Perhaps I am the wrong person to open this discussion, because I was raised in a house where being beautiful (if you were a girl) was everything – I was dragged from under my bed as a 6-year-old, kicking and screaming, so that my “ugly” straight hair could be permed. I was the only pre-teen I knew who was forced to wear makeup. And I existed on air-popped popcorn throughout high school because I dreaded being withdrawn from school and put on a liquid diet until I lost weight like a friend of mine. I grew up to make my living for a while from my looks, modeling and acting. So it would be silly to claim I don’t carry some baggage about beauty, and I won’t even try.
But I’m going to throw my hat into the ring anyway on the latest movement to redefine beauty, to make it more inclusive, to tell every woman she’s beautiful (yes, Dove, that’s you…and so many more). I hate it. I absolutely detest it. Why? Because even the most well-intentioned, politically correct, supportive, inclusive statements and movements can still be boiled down to this: beauty is all important.
The traditional wisdom – from my grandmother’s era – was a terse “if you’re not beautiful, cultivate a great personality, be the smartest, wittiest person in the world, be charming, develop great talents.” This seems outrageously offensive in today’s era, yes? It puts beauty in a removed and superior category which excuses the lucky ‘owners’ from doing anything else on that list (plus it reinforces the tired dichotomy of smart/witty/talented vs. beautiful). As much as we sincerely applaud the use of larger-sized models and real women in these new campaigns, the honest truth is: nothing has changed. We are still saying beauty is the defining item in women’s lives. We’re just screaming for an expanded definition.
If you take out the words “beautiful” and “ugly” in the widely celebrated, empowering “Everyone’s Beautiful!” campaigns and you substitute the words “white” and “black” or “straight” and “gay” you begin to see how thoroughly stupid it is to waste time trying to define (or redefine) “beauty.” Go ahead, try it: “Everyone’s white! You’re white just as you are!” Or “We just need to redefine straight to include all humans! Everyone’s straight!”
It suddenly seems ridiculous (not to mention condescending), doesn’t it? These well-intentioned feel-good anthems really just posit beautiful (or white or straight) as the goal, as the “best” option, as the ultimate compliment/inclusion/approval. Think I’m exaggerating? I can guarantee that someone in response to this article will think the most insulting, awful comment they can summon is “you’re just a jealous, fat, ugly dyke!” But it’s not just those haters – it’s the advertisers, it’s the lawmakers, it’s the population, it’s each and every one of us. We all keep thinking that telling women and girls they’re beautiful is the answer, as long as we adjust the definition to include everyone. But we’re all still holding it up as the holy grail, the pinnacle of achievement, the most important thing they can be.
You know, my mother thought straight hair was disgustingly ugly (a fact she will still tell anyone to this day). As a child, did I wish she would open her beauty boundaries, recalibrate her metric, until it included my stick-straight strands? That would have saved me a lot of tears and chemical burns on my scalp, sure, but really I just remember fervently wishing she would stop focusing on my damned hair so I could go outside and swing on the monkey bars. Did my young friend wish her parents would say “honey, a few extra pounds are beautiful!” Not at all. She felt nearly the same shame and humiliation whether they praised her weight loss or put her on a diet. She simply didn’t want them or anyone else to discuss her body, in any way, good or bad – it was mortifying. She just wanted to be riding her horse.
Each one of us – me, you, Dove, everyone – needs to stop trying to expand our precious definitions (“beauty is valued, so we need to make sure everyone feels beautiful!”) and figure out why (and if) they’re important to define at all. Everyone should be accepted and given equal consideration and rights, even if we’re not all straight, we’re not all white, and we’re not all beautiful. Who cares? Let’s cultivate our talents, our charm, our smarts, our personalities. And then let’s run out and swing on the monkey bars.
“Thoughts that come with dove’s footsteps guide the world.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Melissa Duge Spiers is a writer whose work has appeared in Adventure Sports Journal, Vermont Sports, and The Monterey Herald, among other publications. She is working on her first novel. A graduate of Barnard College, she lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her husband and four children.
Read Melissa Duge Spiers previous posts on Reel Girl: “ChapStick sticks it to women” and “No comment! A commentary on the ChapStick story.”