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.

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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.

Does Fat Shaming Really Encourage Change?

Body positivity and fat shaming are two related issues that we as a society have been discussing quite a bit in recent years.

For the most part, there seem to be two sides to this debate. There is the side that is in support of body positivity, and what this more or less means is… well, they don’t think that anyone should feel shamed for being fat. This side of the argument points out that, in our media, we primarily see thin women represented as ‘beautiful’ or ‘worthwhile’, despite the fact that this body type doesn’t really represent every or even most women. In fact, some studies have shown that the average American woman is a size 16-18, while the average female mannequin body size is “similar to a severely underweight woman”.

Essentially, what this side of the debate rests on is the idea that all women, regardless of body size, should be allowed to feel beautiful. Nobody should be beaten down or made fun of by society because of the way that they look. And, more than that, everyone should be able to see themselves represented in their media, and everybody should feel as though they have a right to exist as they are.

And this side of the argument has had their successes. Some photographers have gone out of their way to capture the ‘real woman’, to show just how beautiful women with curves actually are (since we don’t see it in our media often enough). Meanwhile, the popular children’s doll Barbie, which has been criticized for upholding unrealistic body standards, has since released the Fashionista line of dolls, which include dolls that are, as they call it, ‘curvy’.

And yet, despite these successes, there remains another side to this argument.

While some claim that larger women should be allowed to feel beautiful, there are those who say otherwise. This side of the argument believes that people who are overweight should feel ashamed, and that being overweight is inexcusable. And often times, when I see this opinion given, it is used to justify looking down on and mocking someone for their appearance.

Now, this is the perspective that I want to speak to.

I’ve heard this perspective voiced a few times, either on the internet, in the media, etc. It is a fairly common perspective in fitness-type communities, such as gyms, and I have attended three different gyms over the past few years, as well as knowing people in the fitness industry. And when I hear this perspective voiced, it is often from people who claim that they are not trying to cause harm to anyone. Rather, they are trying to help the overweight person in question. They want to make them see that being overweight is wrong, or ugly, or unhealthy, so that they might, in turn, change their behaviour and become thin.

It isn’t the society that needs to change here, this perspective argues; it’s the people.

But let’s talk about that for a little bit; this idea that being overweight is wrong, or ugly, or unhealthy. I can’t talk much about body weight being ‘wrong’, because that’s simply too complex a concept for any of us to grasp here, but let’s talk about beauty.

In his article “‘Fat but fit’ is a myth and big is not beautiful – so stop making excuses for obesity”, personal trainer Nick Mitchell wrote, “Subjectively, fat is rarely beautiful because we are hard wired by evolution to want to pass on the best genes from the healthiest bodies”. Mitchell here claims that we as a society can never see people who are overweight as ‘beautiful’, because it is in our genetics to see them as unhealthy and, therefore, undesirable. It isn’t bias; it’s science. However, world history doesn’t really support Mitchell’s claim. In the modern day, the ideal woman’s body is thin, sure, but this ideal has been changing constantly. In Ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance (two historical periods that produced some of the western world’s most classic artistic examples of feminine beauty), the ideal woman was plump and well-fed. Even as recently as the Golden Age of Hollywood, the ideal woman’s body would have been considered ‘curvy’.

Our body standards are constantly changing, and that’s because our ideas of beauty are incredibly fluid. Beauty is not a solid construct; it is something that we as a society make up. Something that we can change if we want to. It is not black-or-white, you are not either beautiful or ugly. It is up to us to decide what beautiful is, and I say that all body types are beautiful.

But let’s talk about that third issue, because that one tends to be mentioned even more often than the others: this idea of ‘overweight’ being unhealthy. This is a concept that has been debated, over and over, and by people much more qualified than me. I am not a doctor. I am not a nutritionist. I cannot give my expert opinion on any of this.

But I am someone who was, at one point, overweight, and who then began eating healthy and exercising regularly. And with that experience, I can tell you this: people do not turn their whole lives around merely because they feel bad about themselves. Quite the opposite, in fact.

