Dangerous Beauty?

I often ask myself if I’m wrong to talk about beauty as much as I do.

I know that the question of beauty is a contentious one. If beauty is used to make women feel like they don’t measure up, then maybe the whole idea of beauty should be tossed out the window.

victoria's secret vs dove real beauty
The Dove campaign may include more “average” bodies, but I doubt if anyone is larger than a size 10 in this shot. Both contain photoshopped images of women who have no rolls, cellulite, etc.

The argument isn’t a bad one. Many feminist writers, whom I respect very much, would say that beauty is a bad ideal. Beauty is used to keep women down and keep us competitive with one another. And for this and other reasons, we should no longer focus on beauty or wanting to be beautiful.

Is Wanting To Be Beautiful Bad For Your Self Esteem?

You may have seen this recent piece by Jessica Valenti in The Nation. In it, she contends that by promoting self-esteem in young women, we’re really telling them that they should do whatever it takes to feel good about themselves, including adhering to a beauty myth which will have them buying plastic surgery as soon as they can. She writes:

Young women know exactly how ugly the culture believes them to be. So when we teach girls to simply “love themselves,” we’re implicitly telling them to accept the world as it is. We’re saying that being beautiful is something worth having when we should be telling them a culture that demands as much is toxic.

I agree with Jessica Valenti’s assertion that raising women and girls’ self esteem and belief in their own beauty without a contextual discussion of our messed up society is a bad idea, but I also don’t see this discussion being left out by anyone actually doing this work.

There’s a difference between the coaches, counselors and organizations that actually work to promote self-esteem and the corporate interests who have conflated self esteem and beauty as a way to sell products. Gussying up the beauty myth the guise of promoting self-esteem is just the latest marketing trick. It’s like when the diet companies realized in the early 1990s that they would sell more diets by marketing their plans as healthy. Diets didn’t become any more healthy, but they became more popular again, and weight and health continued to be muddled.

In other words, promoting self esteem isn’t dangerous, we just can’t get our ideas about self esteem from the same place that we buy our body lotion. (I’m looking at you, Dove.)

Blowing Up The Beauty Myth

So is beauty an old, tattered concept that we should collectively throw away? Is it time to throw the beautiful baby out with the patriarchal bathwater?

Personally, I don’t think we should. I just think we need to rethink our conception of beauty.

To me, beauty isn’t something that we should strive to attain. Beauty isn’t some scarce thing that only a select few get to have. Beauty is big and bold. Beauty is quiet and delicate. Beauty is everywhere.

Somewhere along the line the definition of beauty became about looking like society’s ideal of beauty. Beauty became about perfection. Maybe we should blame the ancient Greeks (I’m looking at you, Plato) or ladymags (I’m simultaneously looking at you, Cosmo).

But perfection is only one kind of beauty, and it’s probably the least interesting.

Even if we’re just talking about physical beauty, who among us hasn’t found beauty in crinkly eye wrinkles, crooked smiles, messy hair, dimply fat, etc? Why do you assume that your ability to see unique beauty in others won’t apply when others see you?

Beauty shouldn’t be about changing yourself to achieve an ideal or be more socially acceptable. Real beauty, the interesting, truly pleasing kind, is about honoring the beauty within you and without you. It’s about knowing that someone else’s definition of pretty has no hold over you. When you know that, your self esteem does improve, no surgery or botox or cosmetics required.

For tips on feeling beautiful and improving self esteem, check out my Body Love 101 resource page.

Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. To learn more about Golda and how she can help, click here.

4 replies on “Dangerous Beauty?”

“So when we teach girls to simply “love themselves,” we’re implicitly telling them to accept the world as it is.”

I like Jessica Valenti but I just don’t interpret that from “love yourself.” When I hear that statement, I hear “beauty is diverse,” not narrowly defined by our media. Maybe I’m just overly optimistic.

I think that part of the reason that the ‘beauty’ narrative is so f’d up is precisely one of the reasons you mention: it’s a ‘contest,’ pitting curly against straight, fat against skinny, short against tall, lots of makeup versus none, in that way that women do to one another and to themselves. I think the other messed up part is because we feel like we have to care about beauty at all. We focus so much on trying to claim that everyone has beauty, that inner beauty is so valuable, etc., – still focusing SO MUCH on beauty, rather than on the wholeness of the person, intelligence, etc. We need to stop saying crap like ‘smart is beautiful’ or ‘sweet is sexy’ – it still maintains that crappy status quo of beauty and sexiness being the most important things to be. We’re such a long ways off from when we can say that we’re smart, strong, evil, kind, talented, whatever, and not have beauty even enter into the mix. We need to stop feeling like everyone has to be beautiful to matter. Unfortunately, it seems like we’re shifting to starting to become more critical of men to ‘level the field’ and calling things ‘real’ beauty to maintain these chasms of ‘better than’ rather than less focused on beauty overall. So I don’t see it getting better any time soon. (Disclaimer: I absolutely love makeup and physical alterations; I find them fun and enjoyable.)

YES YES YES SO MUCH THIS. I tend to call it the “all girls are princesses” approach to beauty – everyone is beautiful. Done, end of story.

And then I try to use the phrase “conventionally attractive” when describing someone that other people would call beautiful. Because beauty, in my opinion, is not an outlying factor. Its the damn standard.

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