Thoughts on beauty: why does it play such a big role?

‘Okay’ my friend said to me as we were carefully walking on the icy pavement ‘if you could change ONE thing what would it be?’ She said it with a kind of daring that implied I wouldn’t know what to say anyway. Well, I wouldn’t change just one thing would I – that would look strange. I’d change multiple things starting with my nose, which I would make smaller and narrower. Then I would make my cheekbones higher, my mouth slightly bigger, same with my eyes and I’d make my forehead a bit taller. I was complaining to her about my looks. We had just been to the cinema and seen some of all those beautiful people that star in movies and that kind of beauty almost always makes me feel slightly envious. At 33 I haven’t yet come to terms with how I look. Exactly because I never thought I was pretty enough.

Beauty comes in many shapes for sure. But here I am adressing the standardized image of beauty that is plastered all over our billboards and our screens. The image that covers the front page of our mainstream beauty magazines. The image that crawls into cartoons and toys and every movie or tv-series we watch. We all know what beautiful looks like.

This post is about women because I have a woman’s perspective on this issue and because I mostly know of women who have these concerns. Admittedly, I am generalising a lot since it is not a post about diversity it is a post about the mainstream beauty ideal and how it affects women and girls. Because, lets admit it, it does affect women more than men. It is a rare woman who is completely satisfied with how she looks. Some women, I feel confident saying, are less concerned with their appearance than others. Either they are what has been termed ‘classically beautiful’ and have a natural beauty about them that they have been complimentet on all their lives or they are confident and have a healthy relationship with their bodies and their looks, which make them attractive even if they are not ‘classically beautiful’. The last ones are probably the luckier ones since I know very beautiful women who still do not think they are pretty enough. Because in the end it is probably more about self-esteem than anything else.

I am neither of those women though. I am ordinary looking and my shy personality does not help my looks. I have always looked quite ordinary and was not one of those girls who was always told how beautiful I was. I looked plain as a child too. Then again, I was not concerned with appearence as a child. Beauty was never a big thing at my house. My parents did not put a big emphasis on it. They did not dress me or my sister up or tell us we were pretty little girls or princesses. I don’t think it was a consciuos choice my parents made to not emphasize beauty, they simply did not pay attention to the matter. So we never worried about looks. But we also never got a chance to explore it.

As a young child my hair was cut in a boyish short hairstyle that actually made people think I was a boy. I don’t think I minded my hairstyle but noone ever asked me if that was actually the hair I wanted. I was a tomboy so I probably did not seem very girlish but I remember feeling frustrated when grownups thought I was a boy. That said, I think I was mostly happy and carefree not having to bother with being a pretty little princess (or not being one). And I never worried about my looks. All that came later on. But of course I had a sense of what beauty was, I saw it everywhere in my surroundings. When I looked at my barbie dolls I instinctively knew that they were beautiful. I saw my mother’s women’s magazines and knew that the models in them were beautiful. As I have mentioned I am talking about the standardized image of beauty that has been chosen over a long period of time mainly by the media and the movie industry but also by people in general. This standardized image is quite stereotypical even if it changes a little over time or if sometimes a different looking beauty arrives on the scene. The image features certain measures and certain bone structures that are required to be considered ‘classically beautiful’. I knew that Sophia Loren was beautiful even if I didn’t know who she was and that some of the girls from my school were ‘very very pretty’ because everyone thought so.

My parents never seemed concerned with beauty. They let me wear what clothes I wanted and mainly put an emphasis on the clothes being practical. I don’t remember having any desire ever to wear fancy dresses. My own daughter is quite a lot more fancy in her style of dress than I was. I have had to swallow my ideals and I have even changed my mind on the subject since I first became a mother. I started out being absolutely adamant I would not put any emphasis on looks what so ever. I would not encourage dressing up and I would not use certain words like ‘pretty’, ‘cute’ or ‘beautiful’ and I would not under any circumstances say that this and that is a girls colour and this and that is a boys colour and so on. I would not put emphasis on superficial things like looks and clothes or encourage certain types of behaviour by attributing value to them. While I think there is a lot of wisdom to this ideal and while I do my best not to judge certain behaviours or attribute value to others I think there should be room for my daughter to explore being girly. I don’t want to take that away from her and not let her dress up if that is what she wants. There should be room for her to explore her own beauty and to feel like a princess and look like one. There should be room for her to find her own ground and define herself what beautiful is. Whether it is wearing a fancy dress or running around in a jumpsuit.

We recently went to a wedding anniversary party and she chose to wear an epic pink robe that she had acquired for christmas. She looked very pretty. The pride with which she carried herself and the delight she took in being perfectly dressed up like a princess indeed made her look adorable. She was by far the most dressed up female at the party as well as the youngest. And she dressed up exactly because she wanted to. Not for everyone else. Just because she wanted to look like a princess who was going to a party. She was also sporting a little bit of her grandmother’s lipstick and a touch of rouge. But that did not keep her from playing hide and seek or play wii and eating a ton of bread. She was still herself, my A.

The point I am trying to make is that since we cannot avoid the standardized image of beauty maybe we can find a way to work around it or live with it. Maybe we can find a way to talk to our children about it to make them realize that beauty does come in many shapes and that even if beauty is a BIG thing it is not EVERYTHING and that even though some people think we ought to look a certain way maybe they are not always right. But of course it takes work. We need to be able to accept ourselves and how we look in order to make our children feel good about themselves too. Especially our girls, since they are the ones most vulnerable when it comes to beauty and standardized images.

Sorry for the rant. I hope at least some of it makes sense. And I apologize for everything that is missing in this post. There were a lot of more things I thought about saying. But maybe they’ll follow in another post.

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