I grew up with eczema all over my body – everywhere there was skin. I learned to live with my different skin but found it harder to live with what fought to get under it.
There was a selection of them – different grades, boys and girls, but mostly girls – who would point out with exhausting regularity that I looked ‘different’. They weren’t sweet about it either. Or creative. ‘Red legs.’ ‘Sore skin.’ ‘Boring bag.’ (I know – I didn’t get that one, still don’t, but apparently it doesn’t take creative genius to be a jackass).
The words were hollow enough but the messages weren’t. They were ripe and full-bodied and launched to lessen. You don’t say cruel things with a smile if it’s meant to be any other way. I came to learn that there were two types of smiles – those that warm and those that wound. I also came to learn there were two types of people. Those who lift you and those who would tear you down by the first bell if they were given the chance.
I’ve never felt like a victim and I’ve never felt broken, and that’s because of the people in my life who taught me about being beautiful. They taught me that there were many different versions – all real – and that I was one of them.
They did it by calling me ‘beautiful’ and they did it often. They called me other things too – clever, kind, funny, strong – and that was important for other reasons but those words weren’t the words that helped me believe that I too was beautiful, and that those who would have me believe otherwise were wrong. I knew I was clever, kind, funny and strong – because they told me so. What could ever be wrong about them telling me I’m beautiful too.
My grandparents told me often. Whether I was dressed in my Sunday best, sweaty from backyard cricket or soaked and grassy from running through the sprinkler, I was always beautiful to them. I know that because they told me. One of my grandmothers would say in her Maltese accent, ‘Oh, you look beautiful!’. The words ‘oh’ and ‘beautiful’ would be loud and emphasised. My other grandmother had her standard greeting too. ‘Pretty One.’ She said it like it was my name. I felt their words in every part of my being through to my core where my truths and secrets and precious things are kept.
I can’t remember anything specifically related to my physical appearance that came from my parents but I never questioned that they thought I was beautiful. I wonder about the messages that would have been able to break through and diminish me, had they not armed me with capacity to claim ‘beautiful’ for myself.
From my own experience, being told I was beautiful pushed against the venom that pushed against me.
The Push Against ‘Beautiful’ – Why It Has To Stop
There is talk, particularly on social media, against calling girls ‘beautiful’ or any other word that refers to physical appearance. The argument is that to do otherwise gives beauty a position of importance and influence it doesn’t deserve.
As I sit here and type, I can almost feel the whoosh from hands being thrown into the air of the women who have being trying to make beauty not count for us women. I get that. We are so much more than how we look. Absolutely. We are strong, brave, intelligent, powerful, kind, funny and so many other things, but these aren’t the things that society is making us question minute by minute of every damn day – in magazines, on television, social media, billboards, advertising. It’s exhausting. And I’m tired.
I’m tired of hearing women being judged on how they look. I’m tired of young girls being broken by it. I’m tired of being so deliberate in not judging myself. I’m tired of having to pretend it doesn’t matter. I’m tired of it. Because it does matter. It always has. It’s just that somewhere along the way, ‘beautiful’ became reduced to an astoundingly inadequate definition. ‘Beautiful isn’t the problem. The definition is.
Popular culture has strained the idea of what it means to be a woman to the point that it is now heavily infused with an unrealistic and largely unattainable definition of beauty. It’s a definition worthy of rejection but what if, rather than rejecting the word, we rewrite its meaning. Because as well as being our own versions of beautiful, we are powerful, strong, brave, and smart, and we can do that. We don’t have to ignore the beauty that is us, or pretend it doesn’t matter, and why should we. We can be all of those things, and we can be beautiful too. Not ‘beautiful’ they way they tell us, but ‘beautiful’ the way we tell us.
Dismissing beauty as irrelevant or unimportant undermines the capacity of women to embrace themselves as a whole. The physical self is just as important as the spiritual self, the emotional self and the mental self. Those who actively or passively discourage physical beauty from being unashamedly embraced by young girls, teens and women are doing damage. They’re doing damage to the solidarity of our womanhood as judgement seeps in, and to the self-concept of those they influence as their wholeness finds cracks.
