What is Beauty?

“Women and girls need to be beautiful to be accepted.”

The problem with this statement should be obvious: the person making it is narrow-minded. This person comes to the table with a limited understanding of what beauty is, because beauty can be a lot of things.

This person thinks of beauty as being a body size, but the truth is that beauty is every body size. Beauty comes in sizes small, medium, and large. Beauty comes in the form of stretch marks and cellulite and body hair. Beauty is a woman who has recently given birth, and is regularly told that she needs to ‘get her body back’ (as though her body somehow left her when she used it to create a human being). Beauty is a woman who lifts weights, or does yoga, or is too busy to bother with any of it.

This person thinks of beauty as a race, or a religion, but beauty is too versatile for all that. Beauty comes in all colours. Beauty is monolid eyes, and dark skin, and natural hair. Beauty is a woman who proudly chooses to wear a hijab.

Beauty comes in all genders. Beauty is a cis-woman, sure, but beauty is so much more than that. Beauty is a cis-man, who has never been made to feel beautiful before, and who so desperately wants to. Beauty is a trans-person who ‘passes’ well as a cis-person, and beauty is a trans-person who doesn’t, and who might never, and that’s so much more than okay. Beauty is a non-binary person. Beauty is a gender queer person who only wants to feel beautiful some of the time.

Beauty is ageless. Beauty does not fade with time, and it does not lessen with wrinkles.

This person thinks of beauty as an edited cover girl, but beauty is often unedited. Beauty is that person with the confidence it takes to act crazy – loudly and in public. Beauty is your girlfriend, late at night, with her make-up smeared and her voice slow and tired, dressed in what makes her comfortable. Beauty is your friend, who is just so incredibly happy with where they are in life that you can see it in their eyes, in their smile, in the way that they present themselves.

“Women and girls need to be told that they don’t need to be beautiful.”

The problem with this statement is smaller: quite simply, people cannot escape from being beautiful. We are all beautiful.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it” – Confucius

Women and girls need to be told that they can be more than society’s narrow definition of beauty. Everyone needs to be told that they can be more than society’s narrow definition of beauty. Because beauty is natural, and beauty is everywhere, but society has decided to own beauty, to redefine it for itself, and society has done this poorly. Society has done this in a way that does not serve us. And, worse, we have let society do this to us. We have made it so easy for ourselves to miss the natural beauty in our own bodies, and in the bodies of others. We have told ourselves and others that they are ugly, when the truth is, they are simply left out of society’s definition.

And many of us know this. We know this. But believing it is another matter. Bringing ourselves to a place where we no longer punish ourselves for the way we look is complicated. Even if beauty comes in all sizes, we still call ourselves fat when we look in the mirror.

But look for the beauty. If not in ourselves, at least in others. In the world around us. In places you might not expect. Because that beauty is so exquisite, and we deserve to experience it. We miss out on so much when we’re so singularly attached to what society tells us to appreciate.


Finding Beauty By Shaving My Head

Today, I shaved my head completely for the first time.

I’ve played around with short hairstyles for a while now. I’ve even shaved bits and pieces of my hair – side shaves, mohawks, but this was my first time going completely bald, although it’s always been something I’ve been curious to do. Ever since I was little, when I first saw Sinead O’Connor, I always wondered if it was something that would look good on me. And today, I decided to just do it.

And when I first looked at myself in the mirror, I cried.

I think a lot of women would have that reaction. Heck, I think a lot of women would refuse to shave their heads in the first place. Because, as women, we tend to rely on our hair quite a bit.

I still remember the days of having long hair and getting upset when the hairdresser cut a little bit too much off, thinking that it made me uglier or whatever. And, from what I understand, this isn’t a rare occurrence.

Admit it, women: don’t the majority of us relate to Samson – as in, we think our strength is in our hair?

Women are often made to feel as though their beauty and their femininity is in their hair. They’re told that, if they cut their hair, then they’ll look too boyish, or too masculine, or not pretty enough. So women cling to their hair like a lifeline, their symbol of beauty and femininity in a society that values this above all else in women.

