disability-positive fashion. Fatshion and LGBTQ fashion have been such a positive and empowering identity-supporting force in my life. Also, as someone who is interested in theater and LARP and faires etc, costume is a thing that helps you get into a certain headspace. IRL, “costume” (dressing in a manner associated with an attitude), can help one have a desirable attitude/trait. It’s a visual reminder and symbol. In Paganism there are spells that involve physical tokens/symbols, as opposed to just meditating on something…which is more powerful? I have jewelry that is like that and absolutely part of my religion. Gemstones, a bracelet I made by hand (embroidery) over the course of several weeks with “let it be” to remind me of just that. There are so many other reasons beauty might be important to one… Ie gender. My genderqueer friend Rowan recently got a haircut, says ze feels not only beautiful for the first time in a really long time, but also powerful and strong and uses the hair to educate about non-binary gender. Dressing the part in interviews allows low-income people, especially POC, women, to move up the ladder and make lives for their families….etcetera! It is mostly important to be honest to marginalized groups, as resistance and self-care and visual activism. I do not mind if you don’t personally think it’s important, no. It’s telling other people what they should/should not find important that can be problematic.

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        • I’d like it if society focused on beauty a bit less, especially when they’re talking to or about other people for whom it might not be the most important topic at the time. Otherwise, to each their own I guess. I actually want to thank you for the ways in which you’ve redefined beauty because I feel empowered to play around with using my appearance as a means of self-expression without feeling like I’m “selling out.”

          There are two things going on in my post that now I’m thinking maybe I should have kept separate. The whole post revolves around the assumption that people use beauty to measure the worth of themselves and others (women); this assumption is largely based on The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, as well as my interpretation of a lot of what I’ve seen online lately. If that assumption isn’t true of you, that’s fantastic!

          I’m trying to empower people (myself especially) to feel like they don’t need to measure their worth at all, in terms of beauty or otherwise. We just have inherent worth; there is no reason why we can’t all be equal (regardless of appearance, success, wealth, even behavior). In my opinion that’s the most important part of the post. It’s based on a cognitive therapy approach I’ve been reading: Feeling Good by David Burns.

          There’s also the message that “You don’t have to be beautiful,” which I feel is very empowering. It makes beauty a choice. In the post I equate being beautiful with measuring your worth, but it seems like that’s not necessarily relevant for everyone. Perhaps a more relevant interpretation is simply putting effort into your appearance (beyond things like basic hygiene). It’s a choice. If you choose to be beautiful then great, go forth and be beautiful. You’re being intentional and exercising your agency and that’s awesome.

          If someone has never actively made that choice or even never considered the possibility that it might be a choice because it’s just expected of women, that’s not their fault. We’re exposed to certain messages constantly from the moment we’re born and questioning those messages can be very difficult. It can take something pretty extreme to make that happen; for me it was several years of failing to conform to conventional beauty standards, getting extremely frustrated, and then taking Intro to Women’s Studies. That was just the beginning of me being able to feel less deficient, and more just different, sometimes even defiant. It’s something I still struggle with.

          “You don’t have to be beautiful” isn’t criticism, it’s an invitation. You can decide whether and to what degree beauty is important to you.

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  2. Beauty is specific. Beauty is a skill and an art. Beauty is not just genetic (though if I’m going to be frank, something like intelligence also has genetic components, so who cares?) people are not born beautiful, they put passion and talent and knowledge and time and effort into becoming beautiful. I am proud of my appearance, as proud as I am of my intelligence, and if you want to say that that is due to internalized sexism…just please do not say anything of the sort to me ever. It implies I have no agency, am a sheep to society’s brainwashing, which IMO is not a very feminist thing to say as at the core feminism is all about agency.

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    • You make a really, really good point here. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your appearance and putting effort into it. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you consider it to be a means of self-expression; the appearance you create for yourself does not necessarily conform to the standards mainstream media likes to bombard us with.

