Monday, July 2, 2012

We CANNOT say "everyone is beautiful"

Obviously there is a problem with self-image in our culture (particularly for women/girls).  The message is "you're not good enough because you don't look like this."  This is a lie and must be addressed, but I claim that the response "NO!  You ARE beautiful!  Everyone is beautiful!" is not right either.

Some of the particularly bad responses come in the form of images getting shared around Facebook:

Image source.

"When did this ... become hotter than this."

What this image is saying: "You know how everyone thinks super-skinny people are better than more average-sized people who have fat?  Actually, the average-sized people are better!  And by 'better' we mean 'more sexually attractive.'  Yay!"

Image source.
"Proof that you can be adored by thousands of men, even when your thighs touch."

What this image is saying: "Being beautiful is so important because it's all about getting men!  And even if you're not unreasonably skinny you still can!  Yay!"

Even when it's not presented badly like in those images, the message "Hey, all female members of the general public!  You are beautiful!" doesn't make sense.  It counters this line of reasoning:
  1. Women only have worth if they're beautiful.
  2. "Beautiful" means really skinny, white, etc etc- oh, and it's all about being physically/sexually attractive to men.
  3. Therefore you're worthless if you don't look like that.
with this line of reasoning:
  1. Women only have worth if they're beautiful.
  2. "Beautiful" means... umm...
  3. Screw it.  Everyone is beautiful!  Yay!
I hope you caught the obvious problem here.  Point #1 is what should be challenged.  And, on a related note, if you're going to claim that everyone is beautiful, you better be very clear about what your definition of "beautiful" is.

I remember as a teenager, reading a book written to Christian girls about how "the bible says God says you're beautiful" (which seemed to me like it was taking one obscure verse out of context and making a big deal out of it, but whatever) and as it went on and on about how apparently God thinks I'm beautiful, I seriously thought it was saying "you may feel lonely right now, but God says you have been made in such a way that somehow, someday, there will be a guy that's attracted to you."

Because I assumed "beautiful" meant "attractive to a boy."  And I wanted that so much.

The truth is that physical appearance isn't everything- and I wish we would say that instead of "everyone is beautiful."  Everyone looks like whatever they look like, and that's fine.  It doesn't have any bearing on whether your life has meaning and worth.

Instead of "everyone is beautiful," we could say everyone is valuable, or unique, or interesting.  (This works especially well with the Christian side of this issue- instead of saying "God thinks you're beautiful", how about we say "God thinks you're incredibly valuable and interesting and he'd never forget about you", because, you know, that's something THE BIBLE ACTUALLY SAYS.)

If that's what you meant when you claimed that "everyone is beautiful", well, I know your intentions are good but that's just not how language works.  The word "beautiful" is generally all about what something physically looks like.  Sure, there are a few cases where a story is "beautiful" or some really nice thing someone does is "beautiful", but that's not typically how the word "beautiful" is interpreted.

Seriously, if someone were to describe a woman to you and say "she's beautiful", how would you interpret that?  With the "everyone is beautiful" meaning of "beautiful"- which I guess means she's interesting and unique and worth getting to know?  No.  And I challenge you to come up with any other context in which "beautiful" means what it tries to mean in "everyone is beautiful."  Language just doesn't work that way.

Sorry, it's not true that "everyone is beautiful."  But guess what- that's totally fine.  Some people are more nice to look at than others, some people are more sexually attractive than others, etc- but none of that has any relevance to whether or not they have worth as a human being.  Every person in the world has a story, and the vast majority of them have done really interesting things I've never done.  Everyone (nearly everyone? trying to be accurate here) has people they love and goals/dreams that are important to them.

Why does it matter what they look like?

Or rather, why do people feel shame for what they look like?

So I claim that ideally, this is how it should be.  That everyone knows that your value is not at all related to your appearance.  But the connection between self-worth and physical appearance is so strong in this culture- it is completely not okay to say someone is old, or fat, or some other trait opposite to the typical image of what "beautiful" is- a comment like that is taken as a direct insult, as if it's something to be deeply ashamed of.  What do we do in a practical sense, to move people's thinking in the right direction?  I don't have an answer for that yet.

Also, I have not addressed the argument "beauty doesn't just mean abnormally skinny and whatever the stereotypical model looks like"- you see this argument in things like the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.  Yes, it's totally true- a lot of women who do not look like "the stereotypical model" are nice to look at/ attractive to men/ whatever "beautiful" means.  But not everyone is, and as I already said, it doesn't have any relation to your worth as a person.

What do you think?  What did I miss?  This is a very complicated, nuanced issue.  Does our culture's definition of "beautiful" need to change?  Is it possible to separate self-worth from physical appearance?  How do we address this?


  1. Yes! Yes! Yes! This post resonates with me SO much.
    I have to say I'm 100% guilty of the "everyone is beautiful! yay!" syndrome. And this post had broadened my thinking concerning the topic quite a bit because it is a complex issue as you said.
    What grates with me about society is how being beautiful is constructed to be the ultimate achievement for women. I remember when my cousin told me I'm average looking in my teens, it was a massive blow to me. I immediately felt...less - less of a woman, less feminine, just less (sorry this is so ambiguous).
    Thank you for broadening my thinking and presenting a thought-provoking piece. There's lots of things to chew over and re-read here.

