on beauty

Sometimes the idea of beauty (personal beauty, particularly women’s beauty, bothers me. I, like all people (not just women!) want to be considered “attractive, desirable, beautiful, pretty”. I know that a lot of people feel awful about the way they look. The media and dominant culture tells us that “thin is in” and that a woman’s worth is no more than the sum of her objectified parts. Every part of a woman has been targeted by marketers as being “fixable” – lips, breasts, stretch marks, skin, hair, eyes, nails…everything.

I was shocked when I recently saw an ad on t.v with Brooke Shields promoting a new eyelash growth drug recently approved by the FDA. Apparently this drug (made by the makers of Botox) can help people (read: the ad was clearly targeted at women) who have hypotrichosis, a condition in which no hair grows on the eyelid. Another possible market for this new drug is people who have undergone chemotherapy and have not had their eyelashes go back.

And while those two reason might be good and well, I couldn’t help but think, having short eyelashes myself, that this drug was just another giant reminder about the objectification and microscopic criticism that women face every day. As if cankles month wasn’t bad enough, now we’re being told that our eyelashes need even MORE attention than the  hundreds of dollars of eye makeup products that many women purchase to make their eyes look “sexier”.

Sigh. Imagine if rather than thinking about ways to use drugs to grow eyelashes that only rich women will be able to afford, the brilliant scientists channeled more energy in finding cures for cancer or HIV/AIDS.

In order to resist  the forces of culture a lot of well meaning people have begun a “beauty” movement. Operation Beautiful is a blog (and soon to be a book) that encourages people to post random post-it notes with positive comments on them in places that people might need a little encouragement to feel good about themselves (i.e. on diet shakes, change rooms, at the gym, on diet pills).

At first I thought this was a great idea. Yes, there is a WHOLE lot more to beauty than what traditional media presents to us. Beauty can look like a 6 billion different people. I wholeheartedly agree that it is a good idea to stretch the definition of beauty and challenge traditional norms.

However, the more I think about it, the more I feel like we’re cheapening the worth of people (and in particular, women- to whom this campaign is targeted).

Like I said above, I want to feel beautiful (and I bet you do too) but I wonder, perhaps we place too much emphasis on the quality of beauty (or by using random,vague, generic notes to tell women that they’re beautiful) we’re in fact reinforcing the idea that to be worthy, women need to be beautiful. I don’t want to be a hater- I think that OB has been a true encouragement for some women and girls- but I just want to explore potential negative aspects of campaigns like this.

I wonder what it would do for our self-esteem if we started praising women for their courage, for their sense of humour, their kind heart, their adventurous life, their intelligence and wit. We risk envisioning women as one-dimensional if we only focus on beauty.

If we are going to head down the “beauty road” be need to operationalize and expand the definition of beauty.  The creator  of Operation Beautiful happens to be a straight, caucasian, thin (and in my opinion “traditionally” attractive) young woman. If we want to change women’s perceptions of themselves and to ensure that each woman knows that she is immeasurably valuable and worthy, we need to start giving the definition of beauty some depth and nuance, rather than generically labeling all women as “beautiful” (without defining what that is). We need to say to each other

fat is beautiful

racialized women are beautiful

disAbled women are beautiful

the LGBTQ community is beautiful

mental health survivors are beautiful

and so on…

I saw a blog today that I deepened my understanding of beauty. I think you should check it out; it’s called the Belly Project.

To sum up, I’ve really suggested two main ideas. If we want to tell each other that we’re all beautiful, we need to expand our notion of beauty and make sure that we’re not just watering down the mainstream “thin ideal” or renaming it (saying it’s about health, fitness, life balance).

Perhaps more importantly, we need to recognize that women are so much more than their physical skin. Seeing women as only flesh makes it a lot easier to objectify the body, dehumanizing the spirit and soul of personhood. Objectification, we know, can lead to violence, as it makes women just parts…not people. It’s a lot easier to dehumanize or hurt legs, breasts and vaginas than it is a woman or a human.

I think a lot of people say that they “care about the poor” – but not very many people actually know any poor people. And so it goes with true beauty. Yes, I might come across a post-it note that says “you’re beautiful” – but unless the writer of the note really knows me, sees me, and sees both the inner and the outer beauty, the message is cheapened.

Let’s commit to remind one another of our kindness, our creativity, passion, joy, perseverance, faith, intelligence, potential, goodness, wit, peacefulness, diligence and steadfastness…true beauty is borne of these things.

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3 thoughts on “on beauty

  1. If I was a blind person, I would consider you one of the most beautiful people I have ever met… just from your generosity and your heart….however, I do see and I KNOW you are that.

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