I said this sitting opposite the business end of an incredulous face. How can you not think you’re beautiful, he said. Why does it matter; do you think you’re beautiful? I poignantly retorted. I don’t know… I’ve never thought about it.
And that is my fucking point.
I get it: the constant objectification of women’s bodies is all very real. And this post is not written by a woman above it all, annoyed at hearing she is beautiful too frequently. (People just keep commenting on my beauty, I’ve been overheard to complain as I toss my hair into the wind and look wistfully into the sunset.) I have a pouty-filter photo collection proving I absolutely give a shit about how I look. I also have evenings spent in the midst of jaw-drop worthy friends feeling like the token troll, hangrily succumbing to an ennui-induced cheese coma.
By definition beauty is in the eye of the beholder not the beholden. Confusingly, we’ve been told that beauty is inherent and/or emanating from within as well as determined by others. It is temporary, fleeting and eternal, yet attainable and goal-oriented (Achieve! Maintain!). Women are urged to embrace individual beauty, but never outright admit when they’ve got it. Haven’t you heard that the most beautiful women don’t know they are beautiful? (Ugh. What?) Public admissions of beauty come with caveats about “un-perfect” traits (I’m a supermodel, but I hate my feet). Insecurity happens to the best of us, but I can’t help feel that such caveats are a by-product of women over-apologizing.
Mainstream options are limited to partaking in gendered conversations about the difficulties of conforming to beauty norms (New York Mag’s currently running the Pretty Hurts series, which boasts of essays exploring such topics as armpit hair to anti-wrinkle electrocution treatments) or attempting to defy conventional physical beauty by embracing perceived foibles. Women are bizarrely pressured to realize they are beautiful in some way and thus become empowered because beauty is value. God forbid that a woman expresses outright the idea that she is not beautiful. This generally results in a barrage of empathy, sympathy or dismissal.
The conflation of beauty and value is tied to the acceptance of beauty as an expression of general loveliness. Let’s cut to the chase: I am not fucking lovely. I don’t radiate ethereal glee. I am neurotic, stubborn, clever, charming, sarcastic and can’t tell a story inside of 10 minutes. Those are just some of the parts of me that I claim; if you want to call all of that beautiful, then I desperately want to buy you a thesaurus. If beauty is a word encompassing the sum of everything you like, then it becomes meaningless. (See the current frontrunner for title of most ambiguous descriptor: Okay.)
The idea of subjective beauty is sort of great in that we should challenge constructed standards perpetuated in fashion and media. But on a personal level, what the fuck are we talking about? If I’m supposed to assign/ be assigned value based on one attribute, what are you asking me to buy into? Am I beautiful because I squeezed into this dress tonight? Because I embody your multi-adjective fantasy? Because I beam an eternal ray of sunshine? Being physically beautiful is a tall order in my world. It is different from being sexy, pretty, seductive or attractive (each potent in its own right, thankyouverymuch). More importantly, it is possible to be special, and valued, without being beautiful.
Any honest conversation about one’s own physical beauty (because the world is rife with judgment about other people) is left in a hypothetical, aspirational void. As for me: I appreciate the compliment, but I disagree. Being beautiful is not in my wheelhouse. My value exists in other qualities. No caveats. No apologies.