My family and I recently took a month off and went camping. We camped in over 8-9 states, starting in South Carolina and eventually ending up in Maine. For the entire month, I never wore makeup and I am afraid to admit how long we went without bathing at times. We had become one with the forest. It is one of my favorite ways to be. Life was so simple too. I brought four shirts. Two for going into town and two for the woods. I would wash them in sinks on the rare occasion that we stayed in a place with a sink. We only did laundry twice. It was the most freeing experience ever.
And I never thought once about beauty.
Beauty is such a strange and ever-shifting concept isn’t it? I mean who gets to decide whether a person is beautiful or not?
My husband says I am beautiful when I am three days into a backpacking trip, covered in grime, un-showered, and definitely “trying” the least.
It’s interesting for me to consider the societal definitions of beauty. Why is it that what is considered beautiful within any society is whatever is the most difficult thing to obtain?
Women, I have noticed have an almost unfair expectation to be beautiful. You can be successful but it is elusive if you are not beautiful. Our society defines a beautiful American woman as thin, white, young, and able-bodied. If you are missing even one of those elements then you are determined unbeautiful. People are nicer to you if you are more beautiful. Research even shows us that we are more likely to give opportunities to people we deem beautiful, regardless of experience level.
Research has shown us that people are more likely to associate the following words with a person in a larger body:
Lazy. Weak Willed. Unsuccessful. Unintelligent. Lacking in self-discipline. Having poor willpower.
People who are deemed as attractive are likely to be trusted, given a job, and given adequate medical attention, regardless of skill level.
And these beliefs become isolating, for an entire population of people.
Why are we so thoroughly obsessed with beauty?
To some degree, I believe we are taught to think about this so much.
We know that girls are more likely to be given compliments on their physical appearance, while boys are more likely to be complimented on who they are or what they are capable of.
It’s cheap acceptance and it reveals more about the person giving it than it will ever reveal about who we truly are.
A piece of homework I often give clients is to find the exception to all their assumptions about a person’s appearance. They start to notice there are tons of exceptions. Find a lazy thin person. Find a kind non-conventionally attractive person. These people are everywhere because our assumptions about bodies are just stereotypes.
It’s not my job to be beautiful. It is not my life’s purpose to be ornamental. My body is a rebellion against this. This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy doing my hair and makeup anymore, it just means that I no longer get my worth from those things. If I need extra sleep, I will get the rest and skip the makeup routine. If it means playing with my kids I will throw my hair in a ponytail and skip out on the flat iron.
Beauty shifts depending on our experiences of people. I am sure you can think about a person that you once found attractive but then got to know them and they were maybe unkind, and they became less attractive to you or vice versa.
Another piece of homework I give people is to think about the person they admire most in the world and to let their image come to mind. Then I will ask them to tell me three adjectives that capture the essence of who this person is and what they mean to them.
These are the answers I most often hear. I have never once had someone say anything about the person’s physical appearance. I think we all know in our hearts it doesn’t really matter to us, we have just be trained for so long to doubt this deep knowledge. Appearance has nothing to do with what we truly value.
So that makes me wonder why we spend so much effort, energy, and attention focusing on beauty?
I think the answer is so multilayered. Companies are trained on how to make us feel bad about ourselves so that we will spend money. People encourage us to believe it’s the most important thing. We are teased into it in junior high by a never-ending onslaught of bullying.
If it is not what we want to waste our lives pursuing, I think the first step is recognizing that’s what we are unintentionally doing. Then the next step is doing something radical.
I spent three months trying not to give our southern-hospitality-culture-determined physical greeting compliments. You know the type “Heyyyyy girlllll! You look so pretty…your hair is so cute!” It was hard. So hard. But I began to realize that I wasn’t really telling the amazing women I know how much I had missed them, how good it was to see them, or anything really important at all. Now I still revert back to the “Hey girl” compliments but I also think deeply and try to say what I truly value about these people in my life. I have especially enjoyed giving these soul compliments to the young women in my life. You can tell they rarely hear those things. Their faces always light up.
Go a month without wearing makeup, it is simple but freeing or you can do something fun with your makeup or hair that you always felt like might be unflattering or out of fashion. If you like it and it brings you joy, that’s what matters.
Vow to spend your life doing what you truly value and not just what you feel like you have to.
When you are living in line with your values you can finally shake off the burden of being beautiful and live life fully.