      I think the problem people are trying to address by redefining beauty is that, especially when it comes to women, other people put way too much emphasis on physical appearance. Female celebrities are regularly asked questions about how they made themselves look the way they do, taking away valuable time that could be spent focusing on their perspectives and accomplishments. This overemphasis of appearance pressures women (and girls, from a very young age) to put a lot of focus on their own appearance – to the point where they may be trying to conform to unattainable standards of beauty at the expense of their self-esteem, other talents, physical and mental health, etc.

      Clearly beauty is a very important thing to a lot of people, so people are redefining it to say, “Hey! These other things are important too! Please don’t focus so hard on your appearance you neglect everything else!”

      The thing is, maybe that’s making it too big. If the word “beauty” can refer to any characteristic, then there is a risk of oversimplifying how we talk to and about people, especially women.

      I really like your first sentence: “Beauty is specific.” I stand by my argument that beauty shouldn’t be the basis on which we evaluate people, but perhaps it can be a word used to describe things about a person we find aesthetically pleasing.

      More importantly, it can be a word the person uses to describe things they find aesthetically pleasing about themself! At the end of the day, it’s one’s self-assessment that’s the most important – at least when it comes to mental health.

      Finally, as you pointed out, beauty is one characteristic of a person that can exist alongside everything else; those other characteristics aren’t “beautiful,” they are… well, whatever they happen to be.

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      • It is true, I’m a nonconformist. But I think nonconformity for the sake of nonconformity is a way of following the herd blindly as much as conformity for the sake of conformity, it’s just a different herd. This makes me think of hipsters, who I don’t disparage overall, but saying “I liked it before it was cool” along with all your hundreds of friends who dress just like you is not especially revolutionary. That can be ok…maybe breaking new ground is not your goal at all. But it’s disingenuine to claim it as a goal when that’s not what you’re doing.

        I don’t judge people who are more mainstream. Whatever speaks to you… I have a friend who is very traditional in dress, speaks of Chanel as revolutionary for feminism because she helped poor women establish careers in a time when this was very rare. She (Chanel) invented the woman’s pants suit, which not only helped establish but was also a reflection of women’s rights movements of the time, particularly around women entering the world of business.

        When I say beauty I am referring to something very specific. But I don’t think that has to be a bad thing. I think agency is what’s really important here. If a person of any gender wants to value (aesthetic) beauty very highly in their own lives, so be it. Just they shouldn’t push these or any other values on other people. As an artist and actress I do value aesthetics very highly. I process the world visually, not verbally, so beauty is my language and without it I have no voice. With it, with a voice (my own), I am powerful. I would want to ask how you would feel if somebody tried to tell you this blog is superficial, unimportant, or bad for social justice. That is how I feel with these conversations…my medium is visual.

        With all this said, I do want to say that a lot of mainstream media (women’s mags, What Not To Wear, etc) are total bullshit because they do not value beauty as art or expression or resistance, but purely as physical flattery by a narrow definition of such. It is their way or the highway. This is harmful. It is not only harmful to people like you, who’d rather not have to care, but people like me and Laura, who care a great deal but disagree with their (mainstream) aesthetic. This is stifling communities, subcultures, identities, and peoples’ self-esteem. This is what is worth fighting against, in my opinion, and what I think at the core you are actually trying to do and already doing. This is an important fight, it’s just important in the process to not throw out the baby with the bath water, as it were. Beauty alone is a neutral concept, which can sometimes be positive but can also be wielded as a weapon, and THAT is the real problem.

