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 And I existed on air-popped popcorn throughout high school because I dreaded being withdrawn from school and put on a liquid diet until I lost weight like a friend of mine.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.”
This is such a good perspective and I thoroughly intend to share it with my nieces! It also really spoke to my personal experience.
Growing up, my mother always told me that I was smart, and told me I should have respect for myself and my mind, but almost ubiquitously, when I was praised it was for being pretty, or nice, or quiet. To an extent I became addicted to that praise and moulded my personality to be someone adults would find “pretty” and “grown up” (read: compliant).
Meanwhile, my older sister was pegged as the smart one. She is objectively speaking a beautiful woman, and the best sister I could ask for, but as a kid, she was encouraged to put her energy towards studying and working hard. And when my little brother came around, he got that same encouragement. It was clear to me from a young age that my role in the family was of the middle daughter, who would get married and start a family as soon as I could, and therefore not need to worry about pushing myself in school.
All three of us struggled in math and reading (as adults we’ve realised we all have varying degrees of ADD and Asperger’s syndrome) and my mother tried to give us all three the extra help we needed to keep up with our peers. For a short time, I was even admitted into the advanced math class, where I loved learning the more challenging material, but I worked slower than the other students and so I was sent back to the simpler class.
All this to say, the “smart one and the pretty one” dynamic made me feel like I never had to live up to my sister’s academic record, because I had already won the beauty contest. And while my sister made noise about injustice and school policies (this is in the 3rd grade–my sister is awesome) I quietly sat in the back, quietly, and as long as I was pulling passing grades, I was forgotten.
To her credit (in case I haven’t fan-girled about my sister enough), she used to teach me what she was learning at school, I think to help reinforce it for herself. She didn’t have many friends, which I benefited greatly from, as I was happy to hang out with her while she did her homework, as long as she was paying attention to me. My middle school though, her social life had picked up, and I was back in the back of the classroom.
I’ve lost my train of thought, but my point is, come college time, my brilliant sister went and got a degree in computer science and was immediately hired at a top tech firm. Three years later, I graduated with degrees in Art History and French, beautiful things I loved studying, but career-wise, I was up Sh*t Creek, as they say.
I kept being told I was smart, by my mother anyway, but the only place I saw any evidence of that was in the humanities, and this is no knock on the humanities, by the way. But navigating the professional world and watching my brother now completing his engineering degree, I feel like I was sold short by my education. I am talented at reading and writing (it’s the one academic area where I consistently outperformed my siblings), but I am not interested in working in them. And I feel, because as an adult I have been able to analyse my strengths and weaknesses more objectively, that had I been supported in the areas where I was slower, had I been encouraged to see academic achievement, even at a lesser scale than my sister’s, to be more worth-while than appearance, or had I at least not grown up believing that my life was set because, as a nice, pretty girl I would have no trouble marrying a comfortable life, I would have put less focus, and less self-value into what I wore and how I looked. I might have learned how to study before getting to college. I might have felt comfortable talking to professors when I didn’t understand something. I might have found my path by now.
And I might not have. The important thing to me now is to teach the children in my life that appearance only matters so far as you are presentable, but that even more important than being presentable is feeling comfortable in your own skin, finding self-value internally and not through the assessments of others, and taking responsibility for reaching your full potential, rather than stopping as soon as you find your hook.
To anyone who’s read down this far, thank you. I try very hard to stay away from this kind of pity party, but realising that I defined myself so completely in terms of how other people saw me was upsetting, and it has been a very difficult habit to break. I’m not sure I’ll ever break it completely, but today I walk into an interview and the voice in my head is saying “Don’t worry. You are prepared and qualified,” where it used to say “Don’t worry. You’re the prettiest person in the room.” It’s small progress, but I’ll take it.
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I just shared this with my 18 year old daughter! Brilliant Melissa!
I agree, spot on. There should be no need for all females to feel beautiful, despite their “flaws”. These campaigns really bug me, and clearly it’s just another way to sell more beauty product. Of course, if no-one felt the need to appear beautiful who would Dove sell more than the basic range of grooming products to?
This. So much this.
Somewhere we’ve lost sight of the adage “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. If we left it at that everyone would be happy and beautiful, no? Maybe we should go out finding beauty in the world instead of obsessing over whether or not individual people have “it” or not.
Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful reaction to the Dove campaign. I’m not sure, as Cat said above, if I buy your analogy 100%. But I love how you expressed the reality of not wanting to worry about/spend time getting your sadly straight hair permed as a young girl (same thing happened to me, but not forcibly, and not til age 13 for a time; and my mom included her own straight hair in the “if only our hair weren’t like this” category) – you would have rather been outside swinging on the monkey bars! So true! As adults or children, there are better things to be doing than straightening/perming/coloring our hair, darkening our eyelashes, etc. etc. etc…….
LOL, Kristin, I am there with you – my mother also permed her own hair – still does – and it was presented (when I was older) as an “oh the things we have to do to deal with OUR hair” commiseration/bonding experience…yet still mandatory (that’s a whole other article, indeed!). And I don’t disagree with you and Cat, it is not a perfect analogy. But I often find it an interesting litmus test for sexist, racist, homophobic, etc, things to just switch the words in and out – without being a perfect fit it can be very illuminating. Thanks for reading and commenting!
I agree 100%! My point exactly … The conversation must move away from looks and into who people are. Beauty puts women back into the category of simple good enough because they look good. However I must say they are on a track that no other advertising campaign has taken,
Great post! It’s kind of hard being a human being: everyone expects you to follow certain standards. I just want to feel good.
That feels like a false equivalence to me. It would make more sense to say “Everyone’s valuable” or “We just need to redefine powerful to include all humans”. I don’t know how to put it exactly but beauty is something we feel comfortable privileging. It’s not something that needs to be brought to the public’s attention. We have beauty pageants. We don’t have pageants to decide who is the most white or straight.
I feel like there are valid reasons to privilege beauty the same way there are valid reasons to privilege intelligence and confidence and self-worth. They don’t have to be to the exclusion of others but they often are.
Part of the difficulty with this comparison is that beauty is much more subjective than race or sexuality. It doesn’t make sense to call someone white or black if they clearly aren’t, but you can say “you are beautiful in your own way” or “to someone you are beautiful” and it could be true. There is not one quantifiable standard of beauty, but this piece seems to imply there is.
Spiers is saying that in our culture, one state– white, heterosexual– is privileged over others. With “beauty,” instead of accepting everyone has value for who they are, we try to act like everyone can be that one thing that our culture values, instead of recognizing how fucked up it is that our culture values that exclusively at all.
Also, as far race is more subjective that it can appears. Look at someone like Tiger Woods. Often people are called “black” when they’re more than one race.
My soul is hugging Margot and Melissa right now. THANK YOU!!
Aw, thanks, that feels good.
Well said that woman!