I did this too. Until a few years ago, when I very gradually started cutting my hair short. First a long bob. Then a short bob. Then a pixie cut. Then a mohawk. Now, nothing.

And there were a few times where my femininity was called into question. One time, at a convenience store, a woman trying to sneak passed me said, “excuse me, sir,” but upon seeing my face, she apologized profusely. But that’s pretty much the full extent of it.

I’ve never felt ugly with short hair. I’ve never felt more masculine than I was before. In fact, if anything, I’ve always viewed short hair as an improvement for me – I’m not really the sort that enjoys styling my hair all that much, so when my hair is long, it just sort of hangs there like a bunch of dead weight on my head. Short hair was always… cuter, I suppose you could say. It allowed me to look nice and stylized without actually having to do much. Short hair was my quick trick to looking like a supermodel in ten minutes, no hassle, no waiting.

Which leads me to where I am today – bald.

As I said, it was always something that I’d wanted to do. I’d almost done it a few times, and then talked myself out of it. I suppose that, even though I was comfortable in my femininity with short hair, I always worried that no hair would be a little bit too much.

But today was the day. I was going to do it, because I felt that I needed a change. Maybe not necessarily externally, but internally. I was feeling stagnant. I was feeling stuck in my own head. And maybe shaving my head wasn’t going to fix that entirely, but at least it was doing something that I was afraid to do. It was a sign that I was welcome and open to change.

As Coco Chanel said, “a woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.”

Women rely heavily on their hair. For us, hair is the perfect representation of what society expects from us. Beauty. Softness. Femininity.

And that isn’t to say that we can’t be any of that without hair. Quite the opposite, in fact; hair represents these things for us, but at the end of the day, it is but a symbol. Beauty and femininity is something much deeper than that. Both are individual experiences, something for each person to define and explore in their own right. We’re given a set definition by society, but this definition is malleable. We can change it to fit our purposes.

I suppose that, what I’m trying to say here is this: I shaved my head because I wanted a change. I expected the whole process to be freeing, the way that you read about when you’re looking stuff up on the internet, trying to talk yourself into doing it: and with each lock that fell away, it felt as though a weight had been lifted from my head, that sort of idea. But the truth is, no: it was kind of scary. When I first saw myself in the mirror, I cried, because there was still that part of me that was worried that I had just shed away every sign of my beauty and femininity.

And then, once I dressed myself up to my liking, and I got used to the sight a little bit, I began to feel a bit more confident. I began receiving compliments. I began to realize that I still looked good. And the freedom that came from that was not necessarily the freedom that I expected, this shedding of patriarchal ideals of what a woman should be. I was still beautiful. I was still feminine. I just was these things, without the universal symbol of all that attached to my head.

And, yes: women are more than physical beauty. That should not be the end-all and be-all of womanhood. But we live in a society that rewards women for being beautiful, so it’s very difficult to stop wanting to fit into that definition. And so long as that’s true, I think that it’s important that we realize that we can expand what beauty means to us. And there are many ways that we can do this. Whether we are talking about hair, tattoos, piercings, body shape, body hair, stretch marks, cellulite, wrinkles, or what have you – beauty is whatever you feel confident in. It is whatever makes you, you. And you can play around with what that means, you can experiment as much as you want, and in all of your experimenting, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you are still beautiful.

Whatever you do, don’t allow society to limit your freedoms, just because you’re afraid to fit into a narrow, incomplete definition of what beauty is.

You Are Not Only ‘Beautiful’

A few times, I’ve written about how important it is for us to recognize our own beauty, and I very much still believe this. But right now, I want to talk about a different sort of beauty. More specifically, inner beauty.

Because our society has a very odd relationship with women and their… well, pretty much everything. It is important for women (in particular) to reclaim their comfort in their bodies because women are consistently told that they shouldn’t think of themselves as beautiful. They’re told that they’re too fat, too thin, too tall, too masculine, they wear too much make-up, not enough make-up, they dress too provocative, they dress to conservative, etc., etc. So whenever a woman claims comfort in her own body, that is always a revolutionary act.

