Rerouting the Meaning of Beauty

A friend recently shared this article with me: "Pretty Unnecessary" and many parts of it really struck a bad chord with me, and I'll explain why. It started here: "While I’m in favor of encouraging women to feel confident and happy, I worry that today’s body positivity focuses too much on affirming beauty and not enough on deconstructing its necessity. Spreading a message that everyone is beautiful reinforces the underlying assumption that beauty matters."

I want to clear something up about my own advocacy for body positivity. I did not have these women pose in front of my camera simply to affirm that their bodies were beautiful. Honestly, if anyone sees it like that, they aren't paying attention. Think of the vulnerability that comes first, with opening up to other women about anything and everything in the world, communicating, and relating, and second, with exposing yourself to a photographer after years of being told that your specific body type is unacceptable--taking action against norms for future generations. Women are finding their worth on the inside while simultaneously finally giving a shit (or not giving a shit for once) about the outside. As has been proven, visuals wake people up. The more bodies we put out there that don't fit the current standard, the more people will see that all bodies are normal, and perhaps we can get to a point where beauty isn't tied to bodies anymore, at least with regard to consumerism.

Or this part: "Today’s body positivity has gotten stuck trying to 'fix' beauty from the inside rather than moving beyond it. Between the 'real women have curves' memes and the furor over un-photoshopped cover girls, we’re fighting to push the margins of beauty an inch in any direction, while reifying the concept itself—struggling to revise the standard but never presuming to overthrow it entirely. In her essay 'The Beauty Bridge,' Jia Tolentino, an editor at Jezebel and the Hairpin, says that such surface-level concepts of empowerment 'push women around each other on the narrow, precarious beauty bridge rather than suggesting we just howl like animals and jump right off.'"

While I get what she's saying, it actually just suggests that we simply get over it. Not everyone works like that. People don't just get over things. Society can't be changed by people just getting over something that has taken a bajillion years to instill itself within us. So yes, beauty does need to be fixed from the inside. There is so little self-love in this world. Wouldn't you think any kind of positivity, whether it's body positivity or mind positivity begins with self-love? So, if that means that we need to start with "surface-level concepts of empowerment," than so be it. It isn't "surface-level" when it reaches inward and grabs someone by their gut and knocks the wind out of them and reminds them that they are worth it, whether it takes looking in the mirror and starting with, "God damnit, I am pretty" or by smashing their mirror and thinking, "Fuck looking at myself. I have better things to do."

Oxford dictionary (oh, I'm going there) defines beauty as, "A combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight" AND "A combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense." Our society has moved so far past the second meaning of the word beauty that many people, such as this writer, it seems, assume that beauty only stands for something aesthetically pleasing.

It didn't all frustrate me, though, because she did a good job sharing other opinions that ended up describing exactly the way I feel, such as this:

"The Body Positive is a nonprofit organization that works directly with individuals and communities to support positive body attitudes. Its cofounder and executive director, Connie Sobczak, says that 'beauty is an amazing thing if we can reclaim it,' and rejects the idea that the definition of beauty must exclude anyone. 'If I say that I can see my own beauty, it doesn’t take away from anyone else’s. It just means I’m a whole human being and I can see my own value, and because of that I can see so much beauty in everything in the world.'"

Mmmmhmmm, that's yummy.

And this: "And of course, claiming beauty in a culture that has historically denied it can be genuinely empowering."

Yes. It absolutely can.

So, because society is always slow to make changes, it's only natural to begin where they began: changing the literal face of beauty we are constantly bombarded with. As my friend stated while discussing this article with me, " intersectional approach is needed. There's a lot of work that needs to happen to have racial inclusion, inclusion of trans or genderqueer bodies, different ages, etc." Agreed.

Then, step two: reroute the meaning of the word beauty back to "A combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense" and show that it's more more than skin deep. The women of The Body Project may have shown you their bodies, but they did so with reminders like this:

  1. More than 302lbs.
  2. Accepted Outside. Improving Inside.
  3. Let go of your imperfections.
  4. Riots. Not diets.
  5. Everlasting [stretch] marks for everlasting love.
  6. Align. Atone.
  7. More than just a body, I am the soul within.
  8. Dedicated to me.
  9. Peace and Love Abide.
  10. Indomitable spirit.

Don't get me wrong, though, I am not against anyone focusing on the aesthetic portion of the definition of beauty. There's room for both in this world. It's when we start tying our worth to it that it gets dangerous.

Then, step three: Do good in the world and express that beauty deep within all of us whether it's love, acceptance, compassion, patience, kindness, or more advocacy.

But you already know this. :) Because you're awesome.


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