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On Beauty

I was watching the episode of glee yesterday where Mercedes sings Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful and it reminded me that there is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long long time, and that is this statement which is repeated so often it has started to seem common sense:

We are all beautiful. Every woman is beautiful.

And I kind of disagree.

Let me explain.

For me, beauty is something extraordinary. It’s different from prettiness and attractiveness, or maybe its the pinnacle of prettiness and attractiveness. Different people and different cultures have different conceptions of what is beautiful, but to describe somebody as beautiful or as ‘a beauty’ highlights them as very special, and different from other, most, people. Not everyone can be beautiful, just as everyone cannot be top of the class. Beauty is, almost by definition, exclusive.*

In my mind beauty is also an external thing. It’s about somebody looks, holds themselves, moves. It’s not somebody being kind, intelligent, loyal or any of those things that are often described as ‘inner beauty’. Obviously someone’s personality will influence whether people like them, and if people do, they are more likely to class them as beautiful. But it’s not the same thing. I can think somebody is a complete bitch (or a complete bastard) but still recognise them as beautiful. Conversely, somebody might be the nicest person in the world in my eyes, but that alone doesn’t make them beautiful.

I also think that beauty is fleeting. There are times in most women’s lives when everything comes together, and we look and feel beautiful for a day or a night. But it’s temporary. And even the most stunning woman will lose her beauty eventually. That’s kind of what makes it special.

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I do agree that every woman (every person) has something about her appearance that works: she (or he) might look pretty, handsome, strong, cute, cool, interesting, intriguing, stylish, sweet, natural and so on. But not everyone is beautiful. I am not, for sure, and that’s not fishing for compliments. The fact that I’m not doesn’t diminish me in any way, or dent my confidence and belief in myself.

More importantly though, every woman (and man) is important, lovable and worthy of respect and attention. That is what matters. In a way this is a matter of semantics, because I think in a way that’s what people mean when they say that everyone is beautiful – that everyone should feel good about themselves.

I appreciate that people using beautiful in this very general sense are trying to stop ideas of beauty being used against women, and are therefore trying to take back the word, and redefine it more broadly so that it includes women of all shapes and sizes, i.e. all women. But I just think that because ‘beautiful’ has this exclusive meaning that’s about something external, that’s never really going to work.

And I actually think that it’s more important to value people as people rather than to make ideas of beauty more inclusive or diverse. As long as self-worth is attached to a concept of beauty, however broadly defined, there’s always going to be people who are left out. We should be challenging this link. We are wonderful because we’re people, we’re not wonderful because we’re beautiful people. Even if we were ugly, we’d still be wonderful.

Does that make sense? Thoughts, anyone?

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* As an aside, this undertanding of beautiful is linked to the English language. In my mother tongue German the word for beautiful (schoen) is also used to mean good, or nice, and therefore doesn’t imply the same level of specialness that it does in the English language, I think.

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  • Biba 10 May 2010, 4:35 pm

    I agree with pretty much everything you've said, particularly with the statement that people with unpleasant personality can still be considered beautiful and vice versa. I also think that beauty is highly overrated. There is so much more to people than their looks, and 'inner beauty' can be referred to with many other words.

  • Deborah Estelle 10 May 2010, 4:45 pm

    Thanks for sharing your perspective! 🙂 I don't fully agree as some of the most 'exquisite' or 'exclusive' among us in looks often have something really off… And will often describe themselves as being an ugly duckling growing up or even teased.

    To me, beauty IS all encompassing. It's not just external and certainly not all internal.

    There are some who are as you said JUST PLAIN BEAUTIFUL… They wake up in the morning and ooze beauty.

    There are others' though who because of that 'off' thing, that radiance from inside (it's unexplainable) or who have worked on their beauty (via learning what works for them or cosmetically) but still would make the category.

    Their some in our own society we label as beautiful but actually are really funny looking. (Take Tyra Banks or Uma Thurman!) They have that it thing and no not everyone has it… But, to me, it's not soley dependant on cookie cutter factors.

    Blessings,
    Deborah Estelle

  • La Historiadora de Moda 10 May 2010, 5:05 pm

    This is an interesting perspective, and one that I don't entirely agree with. One thing that I've noticed is that even within cultures there are so many different conceptions of what beauty is that it almost becomes impossible to generalize about it. Once a group of friends of mine were talking about who we thought were the most physically attractive people (celebrities and people that we knew) and the range of answers was astounding. What one person thinks is beautiful is often not at all beautiful to someone else, just in terms of physical characteristics. For this reason, I do very much think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that everyone woman is and can be and will be beautiful to someone.

  • Franca 10 May 2010, 6:00 pm

    Actually I don't at all disagree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – maybe I wasn't very clear on that. Different people have different, personal definitions of what they find beautiful, and these may vary widely (although of course things like symmetry are valued pretty much universally).

    All I was really saying that is that regardless of what this personal definition of beauty is, it's an exclusive thing. Only a limited number of people are truly beautiful to any one person. As the economists say, it's a positional good, it only works relative to others. If everyone is beautiful, noone is.

    I do take your point about everyone being beautiful to someone, but only insofar as that is a very broad definition of beauty which encompasses personality and everything.

    But for me, beauty isn't really that. It's external/visual. I can love somebody with all my heart and not think they are beautiful. Dave (my partner-boyfriend-fiancee) is the love of my life, he is the right person for me, we are parts of each other and I want to be with him forever. I also happen to fancy the pants off him. But I don't think he's beautiful. And that doesn't make me love him any less. I'm sure he would say the same thing about me, which doesn't bother me one bit. Because I don't measure my self-worth by whether I am beautiful or not.

