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.

Mother-of-the-Bride Zilla

Fox and I have had our eye on a potential venue for some time now. It seems like a great deal, near a delicious and affordable caterer, with places to stay nearby … pretty much everything we could want in a wedding venue, plus breakfast at no additional cost. We just need to visit the place, ask some questions, and make a decision: yay, nay, or let’s look at some other venues and compare.

I’ve been itching to go check it out. Planning a wedding might not be the wisest decision right now, but it’s something that helps me feel energized and motivated. It gives me something concrete to look forward to in the foreseeable future. An outlet for my creativity. A goal. We need to secure a venue, so we’ll have a definite date, so we can do everything else.

Fox’s folks asked to come with us when we go visit the venue, which is a couple hours’ drive away, figuring we could make a mini vacation out of it. That sounded wonderful to me, I just wanted to invite my mother to join us – largely so she wouldn’t feel left out. Based on past experience, she’d be quite miffed if she found out we’d gone to see a potential venue with Fox’s parents but without her. She’s my mother, I want to try and have a healthy relationship with her, so I figure part of that is reaching out and including her in important things like this. She might even have something useful to contribute – she’s smart and has a lot of experience in the world, so I value her opinion highly.

Mother of the Bride and Bride arguing

idoidoweddingplanning.com

But when I asked Mom about her availability on Sunday, all hell broke loose. She didn’t seem to want to commit to a date and time at first. She raised a myriad of concerns:

  • Was this really my idea, or was I just going along with Fox and his parents (who suggested the venue)?
  • What about the venue she had suggested? We should get an updated quote from them.
  • Can they accommodate our entire guest list, even if it rains?
  • What’s really included in the deal? Are there extra expenses we’re not aware of?
  • Who’s paying for this and how?
  • Pretty much everyone will have to travel a distance; most people will want/need a place to stay. That will reduce the amount they’re willing to spend on gifts and/or give directly to us – if they come at all.
  • The places to stay near the venue are small; the nearest big-name hotel is 20 miles away.
  • What do I mean I don’t plan to wear makeup?! I don’t want my face to look red and splotchy in my wedding photos, do I?
  • My new haircut is too short. There aren’t enough layers.
  • We should call and ask questions before taking a long, expensive trip out to the venue location.
foal hugging mom

too cute not to share

I think some of her concerns are legit and I appreciate her raising them.

  • Getting an updated quote from the other venue is a good idea, but there were a few things about it that rubbed me the wrong way.
  • The wording on the website is a bit ambiguous, so it wouldn’t hurt to ask whether the indoor space alone can accommodate our whole guest list.
  • Always ask about additional expenses. Tax and tip can make the difference between “affordable” and “too expensive.” And I intend to get as much in writing as I possibly can.
  • We’ll need to make extra-specially sure there are sufficient accommodations for guests near the wedding venue; we intend to look into securing a group discount from one or more of the closer inns, possibly also the big-name hotel.
  • She definitely has a point about calling to ask questions first. It can save us a lot of time and money, especially if we don’t like the answers we get.
    • But I hate making phone calls and really want to see the place in person. Road trips can be fun and worth the expense, if you do them right. Fox’s Mom is treating us and she already called to make reservations.

I think some of Mom’s concerns are actually an attempt to manipulate me, regardless of whether that is her conscious intent.

I’d be more inclined to take her concern about whether this is really what I want – not just what Fox and his folks want – seriously, if she weren’t also trying to control what I put on my face. How can she claim to support me in making my own decisions and acting on them, if she’s choosing to interrupt a discussion about an important decision I need to make (and want her input in!) so she can criticize my appearance? That’s the last thing I need to be worrying about right now. It hurts extra because I had just stopped beating myself up over (my warped perception of) my appearance; just chosen to love and accept myself as I am and to focus on healthy things that are important to me.

