By: Juhi Varshney
1. What is beauty, really? I find it difficult to quantify such a nebulous quality, so I will reduce it to terms that are easier to dissect. For the entirety of this piece, I will refer to beauty in its most superficial sense, concerning only the exterior. For me, beauty is really a choice. Some days I choose to be beautiful, other days I choose not to be. If I have the time and energy to put on makeup or do my hair or dress up, then I will be beautiful. If fifteen extra minutes of studying or an extra hour of sleep sounds more appealing in the morning, then I am content not to be beautiful. For the day, at least.
2. I acknowledge my privilege as an able-bodied cis woman in that I am able to choose whether or not I want to be perceived as standardly beautiful without worrying about the consequences. Women with disabilities are so often reduced to incorrect, lazy assumptions about their bodies, and the safety of trans* women from violence often depends on their ability “to pass,” so when these women work to be beautiful by society’s measure, it is often from a place of survival rather than a flight of fancy. My whims and personal complaints pale in comparison to their very real and pervasive oppressions.
3. The cosmetic, skincare, hair, fragrance, and fashion industries make billions of dollars each year from selling us products that we rarely need. These companies make a concrete profit maintaining the insecurities we have about our bodies. They feed off of our constant need to be beautiful. And yet, I believe there is no harm in treating ourselves to luxury skincare products or designer overalls. I refuse to let capitalist greed tell me whether or not I’m beautiful, but what does it say about me when I always buy the newest products? And feed into the latest trends?
4. Beauty is an external trait that seems like it can be taken away at any time. I believe that I am intelligent and independent, and no one can say otherwise. These are internal characteristics that I have proven to myself and to others time and time again. I can say I’m beautiful. People can say that I’m beautiful. But as soon as one person says that I’m not, why does that negate all of the compliments I’ve gotten on my exterior? Why is beauty so fickle, so easy to take away? I do not want to take pride in a characteristic whose power is beyond my own control.
5. I get annoyed when people applaud the “natural” look. More often than not, “natural” isn’t natural at all – a lot of effort goes into the effortless look. We take pride in the appearances we work very hard to perfect, and yet we do not want anyone to realize that. We make our beauty seem as effortless and ethereal and natural as we can. It is mortifying if we look like we “try too hard” to look nice. Achieving this delicate balance is anything but natural. (Also, why is natural is equated to good and artificial is immediately bad? Is someone less beautiful for getting plastic surgery? For having a weave or extensions? For wearing neon eyeshadow? For getting acrylic nails? I do not think so.)
6. I take a moment to reflect on my need to be beautiful. It is more my own than anyone else’s. I am grateful that I do not work in an industry or live in an environment where my livelihood or happiness depends on me being beautiful to men. I know we’re not supposed to look good for men, but I won’t shame women who do because some of them don’t have a choice. I hope that changes as we work to dismantle patriarchy.
7. I don’t owe it to anyone to be beautiful. Sure, there are people who I want to look nice for, but I certainly don’t owe beauty to anyone but myself.
8. We have to be a certain amount of beautiful (professional) but not too beautiful, otherwise we’re inviting all kinds of trouble (we’re not actually that serious about our work, we’re a distraction to to others, we were asking for it).
9. Being beautiful takes time and energy. Doing our hair, putting on makeup, picking out an outfit, and wearing uncomfortable shoes all day isn’t as easy we make it look.
10. I’m tired of worrying about how beautiful I am. I know there are so many worse things in the world to have to worry about, but I want to wish away the importance of beauty for women in our world. I resent how greatly the burden of beauty rests upon the shoulders of women.
11. But I like wearing my hair down. I like applying mascara to my lashes and brushing blush onto my cheekbones. I love the pop of bright lipstick, the elegance of pearls. I adore colorful dresses and fluffy scarves and flowy maxi skirts and the click of high heels.
12. There is a certain measure of power associated with being beautiful. Perhaps it’s just the way I’ve been socialized, but I do feel more powerful when I am beautiful. Or perhaps makeup is really my own war paint in disguise.
13. I do know that people treat me differently when I’m beautiful. I get more smiles and more doors opened (literally people hold open doors, but what if they do figuratively as well?) Deep down, I fear that beauty takes away from my achievements. I want to earn my accomplishments and build my relationships on the basis of my own merits without the added privilege I have when I am beautiful. I don’t want that advantage at all.
And then I remind myself that my beauty is a part of me whether I want it to be or not. I am not the sum of my parts, but rather I am a whole. I do a disservice to myself when I forget that.
14. I think of myself as I dance. Dance makes me feel so uniquely powerful, graceful, and fulfilled. How can I question my own beauty when I know I am capable of creating artistry and elegance as I move? Beautiful is not a word large enough to encompass the emotion, pride, and success that overcome me through dance.
15. Why do we shy away from embracing our beauty? While humility is a vastly important quality, telling myself I am beautiful is not arrogance. It is self-love and self-care. Too often, we hear that we aren’t beautiful enough. There are all too many reminders of how we fail to measure up to the standard. I want to step away from comparing myself to an unattainable ideal and embrace my own unique beauty, but that is much easier said than done.
16. Women who embrace their unique beauty and pave the way for other women to do the same are amazing. Zendaya’s response to the insensitive, arguably racist remark about her hair at Sunday’s awards show is simply stellar.
17. I admire women who use their beauty to manipulate the male gaze for profit. If we’re all going to be objectified anyway, I applaud them for making money off of sexism and patriarchy. We shouldn’t label them “professionally pretty” for using their appearances as their livelihoods. Women are expected to be flawlessly gorgeous, but the moment women use their beauty to benefit themselves instead of fulfilling some antiquated, patriarchal notion, they’re automatically trashy and desperate and slutty? I don’t think so.
But then I wonder what the place of slut-shaming fellow women is in these industries. (Yes I’m talking about the Amber Rose and Khloe Kardashian mess.)
18. What a complex concept. It annoys me that I feel the need to dissect this issue when men do not have to give a second thought to the political, economic, social, cultural, interpersonal, or personal ramifications of being beautiful or not.
19. I want to get away from “beauty” as the standard. And I want “ugly” to lose its immense power to shame and humiliate us. I want women to stop using “ugly” against other women too.
20. If your takeaway from this piece is “no, she’s so beautiful!”, you are of course terribly kind, but I’d rather your first thoughts not be about my appearance. When we constantly rush to reassure girls and women that they’re beautiful, we’re implicitly advocating the importance of beauty. We’re complicit in a system that links the worth of women to their physical appearance. And I want to get away from that. We are all so much more than what we look like. We are intelligence, resourcefulness, creativity, passion, kindness, laughter, love, resilience, integrity – not just beauty. And again, we are so much greater than the sum of all of these parts.
Next time, allow your first thoughts about a woman to be “My, she’s so thoughtful” or “Goodness, she’s so graceful” or “Wow, she’s so kind.” I want those qualities to be more important than being beautiful.
21. I say all of these things and yet I still feed into the system. I still comment on my friends’ profile pictures with “beautiful” or “gorgeous.” I still relish hair and eyelash compliments. I still buy outrageously expensive products and clothes I don’t need. I still have my own insecurities.
22. As much as I fight it, I still want to be beautiful. But I do not want to be beautiful above all.