When I was overweight, there were plenty of times where I would overeat food that I knew was unhealthy for me, and I’d do it with the thought, “what does it matter? I’m a fat cow anyway”.

When you feel bad about yourself, you feel depressed and unmotivated. And changing your daily habits require motivation. Personally speaking, I knew that I was overweight, and I was ashamed of it and did not feel beautiful, but that alone wasn’t enough to make me change my lifestyle. What made me change was coming to the conclusion that I was strong enough to do it.

I didn’t become healthier through shame; I became healthier with confidence.

So when you make fun of someone or put them down for being overweight, you are not helping them. They already know that people make fun of them for how they look; they are hyper-aware of it as it is. All that you are doing is adding to the issue. All that you are doing is making them feel a little bit worse.

If you truly do want to help someone live a healthier lifestyle, then there are a few things that you can do instead:

  1. Do not assume that, just because someone is overweight, it is because they are living an unhealthy life style. There are plenty of reasons why someone might be overweight, outside of inactivity and excessive junk food. Maybe it is genetic. Maybe it is due to a health issue. Either way, the mere appearance of a person’s body does not give you enough information to know if they need a change of lifestyle.
  2. Do not present health as something that you can either succeed or fail at. Do not pose a dress size as the trophy that you win once you officially ‘get healthy’. Getting healthy is not about a short-term diet or achieving a goal; it is a lifestyle, and one that you can take breaks from when you need to. It’s okay to have a slice of cake at your nephew’s birthday party. It’s okay to have a cupcake with your coworkers when somebody brings them in. This is not something that you can fail at; it is just a lifestyle.
  3. Do not belittle anyone into doing what you want them to do; encourage them. And, end of day, there is nothing wrong with them if they decide that a healthy lifestyle is not something that they want to pursue. That is their choice to make. It is their body, and they can do with it as they please.

I have heard people say that, quite simply, people who are overweight should feel ashamed of their body, and this statement has never made any sense to me. Why should anyone feel ashamed of their body, for any reason at all? It is a body. It is the only body that you will ever get in this life. It is natural, and it carries you throughout this world, and it does what it needs to do. So why should anyone feel ashamed of it?

And, more importantly, how does being ashamed of ourselves serve us? How does it make our lives better to hate ourselves?

So to any readers out there, regardless of body type, all I can say is this: love yourself, and love those around you. Growth does not come from cruel words or belittlement, it comes from strength and encouragement.

The Consequences of Over-Sexualizing Women’s Bodies

I was ten years old when I started growing breasts, and from minute one, I was ashamed.

I hear stories of girls who wanted to grow breasts, who thought that it made them look grown-up and womanly and all that, but that wasn’t my experience. When I started to grow breasts, I saw them as very sexual things that had suddenly attached themselves to my body, and at ten years old, I didn’t want people to look at me as sexual.

My solution was to start dressing in baggy shirts; lots and lots of baggy shirts, in the hope that my family, my friends, adult strangers who passed me in the street, would not sexualize a ten-year-old body.

As tends to happen to people, I eventually got older, and by the time I was sixteen, I didn’t like the way that baggy shirts looked on me. And so, I switched to tighter-fitting shirts with shorter sleeves and lower necks. There was only one potential problem with this: I had large breasts. And so, naturally, my breasts had this annoying tendency to reveal themselves in the form of cleavage quite often. Not even voluntarily; I could be wearing the most unsuspecting of shirts and – bam, cleavage. It didn’t matter what I did, it didn’t matter how I wore it; so long as I wasn’t wearing a frumpy sweater that was a size too big with a picture of a cat playing with a ball of string across the front, people were gonna see some cleavage.

And for a while, this embarrassed me. Granted, I don’t really remember being called out for what I wore (excluding on one occasion, where a teacher paraded me in front of the class and asked me to prove that my outfit was appropriate for school). But I often found myself noticing when other people’s eyes went to my breasts instead of my face, and I felt guilty for it. I wondered what they thought about me, if I was willing to dress like this. They must think I’m a slut, that I’m looking for attention, that I’m trying too hard to impress them.

