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.
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?
* 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.