I’m not beautiful.
What was your immediate reaction to that statement? Was it to automatically disagree with me in your head? I know that’s what I do when I hear someone describing themselves as un-beautiful; it’s a learned reaction, one that’s drummed into us from as soon as we can learn to contradict. The man leans forward, takes off the dowdy lady’s glasses, and looks her deep in the eyes: “of course you’re beautiful”. And everything’s fine.
But the truth of the matter is that I’m not beautiful, and neither is the most of the human population. Cultural standards for beauty are both constantly shifting and constantly specific, in a way that’s so hard to fit into it feels like a fluke when you do stumble into having one of your features turn out acceptably attractive. But for most of us, actual beauty in any form – culturally-defined and accepted – is probably never going to be achievable. For me, it would take a huge amount of investment of time and money that I don’t have the resources or the inclination to hand over. I’m not beautiful, and I’m probably never going to be, unless culture suddenly decides the grown-out purple hair, self-harm scars, and giant saggy comedy tits are the most objectively beautiful thing in the world. I’m alright, and I can play at beautiful for the length of time it takes to snap a photograph once in a while, but I’m a bit funny-looking, if I’m being honest with myself.
And it’s odd, typing that sentence, saying that I’m not beautiful, because that kind of declaration is so often seen as a cry for help, a slamming of the social panic button. Isn’t that wild? If I was to sit with a group of people and tell them that I don’t think I’m particularly good-looking, we’re programmed as a culture to come crashing in there and insist that that isn’t the case. If I was to tell them that I wasn’t happy, the response wouldn’t be an overwhelming “no, but you are“. It’s a strange thing to consider, that considering yourself un-beautiful (especially as a woman) is still this enormous taboo. Even much of the body postivity movement, which promotes acceptance of bodies in all their forms, often frames that acceptance in terms of beauty: thick thighs are beautiful, chubby bellies are beautiful, wobbly arms are beautiful. As though the beauty of them is what makes them acceptable, not the fact that they’re just chunks of body and that their particular shape and size has no moral value. You have to see yourself as beautiful, because if you don’t…well, what?
Beauty is not the only value we measure people by, but it’s certainly one of them – and one of the most immediately powerful, too. A couple of months ago I wrote about my struggle with disordered eating and exercise, and there’s no doubt in my mind that a lot of that was driven by an urge to be beautiful and to punish myself for not adhering to the standards of beauty that I wanted. And one of the reasons that I had such trouble letting go of that sentiment was because, you know, beauty really does have a practical value in the world: studies have shown that women who wear more make-up are more positively recieved by those around them, while attractive men and women are more likely to earn more money than their less attractive peers. It would be easy to let go of the desire to be beautiful if it was an intangible issue, but it isn’t. Maybe that’s where this fear of people considering themselves un-beautiful comes from? We know that we bestow societal benevolence on the attractive, and when someone admits that they don’t fit those physical standards, we see that as a rejection of these benefits. When we put such value on beauty – which we do, subconsciously or not – it’s no wonder we see people refusing to categorise themselves in that way as such an unacceptable choice.
And I’m not saying I’m breaking any barriers here by saying that I’m not beautiful, because I still feel pretty crappy writing that and knowing it’s true, and knowing that because of that, there’s opportunities I won’t have, people I won’t meet, things I won’t do. And because writing this still feels like a cry for attention at it’s very core, even though I hope I’ve made it clear that the point of this is certainly not having people reassure me of what they think of my looks.
I don’t want to end this with something as trite as “it’s what’s on the inside that counts”, because, as we’ve discussed, that’s not entirely the case when it comes to the opportunities you’ll be afforded and perceptions people will have of you. But not being beautiful isn’t a crisis, or something that you or I need to fix, or something that somebody needs to convince you of in order for your life to be worth more. I’m not beautiful, and you probably aren’t either, and there’s nothing in the world wrong with that.
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