I’m choosing to accept my face as it naturally looks instead of just going along with society’s obsession with female “beauty” – which is all about covering up one’s natural appearance with expensive products. Why do I have to wear makeup if Fox will be next to me in the exact same photos, his face naked? If Mom can’t support – or at least quietly accept – my decision to passively stand up against a faceless nameless “society” by not wearing makeup, how can she support me in actively standing up to people I love and admire?

Money is a very serious concern. Fox and I don’t have much of it; we need to be careful and we need to budget. But there is money set aside for the wedding – mostly promised by Mom and Fox’s folks. In the meantime we’re working on what we need to do be able to support ourselves financially. There are better ways to bring this up and have a conversation about it that might help us instead of undermining whatever hope and determination we’ve managed to muster. When I don’t have the answers I feel anxious and guilty; those emotions quickly turn into discouragement, the last thing I need if I’m going to get anywhere.

People will do what they need to do and will give what they’re willing and able to give. It’s important to Fox and me that people come and have a good time. We can use all the help we can get, but we’re not inviting our loved ones to the wedding because we want them to give us stuff. We’re inviting them to celebrate something that’s really important to us, and giving people who rarely see each other an excuse to come together. I really don’t want to exclude anyone because they can’t afford a hotel room – that’s why we plan on looking into group discounts. But the bit about expenses reducing the amount we get back in gifts just seems manipulative: it pokes at a basic human instinct (wanting to get stuff) and distracts from the bigger picture, for the purpose of making me question a decision I’m considering making.

Fingers with strings tied to them, controlling a puppet.

By the time we were done, I thought I didn’t want to do any of the wedding planning if it’s going to be like this. I felt completely wiped out and discouraged, all the energy and excitement I’d had gone.

I’m past obsessing over the tiny details that the bridal industry blows way out of proportion, so you think the fate of the entire universe rests on you picking the right design for your customized napkins. My goal is to throw an amazing party – which means we need a nice accessible venue, a variety of delicious food so everyone has something to eat, music people can dance to, some organization of the time (e.g. ceremony, first dance, etc.), access to places where guests can meet their basic needs (e.g. sleep), and clear communication about all of the above (e.g. invitations, a website). Everything else is icing on the cake.

This perspective is my armor in the battle that is navigating the bridal industry. But I don’t have armor to protect against what Mom threw at me. Her criticism of my appearance was an especially “low blow” because, try as I might to assert the contrary, I have internalized society’s messages about how important it is for a woman to be “beautiful.” I want to look good in my wedding photos, but there are other ways I can do that – such as wearing clothes I find comfortable so I’m not grimacing in pain, hiring a competent photographer, and having a genuine smile on my face because I’m enjoying myself. If my mother thinks all that isn’t enough, I still need makeup on top of it to prevent people from being tempted to burn my wedding photographs, what value does my life really have? If I can’t stand in front of the people I love and trust the most in the world and be accepted as I am – if the people I’m choosing to share this amazingly huge and meaningful transition with can’t wholeheartedly celebrate it with me – because I’m not wearing makeup … either she has a devastatingly low opinion of me, or she thinks the people on our guest list are incredibly shallow.

This wedding is a really big deal. It’s going to be the first, and very likely the last, time I’ll be in the limelight in the middle of a very large family (especially if you combine my and Fox’s families). It brings up a lot of anxiety. Will I be accepted as I am, having made the choices I’ve made – from as big as the building in which we’re celebrating, to as small as naked pores on my face? The whole wedding is a reflection of Fox and me: the people we associate with, our taste in food, music, fashion, our consideration of people’s needs and preferences, the degree to which we’re willing to perpetuate heteronormativity.

I think Mom’s scared because she sees everything I do as a reflection of her; from her perspective I am her reflection – she doesn’t seem to see me. She wants the model of what a daughter and her wedding should be, so she’ll be accepted by a family she’s afraid of disappointing. For some reason she finds it too painful to look at who and what I truly am. And often – far too often – so do I.

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.