Nobody ever called me a slut (so far as I know, anyway). Nobody ever accused me of looking for attention (unless I forgot it over time, because I realized that it wouldn’t matter if I did). And yet, I still felt that my body, including the ways in which it naturally developed and the ways that I decorated it, made me a lesser person.

And why?

Because that is the world that we live in. It is downright common to see and hear women’s bodies sexualized and objectified, and this doesn’t come without consequences. And I’m not just talking about the age-old some-men-see-women-only-as-objects consequences; I’m talking consequences regarding the ways that women and (especially) young girls see themselves.

From the time that I was young, I have heard men go on about how a woman’s breasts are sexually appealing, how her eyes are sexual, how her ass is sexual, how the curve of her hip or her neck are sexual, and all of this amounts to girls who grow up feeling like they can’t really have any of these body parts without it being inherently sexual. And, worse, if they reveal to the world that they have these body parts and someone ogles her or touches her inappropriately, then it is her fault, she shouldn’t have worn what she was wearing.

This latter belief is enforced from a very young age with such things like school dress codes.

If a boy in her class cannot focus on his work because the girl in question has shoulders, then that is deemed to be her problem, she is the one who needs to change. I mean, it’s not as though the boy needs to be told to stop being immature and focus on his work, right?

If a male teacher is uncomfortable with the fact that a student in his class isn’t wearing a bra, then clearly, she needs to start wearing a bra for him. It isn’t like he needs to be told that he should act like a professional and stop sexualizing a child’s body when he’s a grown-ass man, right?

And, really, boy’s bodies are not quite sexualized to the same degree. You never hear about girls getting distracted from their work because the boy sitting next to them was wearing a V-neck. You do not hear people going on and on about how pecks are dirty and sexual, and they need to be covered up as much as possible. You never hear about a boy who was assaulted, and the first question he was asked when he tried to come forward was, “well, what were you wearing?”

Simply by having a female body, society sort of sets you up to be distrusted and ashamed.

But you know what? I’m very glad that I had large breasts as a teenager, and that I couldn’t help but to show a little cleavage. And I know that when I say that, the majority of you are probably thinking that I’m saying that because it got me some good attention – but no. That’s not it at all.

Because, you see, when I first started wearing more tight-fitting shirts, when I first saw my peers’ eyes dart to my chest rather than my face during conversations, I felt ashamed and like I was doing something wrong. But, eventually, I came up with an answer to those wonderings I presented before:

They must think I’m a slut, that I’m looking for attention, that I’m trying too hard to impress them.

And who fucking cares?

If they think I’m a slut, then that’s their problem, not mine. And besides, if they really are the sort of person to look down on someone for how many sexual partners they’ve had or appear to have had, then I’m not sure they’re the sort of influence I want in my life.

If they think I’m looking for attention, then oh-fucking-well. I am looking for attention. We’re all looking for attention; isn’t that the point of life? To be noticed? To stand out? To make a difference in this world, to leave it changed from the way that you entered it? I don’t want to blend into the crowd; I want to lead the crowd, and no, my cleavage won’t necessarily get me that leader position that I’m craving, but it’s not going to stop me either, and while we’re on the subject of looking for attention, why would I deny what we all already know?

And if they think that I’m trying too hard to impress them – I’m not. I’m not trying to impress them. I don’t care about them. I don’t do my make-up for them. I don’t stand in front of my wardrobe and pick out clothes specifically with the intent of making heterosexual men en masse like me. I wear and I do what makes me feel pretty, what makes me comfortable. And sometimes that does mean frumpy, too-big sweaters with cats on the front, but usually that means tight-fitting shirts that show a little bit of skin, because it makes me feel less constrained and more beautiful. And when I feel free and beautiful, I feel more confident, more capable of leading that crowd I mentioned earlier.