But at the same time, society never really tells women that they need to be any more than beautiful. I mean, yes, they very, very, very much need to be beautiful, and becoming beautiful is supposed to be a constant battle in the eyes of society, something that you can never really stop working on, but if that’s the case, then that sort of robs women of any time that can be spent on developing their character.

In fact, to a certain extent, women are somewhat dissuaded from developing their character from a very young age. I mean, think about the traditional heroes and heroines that we tend to see in simplistic storytelling aimed at children: we have the dashing prince – handsome, yes, but also noble, courageous, and intelligent. And then we have the beautiful princess, who is… beautiful. She might also be described as soft, sweet, kind, innocent, naive, etc., but most of these traits are not necessarily traits of grown women, but frequently of children, and they most certainly are not traits of any active agent. These traits are not given to the heroine so that she can charge her way through the story and really do anything, but to set her as this image of sweet, simple femininity.

And perhaps because of this, if you ask a little girl what they want to be when they grow up, many of them will include the word “beautiful” before they say anything else. Not “intelligent”. Not “courageous”. Beautiful.

And if we want to talk specifically about the trait of intelligence, some studies have shown that girls as young as six years old begin to view intelligence as a primarily male attribute.

But ‘beautiful’ continues to be assigned primarily to women.

And, of course, our obsession with being beautiful comes from society itself. We see TV and movies all the time where not traditionally attractive men are married or involved with traditionally beautiful women, like Family Guy and the Simpsons, and no one really bats an eye at this, and yet we don’t really see this represented the other way around very often. In the workplace, women are sometimes told that to get ahead, they need to present themselves as more physically attractive (though how much this really works is another issue), and some workplaces, such as restaurants, even have uniforms that are intended to show off the beauty of their female employees. So the message that all of this sends to women everywhere is that, if you want love or a career or worth, then you’d better be beautiful.

But ‘beautiful’ is not the only thing that women can be.

It is important that you are comfortable within your body, however it looks, because you are going to have to live in it for the rest of your life. But at the same time, it is also important that you are comfortable with who you are as a person, because similarly, we are going to have to be that person forever.

And we as a society tend to ignore who women are as people.

This even extends to the sort of compliments that women receive. Right from infancy, baby boys are described as “curious”, “cheerful”, and “strong”, while baby girls are described as “beautiful” and “gorgeous”.

Personally speaking, by the time I was in my teens, I had been told that I was beautiful so many times that I knew I was – to this day, I don’t really doubt it. But I hated who I was as a person, because nobody had ever told me that I was strong or intelligent or kind or brave.

And coming from that experience, I see how important it is to have a character that you are proud of.

Because no matter what your gender is, ugly is not the worst thing you can be. This world has been harmed again and again by people who are cruel or manipulative or thoughtless or vindictive, but never by someone who didn’t match their society’s definition of beauty.

People devalue having a good character by saying things like “kindness has never caught someone’s eye from across the room”, but a good character is what builds strong and lasting relationships. You don’t stay with someone long-term because they’re beautiful; you stay with them because they’re kind or intelligent or well-meaning.

Lives are build off of character. Some of our world’s greatest discoveries were made by people who were allowed to develop their intelligence. Some of our world’s most charitable acts were made by people with the strength to persevere despite great hardship. And, yes, some careers can be started from beauty, but if that’s all you are, then you really aren’t going to make it that far. You also need courage, intelligence, creativity, curiosity, passion, resilience…

So, yes, it’s important for us to tell women that they are beautiful; it really is. All women deserve the chance to feel beautiful, regardless of their size, age, race, sexual orientation, ability, or genitals. But ‘beautiful’ is not all that you are, and it is not all that we should aspire to be. It is important that we let women and girls alike know that the pretty princess of childhood stories gathers her worth, not just by being beautiful, but by following her passions, by being intelligent and loving and determined.

And part of the way that we start doing this is by changing the language that we use toward girls, including the ways that we compliment them. Because too often we focus only on what we can see when it comes to women, rather than what we feel and hear.

Is It Important To Know You Are Beautiful?

