Friday, February 20, 2009

Expanding "Beautiful"

Last weekend our campus feminist group (SASS) held a "Love Your Body" weekend. Last night at our group meeting, we reflected a bit on how the weekend had gone and how we might be able to address some of the problems people had, especially with the photo shoot, in the future.

When I first expressed my unsatisfactory experience with an event that I had helped plan for two years, an anonymous commenter wrote, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" and that really stuck with me. Then last night at our meeting, it was brought up that although our "Love Your Body" weekend was a good way to expand the definition of physical beauty, the way we set things up we (inadvertently) gave physical beauty a priority. And that, to me, was exactly why I was not completely satisfied with my experience. I was using the master's tools to try to dismantle the master's house.

In this society, women are expected to be beautiful according to standards set up by those with the power (white males). These standards are not only narrow and unrealistic, but they are meant to be the only standards for what makes a woman (or person) beautiful. I realized that this is why I am not completely happy with this past weekend that was supposed to be an empowering experience.

As long as I continue to think only within the confines of the male-dominated ideals of female beauty, which are strictly physical, I will never be happy with myself because these ideals were not made in my best interest.

Beauty, I finally, truly realized, is not only a physical concept.

I am beautiful because I can express myself with words.
I am beautiful because I have my own, unique thoughts.
I am beautiful because I am not easily intimidated by other who disagree with me.
I am beautiful because, for the first time, I am shedding the chains of a system that was maintained because I did not feel beautiful.

It was such an epiphany I had last night. I know this is only the first step in a long process of overcoming the deeply embedded idea that beauty is physical and that only one kind of physicality is beautiful, but it feels so good to finally be there.


Anonymous said...

One thing that always struck me:

It doesn't matter how beautiful you think you are, if no one else does.

If I walked around thinking I was the genetic combination of Brad Pitt, and Jude Law, and every other "handsome" celebrity, it wouldn't mean anyone else would.

(When people say beauty, they tend to refer to the physical part of it, though. Not some nebulous inner beauty.)

Which, there's nothing wrong with physical beauty. Though sometimes I catch the vibe that you think there is. Or that you don't like that certain things are considered physically attractive, and some aren't.

I suppose my entire point is, you can think you're amazing, and wonderful, but really, if no one else thinks so, does it really matter?

I don't think I'm handsome in the least. I really don't. If I thought I was, it would just be considered unwarranted vanity, and it still wouldn't make legions of people think I should be modeling Calvin Klein underwear on a billboard in Times Square.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this. I'm sort of just spilling thoughts into the comment box.

Anonymous said...

Oh. Forgot:

The quote given to you was borrowed from Audre Lorde.

It's been widely used, and a lot of people know it, but not who to attribute it to.

Amelia said...

You're right, the quote is from Audre Lorde. Good call.

And I am really upset to hear that you think that beauty is only granted from the outside, from other people.

If we had to live our lives on other people's terms, our lives would never be our own. Think of how oppressive that would be.

In America, people are obsessed with this narrow definition of physical beauty. If we buy into this definition and agree that it must be something approved of by other people, all we're really doing is allowing ourselves to be controlled, to be less.

I can't seem to completely phrase what I want to say, but I'll leave with this: I am a firm believer that having a good sense of self (like adopting a more expansive idea of beauty) and feeling good about yourself carries over to how other people perceive you. Think of how confident people are attractive, not only in the physical sort of way, but in the "I want to know this person" kind of way as well.

Anonymous said...

Confidence is easily misconstrued as vanity, though.

It's a fine line, and one easily crossed.

What I was trying to say was, for instance, no matter how attractive one could think they are, it won't mean someone else will think so.

If you're interested in someone romantically, and you feel confident, and think you're attractive, but they don't, it's not going to make them change their mind.

That's kind of what I was getting at.

I think physical beauty is sort of defined by who is doing the looking. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as it goes.

Like I said, no matter how handsome I might mistakenly believe I was, if I'm the only one that thinks so, am I really such? Or am I just deluding myself?

lindsay said...

If you go by the phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," then a person's own opinion of themselves counts a lot. I suppose it depends partially on which beholder is being listened to most.

If we go by the first comment's standards, then we would always have to search for outward affirmation whereas if we prize our own opinion of self-beauty (in whatever form - physical, mental, emotional), we don't need the outside world to validate our worth.

Personally, I think I'm amazing and wonderful. Sure, some might call it vain, but how can I expect other people to think I'm awesome if I don't myself? I tend to trust my own opinions on various issues over others, so why should my opinion of myself be any different?

Anonymous said...

I suppose because you aren't taking yourself on a date?

Like I said, when it comes to physical beauty, no matter what you think of your own, it won't change what someone else will think of it.

From what I've seen, when people who aren't very physically attractive really, honestly believe they are, and act on that, it just comes off as obnoxious.

It's why I wouldn't, say, flirt with someone much better looking than myself. I own mirrors, and I know my league and my limits.

I just keep feeling as though my point isn't quite getting across. It's probably the fact that every time I reply to this, I'm doing it either barely awake, or nearly asleep.

Amelia said...


The problem is that physical beauty is what you and society stress as being the most important thing. To me, feeling beautiful is more important than what people think of my physical appearance. Because I was not happy when I let that consume me. You seem to think that physical beauty is what is really important (that and getting people to go on dates with you). I disagree.

