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.

I Don’t Need to Be “Beautiful”

This random guy tried to call my attention to him as I walked down a busy street the other day. He said, “Hey, beautiful,” as I passed by. My first response was to feel harassed, but I tried to talk myself down from it: “Feel good – he thinks you’re beautiful!” “Maybe he wasn’t even talking to you. He was probably calling someone else beautiful.”

The thing is, I don’t want or need to care what a random stranger thinks of my appearance. I just want to go where I’m going in peace. That’s what it all comes down to: people just want to go about their lives without being subjected to everyone else’s (observable) appraisal of them. Half the population is (generally) able to do this. But the half with boobs (or the ability to grow them) are subjected to it so frequently it’s considered “normal.”

Even just having one’s attention drawn to one’s appearance is invasive: it distracts from more important thoughts such as where one is going, what’s going on in one’s surroundings, whatever else is on one’s mind – such as thoughts related to one’s job or family life or important social / political / economic issues, etc. In my case, I went from feeling confident and happy about the task I’d just completed to questioning whether anyone could possibly consider me “beautiful.”

Why should I care? That’s his opinion; they’re his thoughts. They have nothing to do with me, my strengths and weaknesses, what I’m doing with the rest of my day, my interpersonal relationships, my career, etc. Let his thoughts stay with him. I have enough thoughts of my own, thank-you-very-much! And, frankly, I have enough mental health issues to work through, without being plunged back into the insecurity about my appearance that plagued me in high school.

Why do men do this? The only answer I can think of is that they want that “beautiful” woman to pay attention to them, even if only by making eye contact for a moment. Why? To inflate their ego? To feel powerful?

But it’s not really fair to blame the man who does this on the street. Yes, he should choose not to do it, but he’s just repeating what society tells him is appropriate. He might not know about the potentially harmful aspects of what he’s doing. He probably thinks he’s paying me – or the woman behind me – a compliment.

The real problem is much bigger than he – or his ego! –  will ever be. Why is this man’s self-esteem dependent on a “beautiful” woman paying attention to him? Is his social, political, and/or economic power so limited that the only way he can feel powerful is by expressing his opinion of and demanding attention from women? Why does he feel entitled to solicit attention from a random stranger by breaking the usual unspoken rule: let people go about their day in peace!? Okay maybe he wanted to be friendly – there is certainly a place for that. But it’s better accomplished by saying “hello” or “good day” – some greeting that is appropriate between beings who regard each other as equals. There is no need for one such being to give hir opinion of the other, especially not regarding something as shallow as physical appearance.

And then we come to the other side: Why are those of us who have boobs programmed to feel flattered by the word, “beautiful,” to seek it out, to respond automatically when someone applies it to us? I know I am smart, creative, resilient, determined, compassionate, etc. Why should I need or want to be “beautiful,” too? All “beauty” does is make me – or a moment of my attention – desirable to someone who knows nothing about me. I don’t need that! Why would anyone want to draw that kind of selfish attention to zirself?

If I care that you think I’m “beautiful,” then I am acting as a mirror for you! I’m reflecting that your opinion of my appearance matters more (at least in that moment) than everything else that’s going on in my life. No! I’m not a mirror, I’m a person! I have places to be, people to interact with, things to do, thoughts to think, masterpieces to create, a royally fucked-up world to change. If you need a mirror, go buy one at the dollar store.

I don’t want to be “beautiful” and I don’t need it, because I’m already powerful. That is, I have a lot of personal power – my social and political power are limited by the structures of inequality that privilege the few at the expense of the many. But I can use my personal power to work through my difficulties, to weaken the foundation of those structures (e.g. cultural values such as “beauty” which limit one’s ability to tap into personal power), to empower myself and others, and to live a life that I find meaningful.