Why is the world obsessed with commenting on women’s physical features and appearance? Why is there so much pressure to conform to societal expectations about how we should look and what our purpose is as human beings, specifically as females? Why, as women, do we worry so much about the way we look, how others perceive us and how we can be more beautiful?
Why do we have to be attractive, anyway?
I have been stripping away lies for two decades, starting from the time I was about 9, when I started becoming aware of my body and the object that it is in the eyes of culture.
I remember specifically being told once that I should eat less fries and start exercising more (although, I don’t recall anyone ever mentioned this to my brothers who ate the same amount or more), being told a few years later that I had “slimmed out” confirming my previous 10 year old chubbiness and countless other comments about my body, all of which shaped what I thought of myself – what was wrong and what I was getting right. Over time, I would listen to this feedback and make adjustments to conform more and more to the beauty standards thrust at me from every media platform and good (or bad) intentioned neighbor.
I realize there are men who also are shamed and bullied for their bodies, but as a woman, I am not able to speak to their experience – and even what I say here is limited to my own perspective growing up as a female in a beauty obsessed culture. Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University writes in her book, Beauty Sick, “Some men suffer from appearance worries, many quite significantly…The depth and breadth of the influence of beauty concerns on women’s lives means that, on average, looking in the mirror is a substantially different experience for women than it is for men. Beauty sickness may not be exclusive to women, but it is overwhelmingly a women’s issue.”
I also cannot speak to the experience of transgender women, who as they transition definitely begin to experience having their body objectified and held up to this standard of “pretty” in a similar, yet unique way.
Women grow up understanding that they will be looked at. When I am out with my children, people often stop to comment on their looks. My daughter has long, curly blonde hair, big eyes, and olive-y toned skin. She loves to wear dresses (equally as much as whatever is conveniently found in the top of her dresser), so she often hears things like, “What a beautiful dress you are wearing” and “Oh my, your hair is gorgeous” and “What a pretty little girl you are!”. My son has been told he is handsome or has a beautiful face, but increasingly less often and not nearly as much as my daughter.
My daughter recently told me that the reason she doesn’t want to wear certain clothes that she owns and likes is because she doesn’t want people to notice and comment on the way she looks in them.
At age 5, my daughter is already acutely aware that out in public, people are looking at and evaluating the way she looks. This makes my heart drop and feel gritty and I am sad that my daughter does not feel like she can just exist. And it is amazing the smile and joy and pride she gets out of hearing me tell her that she is smart, strong, fast, clever, creative, and thoughtful. Yes, girls should know they are beautiful. But we need to redefine the word “beautiful” from simply meaning, “pretty”.
I have often wondered at why I have felt so self-conscious about my appearance for so much of my life. Maybe it is not all “in my head”. Maybe it is because people do look and do comment. Sometimes I feel the way my daughter does – I just want to BE without worrying about what others think or notice. At 29 years old, I am only just starting to learn how to do this.
It is starting to work, a little.
Just this morning, I woke up and looked in the mirror fresh out of bed and I actually thought, “I like the way I look.” Flaws and all, I’m happy with me. And what exactly do I owe to anyone else? Do I owe attractiveness to the grocery check-out clerk or my friends or acquaintances?
Easy pep talk to give myself, until I am sitting behind the steering wheel and looking at myself in my visor mirror before getting out of the car.
I am learning to let go little by little to the beauty myths, that somehow beauty brings satisfaction and happiness and once my skin is a little clearer or my tummy is a little flatter or my hair looks a certain way or I have the right clothes I will then stop worrying about what others think.
It is all a lie and a distraction. The more I strive, the more I lose myself.
We are told attractive women are more likely to succeed in the workplace, that wearing makeup will help gain you promotions and friends and exciting opportunities. Youtube is flooded with makeup and beauty tutorials. SO MUCH MONEY is spent on cosmetics and plastic surgery it is mystifying. We are so wrapped up in looking a certain way, in our identity and our appearance that I truly believe we waste years of our lives on something that won’t last forever, because we can’t stop the aging process. Maybe we can hide it or postpone it to an extent, but one day, we wake up and look in the mirror and we are no longer in our thirties. Around the time we should have found ourselves and be displaying strength in who we are, we are instead grasping at something fleeting that we have no control over retaining.
As Engeln suggests, it is a power we do not get to keep:
It might not be fair that people care so much about how women look…but if this is the only kind of power our culture is really willing to give you, you might as well use it. It’s no secret that beauty is a kind of currency for women. It does offer a type of power over other people. But let’s be honest about what kind of power this is…the power beauty gives resides on unstable ground. It’s power that exists only if others are there to acknowledge it. It’s never really your own power, because there’s always someone else in charge. Even worse, it’s power with a strikingly strict expiration date, because the link between youth and beauty is near universal. It’s power you don’t get to keep. (Beauty Sick, 2017)
I do not have the answers and this is a deep issue that seems simple on the surface. My own experience is different from many others, but if I could go back and talk to a younger me, I would be affirming that nine year olds worth and beauty and strengths and try to help her realize that the problem is not her, but with the surrounding culture.
I am really glad that there has been a shift to focusing more on being fit, active and strong, taking care of our bodies and letting our natural beauty shine. I realize there can be the same problems in comparing our bodies to fitness models, which can be just as unhealthy of an obsession. I am thankful for photographers and artists and authors who are normalizing female bodies of all shapes and sizes, and showing what a “normal” mother’s body looks like after going through the changes of pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding. I remember specifically realizing one day that I was comparing my body to 19 year olds who had never had a kid and that it wasn’t fair to myself. I recall the healing that took place when looking at Jade Beall’s work, “The Body of Mothers”.
Maybe this is easier for me to say, because I have never been good at applying makeup and have skin issues that make me sensitive to most of it anyway, but saying goodbye to the status quo makes me feel better about how I am treating my body and just because something is an ideal, why not try?
And this is even a more complicated issue than I realized, because I also like to feel attractive. We all do. We wear certain clothes and jewelry and style our hair and wear make up and I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. We are individuals and expression is important. What I want to know is how can we be okay embracing uniqueness and stop trying to fit everything into a tidy little box?
How can I identify and be happy with my own personal beauty and attractiveness, because I will never look like _______?
Is it possible to just exist the way it seems many men do without inviting commentary on who I am?
I could write for days on this subject.
So, I’m wondering. Honestly, truthfully, if you are willing, leave a comment. What are the thoughts that you most hear when you look in the mirror? How do you combat those feelings of ugliness? Who do you try to look attractive or pretty for? What have you been told about the way you should look? How do you feel about that? Does any of this resonate or do you have a different perspective and experience?