        I hope you appreciate the resources I am providing and do not feel it is patronizing. I think you probably already know a lot of what I am saying, and I am writing as much for me as for you, for the record. But in case you do find such info helpful, more resources:

        HAES

        fatshion in general but ESPECIALLY Marianne Kirby and Lesley Kinzel (Two Whole Cakes), also danceswithfat.org and lovelivegrow

        Size Acceptance Movement

        The Theater Offensive

        fatshionista and fatshionxchange LJ communities

        Big Fat Flea in NYC

        Fat: The Owner’s Manual by Ragen Chastain of danceswithfat.org

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        • Another thing…if someone wants to ask me (a woman) how and why I look the way I do, I more than welcome these questions and find them extremely validating of my accomplishments IMO. My outfit is an accomplishment. I want this to be acknowledged, not because I have low self-esteem but because I put as much effort into my appearance as some do into writing essays for school. My priorities are fully my choice, as appearance is again art and activism for me, and sometimes I don’t learn much from a particular school assignment anyway. Sometimes, if I am suicidal, an outfit can keep me alive one day longer and get me to write that paper. Sometimes, it inspires my other art or prose. Questions about my passions (appearance included) is not taking valuable time away from anything because this use of time is valuable to me too. That needs to be ok if we are to respect women’s choices as feminists. I am all for though putting as much devotion into learning about whatever it is a particular person, celebrity or no, finds most important, whether that be appearance or hobbies or career or relationships or whatever.

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  3. I am sorry to keep bombarding you, but this topic is very important to me as you probably can tell. I think what you seem to be talking about is lack of control…. Being pressured by media and society to do things you don’t want to do. This is obviously not ok for many many reasons, and is actually a much larger issue and conversation than beauty standards…you’re talking about the status quo and the damage an oppressive status quo does. I 100% agree with this and a lot of my activism is about saying the status quo is bullshit and individuality is wonderful. But beauty is not always what society tells us. Beauty on your own terms is a powerful form of identity-exploration. Beauty on someone else’s terms (*anything* on someone else’s terms for that matter), is oppression in a nutshell.

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    • I think you make some really excellent points and thank you for challenging me to think more broadly about the topic. I’m glad we’ve been able to have a conversation, instead of just posting something and never getting any feedback on it.

      That said I will admit I do feel a bit bombarded. I wrote something that’s very meaningful to me on my blog and you said it was invalidating and patronizing. I felt quite hurt by that, and to be honest a bit manipulated, like I should silence myself because my view doesn’t work with an aspect of your experience. I’m writing from my own experience, which is just as valid and important, and may also be meaningful to other readers of this blog. You’re welcome to disagree, but I ask that you also try to be mindful of the effect the wording of your comments might have on me. As they say in anything having to do with assertiveness and/or communication, “use ‘I’ statements.”

      Finally, I’d appreciate it if you’d try to keep comments a more focused on responding to the content of the blog post. I found it a bit difficult to connect some of your points to what I’d written, and even moreso to respond to everything you shared in a meaningful way. I think people are more likely to read several of your more important points if you re-post them on your own blog. I’m considering writing a follow-up post as well.

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      • I am sorry. I reply not only to original posts, but also to folks’ comments to my comments, especially direct questions, which you had asked about why beauty is important to me so I tried to answer as specifically and clearly etc as I could. I did not mean to bombard you. I do have to note that while it can be extremely uncomfortable, I do think it is important to acknowledge and try to understand why anything one writes or says may feel invalidating or patronizing to anyone else. You are certainly not the only one, for the record…I have said many things that have upset others as well, and been called out on such. I don’t shy away from conflict around important topics, particularly with people who I know and trust, and as such I know that our relationship can handle conflict. That said, you make a very good point about “I statements” and I will try to be better about that in the future. I really do understand that you write for and about yourself, and I tried to make that clear and speak mostly about myself in relation to the original post, but perhaps I was not as clear as I thought I was. Again, all I can do at this point is try to learn from this for future conversations between us, both online and off. I am really sorry and I hope you are not truly upset from what I have written here.

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        • Apology accepted. I’m glad we were able to have a conversation about the topic from different perspectives, even if it got uncomfortable at times. I hope to have many more conversations about topics we’re passionate about, including this one. And it means a lot to me that I was able to be honest about how I felt, and you took it seriously and apologized. 🙂

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