Recently, I heard someone present the argument that it is not at all important for us to think our bodies are attractive. We don’t need to accept our weight or our stretch marks or our hair, because at the end of the day, none of that makes us us. We are not our bodies. We are not our nose or our eyes or our legs or our ass. We are more than that; we are people. We are intelligence and wit and kindness and strength. We don’t have to be beautiful, because we transcend that.

I agree with part of this argument. I agree that, yes, we are more than our bodies. That is one hundred percent, completely true – you are not at all defined by what people physically see about you. You are so much more than that.

But at the same time, I do believe that it is important that you know your body is beautiful as well.

Why? I mean, if I think that we are more than our bodies, then wouldn’t I agree that a body is mostly superficial? Meaningless? Our bodies just support us through life, they are the means through which we interact with the world and that’s it, right?

Well, yes, technically that is their purpose. But societally speaking, bodies (and female bodies in particular) have been assigned a much deeper role than that.

Essentially from birth, female bodies are discussed in terms of ‘beauty’, and too often, that beauty is connected to something else, something more insidious – worth. Saying to a little girl “oh, you’re so pretty!” is pretty much synonymous with saying, “you’re a good, worthwhile person, aren’t you?” Women are taught from a very young age to take pride from their physical bodies, and especially in their teen years, women are warned about what will happen if their physical bodies don’t match up to society’s standards.

A young girl who carries extra weight too long for it to be considered baby fat anymore is warned that she needs to lose that weight immediately, and if she doesn’t lose that weight, then the boys won’t like her. And if the boys don’t like her, then she’ll never get a boyfriend. If she never gets a boyfriend, then she’ll have to settle for the first boy with low enough standards to take her. If she settles, then she won’t be happy in her marriage. If she isn’t happy with her marriage, then she won’t be happy with her life. It doesn’t matter if any of this is true or not (and trust me, it isn’t). Many women are still told this or similar narratives while they are still too young to be able to question it.

And even if we ignore the fact that many young girls are told that their physical beauty is directly proportional to their worth, there are simply so many ways that society teaches women to hate their bodies. We have commercials telling women that their eyelashes aren’t long enough, so buy this mascara and your life will be better. We have magazines that shock and gasp at the mere prospect of a celebrity with stretch marks or cellulite. We have a movie industry that returns again and again to the same beauty standards (thin, feminine, youthful, lighter skinned, able-bodied, cis-gendered, etc.) to represent their female leads, the characters that the script decides deserves a happy ending and a good life.

So with all of this, it isn’t surprising when young girls start to hate their bodies.

And when girls hate their bodies, they sometimes start to do very dangerous things to them. For example, it is estimated that 10 million American women suffer from an eating disorder.

Or perhaps we don’t cause damage to our bodies. Perhaps we just feel ashamed of them, covering them up wherever we go, hating the idea of anyone ever getting a peek at them. Perhaps we feel a little bit like our bodies devalue us as a person – after all, we have received the message that our beauty is directly correlated with our worth, haven’t we? We feel like we can’t find love until we reach a certain size, or we need to keep a certain part of us hidden, lest our lover be less interested as a result of seeing it. We feel ugly, gross, like something nobody ever wants to see. We call ourselves names and avoid mirrors and become jealous when we see someone who better matches our idea of beauty.

At the end of the day, our bodies are just bodies, yes. They are designed to be a vessel that carries your intelligence and your kindness and your talent and everything else about you that truly makes you amazing. But at the same time, all of this still matters. Not because our bodies have any huge bearing on who we are as a person – they don’t, but because, due to the amount of importance that society has put on our bodies, they end up having a lot of influence on how we see ourselves.

And maybe you have managed to get passed all of that. Maybe you really don’t care how you look on the outside, and if you do, then that’s awesome. Good for you. But in this society, it is perfectly understandable if you haven’t. You can tell yourself, again and again, that your physicality doesn’t matter because you’re so many amazing things on the inside, but that doesn’t mean that when someone else places value on you based on your body, it won’t hurt or make you feel like less of a person.

