If I were an alien listening in on our cultural conversations, I would be completely convinced that the single greatest danger to Western civilization is a woman who doesn’t feel beautiful.
Countless women and men have spoken out against an entertainment industry, a cosmetics industry, a fashion industry and a fitness industry that dare to make women feel un-beautiful. Women’s beauty is under attack; it is being assailed by unattainable standards and a rigid construction of what is attractive. And everybody’s pissed.
Buzzfeed tells me that the Top Ten Best Boyfriend Traits include telling a woman she’s beautiful when she first wakes up as well as before she goes to bed. Huffington Post tells me that Photoshop is destroying my self-esteem. A fashion magazine features a plus-sized model, and the whole Internet rejoices.
The list goes on, but the message is always the same: feeling beautiful matters. It matters so much, in fact, that we must unite in righteous anger against the forces that threaten it.
Even notoriously countercultural figures like conservative blogger Matt Walsh have spoken out in beauty’s defense: his online letter to his daughter is titled “Dear daughter, please believe me that you’re beautiful.”
Sorry, Mr. Walsh, but I will never, one single time, tell my daughter that she’s beautiful. Because never, for one moment of her life, will that actually matter.
Don’t get me wrong. Whether or not my daughter is conventionally attractive will definitely have an effect on her life. People who fit society’s definition of beauty experience privilege that others do not. However, what matters to society and what matters in actuality are not always the same.
Here’s a secret Huffington Post hasn’t figured out — Photoshop can’t destroy my self-esteem. My self-esteem comes from the love in my heart and the intelligence in my brain, not my weight, my clothes, my skin color or my face. There will be some societal standards of beauty that I will fit, and others that I will not, but the more I strive to fit the standard or demand that it fits me, the more power I give it.
“Beautiful” is a trap. It sucks our time, our energy, our thoughts and our emotions. We chase it, measure ourselves against it and let it distract us from what is real.
What would happen if we did the unthinkable and acknowledged beauty for what it really is: not a nonnegotiable part of a woman’s identity, but a subjective mold created by a flawed society? Some women fit this mold. Others do not. And none of us should care. What would happen if we responded to impossible physical standards with a shrug of the shoulders instead of a huge middle finger? These standards would lose their power over us. What if our battle cry changed from “_____ is beautiful!” to “Beauty is bullshit”?
Imagine if we dedicated as much time to talking about unequal wages as we dedicate to discussing unrealistic standards of beauty. Why are we so angry when women are made to feel un-beautiful and so complacent when they are made to feel powerless or incapable? The poverty rate for women is higher than that for men, and we remain largely unmoved. But shave an inch off Kim Kardashian’s waist in Photoshop? Rally the troops.
If you believe in the institutionalized sexism many refer to as the “patriarchy,” consider this: is the patriarchy mad when women spend time and energy chasing the right to feel physically attractive? On the day that we’re all finally convinced that we’re beautiful, will the patriarchy crumble into a pile of dust and blow away in the wind?
No, the patriarchy will be lounging in its hammock, laughing maniacally and thanking its lucky stars that women didn’t ask themselves why they care so much about being beautiful in the first place.
The way I see it, if nobody’s upset about the male underwear model with 18-pack abs, there’s no reason to be upset about the physically homogenous supermodels, either. It’s significant that Matt Walsh’s letter to his son makes no attempt to ensure his son that he’s beautiful.
Maybe my daughter will be a knock-out. Maybe she’ll look like a female Groucho Marx. Neither one has any bearing on her happiness or success. Being beautiful does not give us purpose or joy. It draws us down a rabbit hole of comparison and anxiety. Its light flickers for a moment and then fades. We all know that there are countless beautiful people who are miserable and countless “unattractive” people who are happy and grounded. So why do we hold beauty so close to our hearts?
Ultimately, the standards of beauty aren’t the problem; beauty itself is what siphons our self-love. Until we can expel beauty from its place of power within our identities, we will continue to be at its mercy.