They are also compromising one of the most essential and joyful parts of being human – the seeking out of beauty. Humans are wired to seek out beauty. We seek it out in nature, music, art, architecture, photography, food – everything. Most importantly, we seek it in ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we always find what we’re looking for. Why? Because somewhere along the way the definition of beauty in relation to women has become woefully lacking.
We engage with beauty through every sense – we hear it, touch it, taste it, smell it, see it. We can also recognise that it’s imperfect – an abandoned building, a fallen tree, a bustling street, a stormy sea – not known for their perfect form, but they can be breathtaking in their beauty.
In relation to women however, the definition of ‘beautiful’ is strikingly deficient. It’s become all about perfection – smooth lines, flawless skin, perfect forms, measurements and proportions.
We are the ones who are most affected but we are far from victims. Nobody has more power than we do to reconstruct what it means to be ‘beautiful’, but this won’t happen if we pretend beauty doesn’t matter. It does matter. It matters a lot. Just not in the way it has come to be defined.
To ignore it completely leaves the way open for a relentless assault on the truth about what beauty is. Beauty is diverse and imperfect. If we don’t acknowledge our own ideal of beauty when we see it, popular culture will proceed unchallenged to saturate our daily life with its own unrealistic photographic definition. It’s a definition that isn’t working for the overwhelming majority of us.
Beauty. It’s a problem of definition, not concept.
The problem isn’t beauty, but the portrayal of beauty as something unattainable, exclusive and inauthentic.
Physical beauty is fed by a number of sources. One is our DNA but how the world sees us on the outside is also influenced by what’s happening on the inside.
As explained by researcher, Susie Orbach from the London School of Economics,
‘… Women regard being beautiful as the result of qualities and circumstance: being loved, being engaged in activities that one wants to do, having a close relationship, being happy, being kind, having confidence, exuding dignity and humor. Women, who are like this, look beautiful. They are beautiful.’
The more we celebrate beauty in its purest, most authentic and diverse forms, the quicker a new marker of ‘beautiful’ can be established. Women want this. We want to see women of different shapes, sizes and ages. We’re hungry for it. We deserve it. And it’s overdue.
Call Her Beautiful. Then Say It To Her Again.
What we are told effects what we believe. What we believe affects who we become. Given the importance of beauty to self-concept and what we project to the world, it’s critical that we start telling ourselves and each other when we see it.
The more we can hear it from outside ourselves, the more the message will be internalised and made our own.
That doesn’t make us needy or dependent on what we hear – nothing could be further from the truth. There is strength and wisdom in the woman who can open up to the environment, take the parts that nourish her and leave the parts that don’t. We are capable of that. The challenge for us is to make a new empowering, acceptable, ample definition of ‘beautiful’ available in the environment for each of us to draw on. We are also capable of that.
The definition of beauty needs to expand so all of us can flourish under the banner. The seeking of beauty will never go away and rather than being something that limits or divides us, redefining beauty will clear the way to celebrate and relish it in all of its imperfect, diverse forms.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Let the beholder be us.
Popular culture would have us believe that beauty is shallow, manufactured and reserved for the genetically blessed. It’s not. It’s as varied as we are – but we need to claim it.
For this to happen, we need to fiercely redefine what beauty is. The definitions will be diverse, because beauty is diverse. They will celebrate the happiness, confidence and self-respect that comes with the full embrace of aged skin and faded pink scars or dimpled thighs and a curvy form. It will be a beauty that billows from an engagement with life, relationships and above all else, the self.
Let’s start by seeing it and acknowledging it in others, claiming it in ourselves, and celebrating those who want to do the same. Call her beautiful. Then say it to her again. Let the messages become part of the warrior inside her, the one that fights against anything else that might lessen her – the one that fights for her. Because though we’ll never know exactly what she’s up against, we can make sure she’s at her strongest when she faces it.