And that, I think, is where changing our perspective on what’s beautiful comes in. You need to know that you are beautiful, no matter what you look like. You need to know that our society’s definition of beauty is incredibly limited, and at the end of the day, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You need to know that your stretch marks do not devalue you, that your body hair doesn’t make you any less beautiful. Because once you know that, then you become more confident. Then it stings a little less when someone else makes a comment about your body, because you know that they’re wrong – and they are wrong. They come from a very limited, very sad perspective, and you’re so much better than all that! You are a beautiful person, and you have every right to feel like a beautiful person.

And once you gain that confidence, then it might become a bit easier for you to express all of the things that truly make you amazing. Because your body is just that – a body, and learning to love it is just one step. It’s a very important step, a step that I think needs to be made, but only because it will lead you toward accepting that you are worthwhile, that you deserve all the joys this world has to offer you. And once you know that (because it’s very true, and society is wrong to have ever made you feel otherwise), then you can feel free to be the amazing, strong, incredibly unique person that you truly are.

You Are Beautiful in Your Flaws

Dear girls who do not perfectly fit into society’s definition of beauty; girls who have belly rolls and thick thighs and jiggly chins; girls with stretch marks and cellulite; girls who don’t like their hair or their skin or the amount of hair they have on their skin:

You. Are. Beautiful.

You are. You might not think you are, but that’s only because we as a society have a very confusing idea of what beauty is.

According to society, beauty is very limiting. It is one thing, it is a certain face, a certain body, a certain hairstyle. It is black or white, you are either beautiful or you aren’t, end of story. Except, by the very nature of being limiting, it sort of winds up excluding everybody. To be beautiful, you must have Marilyn Monroe’s face, Pamela Anderson’s breasts, Jennifer Lopez’s abs, Nicki Minaj’s butt, and Miranda Kerr’s legs. This is not one woman, this is a Frankenstein amalgamation created through plastic surgery and photoshop (either that, or by winning the genetic lottery). And while there’s nothing wrong with matching society’s definition of beauty, it is important that we recognize that society’s definition of beauty is really difficult, if not impossible, to match up to.

And you are a real woman. Regardless of who you are or how you look, you are a flesh and blood human being, and that means that you’re going to have some flaws, but that doesn’t mean that you are not beautiful, and that doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve love.

I have seen so many articles and online posts praising a man (usually) because he dared to love a woman who wasn’t traditionally pretty, saying things like “what a great guy, he loved her despite the fact that she’s fat” or “how sweet, he still loves her even though she has wrinkles”. But to this, I say two things:

  1. Yes, of course he loves her: long before he met her and decided that she was “good enough” for him, she was already a beautiful human being who deserves to be loved, as we all do.
  2. Why does her physical appearance dictate whether or not her husband/lover/partner deserves praise for “putting up with her”?

It should not be surprising to us when a man declares his love for someone who doesn’t perfectly match the description of beauty that society puts out for us. We should not be awed and inspired by his bravery. Because regardless of the way that that woman looks, she should deserve love. If she is kind, caring, and intelligent, then does the relationship really merit congratulations on his part because he managed to look passed the fact that she also has a little extra body fat or cellulite? Because the way I see it, love is about so much more than physical bodies. It is about trust, happiness, and support; her dress size doesn’t have anything to do with it. It is not an obstacle in their relationship, and she is not “lucky” to have found a guy who is capable of seeing her value passed her body fat.

And she is not beautiful only because he has decided that she is. Her beauty was there long before he declared it; all you had to do was open your eyes to it.

Because beauty isn’t about a dress size or smooth skin or body proportions. It isn’t about looking better than someone else, or about being a “real woman” as opposed to a fake one. It isn’t about a single, limited definition, and it most certainly is not something that someone else gets to decide for you if you have it or you don’t. Beauty is subjective, and while society most certainly influences the way that we see beauty, you also have the power to change what you think is beautiful. You can broaden your definition of beauty to include your flaws. You can decide that it doesn’t matter what society says, all that matters is what you say.

And if someone else doesn’t see how beautiful you are, then let them get a good look of your great ass as you walk away.