Anonymous said...

Well, physical beauty *is* important to certain things.

To imply otherwise is sort of silly to me.

You may think "getting people to go on dates with you" isn't important, but to a lot of people it is. Romance is a priority for many, many people.

Physical appearance is a part of that. It's unlikely that someone would want a physical relationship with someone they weren't physically attracted to, who was therefore physically beautiful. (To that person.)

Which is what I mean by in the eye of the beholder. If other people think you're beautiful, you probably are. If YOU are the only person that thinks so, well, you probably aren't. That's what I'm getting at.

Amelia said...

Okay, Anon, I do not agree that you are only beautiful if other people think you are. Period. Because to me (and this whole post was about me personally) beauty is not only physical. And because people who look many different ways have lived happy, contented lives with significant others, then I have to wonder where your idea comes from. Seems to me that you are for pushing a singular type of "beautiful" and that many people won't fit into it. Well, people of all physical varieties have been known to find love and have been happy with themselves. So I don't know what kind of point you're really trying to make.

And since I refuse to believe that physical beauty is the most important kind, and this post is all about my personal relationship with my body and my self-esteem related to it, I will not be publishing more comments along those lines. I think you've tried to make your point. Thanks for reading, though.

Anonymous said...

See, even outside of physical, it brings me to my original question. If, for instance, I'm the only person who has a high opinion of me, and everyone else doesn't, which of us is right? Me, or everyone else?

Do you see what I'm getting at?

You say you don't think physical beauty is the most important, but, really, is that any more under someone's control than their emotional makeup or mental?

All three are generally set at birth, and can only be varied to an extent.

You run the risk of valuing, say, intelligence, which to a degree, is just as much out of someone's hands as their looks.

I never said I was pushing for a singular type of beautiful, but there are constants IN that, regardless of who you ask.

I just think terms such as "inner beauty" are nebulous, and they sound like someone is attempting to divert attention away from their attitude about their body. "Well, I'm sure so and so is good inside" just sounds like a way to say "They're ugly, but really, they're good people."

Amelia said...

I wish you would put a name with your comments, Anon, because I always feel compelled to respond to you, but you seem to be hiding behind anonymity.

You're right, inner beauty is a rather nebulous term, and I think I prefer that to the rigid and unrealistic standards of physical beauty that are being drilled into the heads of people in American society. Because when it is possible to measure ones thighs/waist/chest/etc. that means that there are going to be people who are not beautiful (by these standards) and people who are. And I disagree with that idea. I think that more people in the world are beautiful than the standards of physical beauty would allow for, largely because I believe in this "nebulous" concept of inner beauty.

Honestly, when you say that believing in inner beauty is similar to "attempting to divert attention away from their attitude about their body," and that saying ""Well, I'm sure so and so is good inside" just sounds like a way to say "They're ugly, but really, they're good people"" you are still putting emphasis on this idea of physical beauty that needs to be masked by coming to terms with an expanded definition.

I still don't think you've moved beyond that, and unfortunately I think that this is something you're struggling with..hence your commenting here.

Anonymous said...

Still, I was trying to get at, like, is valuing intelligence/ "inner beauty" any better than valuing physical?

It still deals with something that's largely out of someone's hands.

Is your mind any less "you" than your body?

And yes, when one can measure physical attributes, there will be people that don't fit them. There are also people that won't "measure up" to the inner attributes.

Maybe they don't agree with your ideals, maybe they hold beliefs or views that you don't respect, but it still comes down to someone who will or will not meet another's standards of beauty.

A hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool racist may think they're right, and true, and wonderful, but I'll think they're shit.

Sometimes I'm awful at expressing what I'm trying to express, and I apologize if I'm not coming off in a way that I'd like to.

Amelia said...

The way I understand what you are saying is that if people outside of onesself to not justify your feelings of personal beauty, then you are not beautiful.

The point of this post is that in my own life I will refuse to allow others to determine my beauty. Because I think that what you feel on the inside is just as valid as what other people think of you. And that what other people think should not rule your life, especially when it comes to impossible beauty standards.

Liz said...

Why the obsession with beauty, Amelia? You're not challenging the idea that ugly = BAD, you just want the definition of beautiful to be expanded. Physical beauty is an outward attribute. I think a better attitude is "I may be ugly, so what?"

Amelia said...

@Liz: The problem with the idea that "I may be ugly, so what?" is that it still places importance on a narrow concept of beauty.

"I may be ugly," but by who's standards? When people say "ugly" they generally mean not white, size two, tall, etc. And those standards were not created with women's best interests in mind.

And you say that I am "not challenging the idea that ugly = BAD" but, really, I am. Because by expanding the idea of what is beautiful, it makes the idea of "ugly" almost disappears because I have accepted so many more different kinds of beauty.

Anonymous said...

The problem with stress on appearance is that you pass up many a good opportunity because of how something looks.

This is how ppl con and steal.

This issue it extends into area's that do not require image as a top priority. This is part of what pushes vanity (which has little to do with looks, more like over valuing something).

"no matter how handsome I might mistakenly believe I was, if I'm the only one that thinks so, am I really such? Or am I just deluding myself?"

you may just be protecting yourself from the effects of
image as more important that substance, rife in our culture.

Since we dont live in an either or world, I cannot placate you by saying one thing is or is not more important than the other. Many things are in the eyes of the beholder.