Friday, August 10, 2012

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.

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 under the guise of promoting self-esteem is just the latest marketing trick. It’s like when the diet companies realized in the early 1990′s 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, so to speak?

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.

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