    This is probably not helping, is it?

  • Sal 10 May 2010, 6:11 pm

    I understand what you're getting at – that there are levels of sheerly physical attractiveness and visual pleasantness achieved only by an elite few – but I'm perfectly comfortable challenging that notion. I think that beautiful is an incredibly generic term. Can anyone define what makes a person "beautiful"? No, because it's different depending on whom you consult. So, since every person can be beautiful to someone, why can't everyone be called beautiful?

    Beautiful means full of beauty, and we all are. Not all of it is traditional, visible, or socially sanctioned, but it's there. Some might think that it devalues the word to apply it universally, but frankly, I'm just fine with that, too. Ranking how attractive or unattractive people appear is harmful, no matter how you slice it. Especially when it comes to something as nebulous and relative as physical beauty.

  • Franca 10 May 2010, 8:51 pm

    Yeah, ranking isn't great, and I hope I haven't given the impression that that's what I think. To be honest, I don't disagree in principle with anything substantial anyone is saying. It's just that every time somebody says 'we are all beautiful' I think 'oh no we're not'. It's just so counter any popular understanding of what beautiful means. And not particularly helpful in valuing everyone. But now I'm just repeating myself.

  • nicola 11 May 2010, 11:25 am

    The post to me risks sounding completely vain. I don't agree with some of what you say and agree with other bits. Ultimately the definition of beauty is wide ranging and fluid and therefore discussing it seems futile and mundane. People have different perceptions of what they consider attractive, beautiful and that isn't necessarily related to what is portrayed in the media. The media should die.

  • nicola 11 May 2010, 11:28 am

    Also, the very fact that you ascribe to the belief that symmetry contributes to what people, and you, consider beautiful only reinforces an ideal for people to aspire to. And it assumes that people with asymmetrical faces are not attractive which is devaluing.

  • Franca 11 May 2010, 4:46 pm

    Eeek, I seem to have opened a can of worms here! I am sorry to have come across as vain, and am confused as to why this is. I have just read my post through again and I still stand by everything I said.

    But just to clarify:

    * My main point actually is that beauty should NOT MATTER. Some people are beautiful, some are not. ALL are valuable and lovable.

    * I am actually only disputing the terminology used because I think that redefining the word beauty nevertheless reinforces the idea that being a valuable person somehow requires you being a beautiful person. And that will always exclude some people.

    * I do not think that people with unsymmetrical faces are not attractive. Anyone can be attractive. But I think being attractive is only tangentially related to being beautiful.

    * I am also not actually even saying that only symmetrical people can be beautiful. I was merely pointing to psychological studies that found that regardless of personal preferences, the vast majority prefers symmetrical faces. But I see now how that could have been misunderstood and I wish I had never mentioned it, because:

    * I am not AT ALL interested in defining what beauty is or ranking people in terms of attractiveness (which as I said is different to beauty for me). Sometimes I meet people and I am stunned by how beautiful they are. I notice without thinking about it because it is so obvious, it comes and hits you over the head when you're not paying any attention. But in general, whether someone is physically beautiful or not has as much importance to me as whether they are a good cross country runner or cook or whatever. Which is not very much.

  • Bummble 14 May 2010, 9:28 am

    I completely agree!
    It seems like in some circles, being beautiful, however that is defined, is the most important thing to be (especially for women).
    Which, I think, then leads to statements like 'everyone is beautiful', meaning everyone is of value.

    But I don't think everyone is beautiful at all.
    Some people are beautiful all the time, some people (a lot) are beautiful some of the time, and quite a few people are not beautiful at all.
    But I also think that does not matter very much, because being beautiful is not very important; people can be attractive, valuable, smart, fun, sexy, remarkable, fascinating etc without being beautiful at all.

    A person is not a painting.
    (and even then, I find ugly paintings more interesting sometimes…)

  • The Waves 17 May 2010, 7:36 pm

    What a thought-provoking post! I am all for challenging the use of the word "beautiful", just because it is essentially a subjective definition and it is thrown around so much as if it weren't. It is also a descriptive word, which is odd, because by definition it shouldn't be.

    I can easily make the distinction between external and internal beauty, but I don't like to call unpleasant people "beautiful" even if they had won the genetic lottery. It is almost as if for me, the word "beautiful" has become to mean overall beauty. I just play it by ear and go with instinct.

  • Janine 18 May 2010, 4:09 am

    YES YES YES. I HATE when people use beauty so broadly. A lot of women aren't beautiful and we should stop trying to "take back" the word (great way to put it). There are plenty of other great words to describe people's positive qualities (and you listed a bunch) but it's true, beauty is supposed to be something elite, otherwise it loses all meaning. If all women are beautiful, we are also all hideous.

    Society is so against judging or assessing physical beauty, for fear of offending SOMEONE.

  • aurpera 28 January 2011, 8:12 am

    I get that! I love someone too, that way. I'm deeply attracted to him. But I don't think he is handsome or dashing. I used to feel that it's strange. Because I know I love him and yet I don't think he's good looking though at the same time I fantasise about him always. It's all so contradictory. After reading your comment, I can relate to what you say.

  • MrsBossa 18 February 2011, 9:26 am

    Ah, Franca, I need to read this post on a bi-weekly basis, I think. I've often thought that we need to be able just to say "X person is beautiful…but it doesn't really matter". I won't go into more depth here as it's quite personal – but thanks for writing this, buddy.