    1. Thanks! ^_^ Yeah that is a good way to sum it up- women are failures if they're not beautiful. And there are SO MANY levels and directions to this problem- for example, if someone says they want to lose weight, their friends will think it means they hate their body, and be like "NO NO NO you're perfect the way you are"... instead of supporting them making their own choices about their body, for whatever reasons they may have.

  2. There have always been standards of beauty. I like to think that it's the imperfections that make one beautiful. Sometimes I think beauty and ugly have more in common than average because both fall out of the norm and both can be off putting in certain situations and to certain people.

    I'm the one that everyone is constantly calling beautiful. It's weird, for me. For one, I think people exaggerate. I see myself in the mirror daily and while I admit that I'm attractive, I don't get why everyone else is so hung up about it. To have so many people focused on your looks, sometimes missing aspects of your character because of it and sometimes (mis)judging your character based on it. It usually doesn't hurt to be beautiful unless you come across a righteously jealous person who will make sure you understand the pain of unattractive women which happens from time to time (e.g. you can't be beautiful and be a good/smart/industrious/real person). Sometimes I get benefits that a less attractive woman may not get. I appreciate that I can get a free drink whenever I want or that it gets me into glamourous events, but that's sugar - being one of the beautiful people at some exclusive club of beautiful people doesn't make your life better, it just means you got in. I have more fun with people I care about whether or not they are beautiful and I can pay for my own drinks.

    I wish I could communicate to all the women out there who feel 'less than' that they are not! Looks don't determine whether you're good or bad, happy or unhappy; beauty even offers limited opportunities for success (again coming up against the righteous jealousy factor) or love (it simply isn't true that all men only want to date model types). I also wish that I could communicate to people who are put off by my looks that I'm pretty much the same as them inside. We are all real women because God made us that way.

    Realizing it may be easy for me to say, I really don't think looks matter as much as people think they do. Looks matter to people who think they matter. I've seen 250 pound women who are happily married, have family, friends, a career, a life. Who am I to say that my life is better than theirs because I look better?

    Thanks for this post. I appreciate your comments and especially those pictures which I've seen on Facebook in dismay. It's hypocritical when one takes a picture of a skinny woman in order to deride her for not having lots of curves. She's just as real as the more voluptous women out there and probably has the same feelings. We think we've advanced as a society by embracing the curve, but we haven't if we're still putting other women down.

    1. Cool- you have a lot of good insight. Ideally, people should just recognize that different people look different and it's not the most important thing in the world. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. ^_^

  3. Discovered your blog through your comments on Rachel Held Evans'. :)

    This post is very much in line with my personal mission: to love people "from the inside out" and motivate others to do the same. On my own blog I wrote a post about redefining what beauty means:

    And @Anonymous: I also wrote a post called "Even the Beautiful People Need to be Loved From the Inside Out":

    @perfectnumber628: Thank you for focusing on the things that are truly important. <3

    1. Thanks! I just checked out your blog- very cool. Definitely a message people need to hear.

      I have a question- when you say you want to "redefine beauty" do you just mean "we should value people for things like kindness, honesty, courage, etc, instead of appearance", or do you mean you wish the word "beauty" would mean those things instead of just "physical beauty"?

    2. I don't know that I've thought about that distinction, but on just a few moments' reflection, I can say: If we valued people for things like kindness, honesty, courage, etc., more than for appearance, then I wouldn't much care whether the definition of the word "beauty" got expanded. :)

      I say "more than" not "instead of" because I don't actually believe that appearance doesn't matter *at all*. See this post for my thoughts on that:

    3. Oooh, I like what you wrote about "it's not true that appearance doesn't matter at all."

  4. Interesting post. I wanted to argue with you because I do like to say everyone is beautiful. I don't think I used to think that, but then I took an art class where we had to do nude drawings, and one of our models was this 70-year-old wrinkly man with his wrinkles and his bones showing through his skin, and during the course of several hours drawing I realized he was incredibly beautiful, and something of that stuck with me.

    So I do think everyone is beautiful, except I guess in those rare cases where someone has been badly hurt in a way that seriously deformed their body. And I think it's good to be able to see that beauty when we look at ourselves and one another, just like hopefully we can see it in flowers and landscapes and all the other beautiful things in the world.

    But...."beautiful" in the sense of, attractive to the average man in our particular culture? I suppose not, alas.

  5. White, skinny, and attractive to men? So stereotypical. But I guess it's true. I have dark skin myself. So I feel insecure myself. I feel like skinning myself or killing myself sometimes. It's hard. I guess you just have to deal with it. Life's a gift.

  6. oh my goodness!!! me finding this post is soooo timely :-). I was recently struggling with the importance of appearance, seeing as I'm not physically attractive. I wanted to talk about it with friends but i'm sure their response would be something like "of course you are!! look at you!" to try and make me feel better, but I'm actually finding that that's ok. to not be attractive (because that is what's beautiful right?). after a long rant, I concluded this while writing to the future Mr. Me :-) "I may not be beautiful. I really amn’t, although with some little transformation I can pass for “cute” but that my smile and who I am just shines through all that. So, it sorta does matter that I’m not beautiful but you will be able to see me and therefore love me. Whether or not I have crazy amounts of acne, or too big boobies or if I’m too fat or have weird hair. You’ll see me and love me. It makes it harder on you to find me coz at first glance you probably wouldn’t be captivated but it’s ok. Coz I know you’ll see through and when you see you’ll love. And you won’t be settling. :-)" so your post=awesome!