And maybe I am risking people sexualizing my body when I don’t want them to, or blaming me for their own wrong-doings and sexist thinking, but end of day, I just don’t care anymore. I’m too old to worry about what people think now, and I’m too comfortable in my skin to change anything for their sake. And if someone ever accuses a woman of being the reason why they acted inappropriately (or, in some cases, even criminally), because she was dressed in a revealing manner, then that person is dangerously, horrendously wrong. They are sexualizing said woman’s body to a gross extent, ignoring her personhood completely and reducing her to little more than an irresistible object.

And that is not okay.

A woman’s body is not responsible for the actions of another. A woman’s body is not inherently sexual, simply by existing. Breasts are just breasts, like a man’s pecks are just pecks. And no ten-year-old girl should ever feel dirty, gross, or sexualized simply because of the way that her body is naturally developing.

The Purpose of Breasts

Earlier today, I was reading an article about a teenage girl who was told that, because she has large breasts, she needs to be very careful about what clothes she wears to school, lest she become a distraction to the boys in her class.

Now, of course, there’s a lot to unpack in this sentence. I could focus on how harmful high school dress codes are, as they hold teenage girls accountable for their male peers being unable to do their work despite being in close proximity with female bodies. I could focus on the fact that girls with large breasts are sexualized to a ridiculous extent, as it doesn’t matter what shirt they wear – any shirt is considered a ‘distraction’ – merely because the girl has large breasts.’

But these are all issues that people has discussed before, and discussed frequently. So frequently, in fact, that these were many of the comments that were left on the article in question, as well as another comment, which is actually the one that I want to focus on right now:

“People need to stop sexualizing boobs; a woman’s breasts are for feeding children, not sex.”

Now, this statement was made frequently, and it comes a well-intentioned place, I know. All that this statement is supposed to mean is that breasts should be more commonly accepted. Girls and women alike should be allowed to have breasts, to show their cleavage, to be shirtless in public, and it shouldn’t be a big deal because breasts are not inherently sexual organs. And I agree with all of this.

What I don’t agree with is the idea that the entire purpose behind a woman’s breasts is to feed children.

I mean, sure, breasts can be used to feed children. That is certainly a thing that they are capable of, and it is a thing that no woman should be ashamed of or have to do alone, tucked away in the shame corner (also known as the bathroom). It is a thing that we should be allowed to talk about comfortably. I mean, even if you haven’t pushed a human being out of your vagina, chances are you’ve heard people talk about the benefits of breastfeeding, so it’s understandable why people would suggest that that is the purpose for breasts in the first place.

But what about mothers who decide not to breastfeed, whether for economic reasons or health issues or personal preference? I mean, these sort of mothers are becoming a bit of a minority as breastfeeding is pushed more and more in our society, but they most certainly do exist, and are they not valid? Are they not using their breasts properly? Do they have breasts for no reason at all?

What about women who are infertile, and cannot conceive a child, let alone give birth to and nurse them? In the United States, it is estimated that 10 percent of women aged fifteen to forty-four have difficulty getting or staying pregnant – and this is not a small amount of women. But these women may never use their breasts to feed a baby, so are their breasts wasted? Do they fail to serve their purpose, because their bodies are not capable of creating life?

What about women like me, women who do not want to conceive a child of their own? In the past, this might not have even been considered an option for women, but more and more are coming forth nowadays and saying “I don’t want kids!” and that’s fine. There are many reasons to decide that you don’t want kids – whether it be because you are dealing with a mental illness that you don’t want to pass down, you don’t want to deal with the absolute living hell that is pregnancy, or you simply don’t see it as a priority and there are other things you want to focus on – this is a valid choice nowadays. But if you don’t get pregnant, then your breasts won’t fill with milk, and you won’t be able to feed any children. So does that mean that, again, you fail in your service as a person with breasts?

What about transgender women who choose to receive breasts surgically? What purpose do these breasts serve? I mean, they can’t feed children (not unless modern day plastic surgery has advanced much more than I realized). And yet, despite the fact that they don’t serve their apparent purpose, transgender women continue to want them and get them, and is this without a point? Are they spending all this money and going under the knife for no reason at all? Are their breasts, again, wasted?

The way that I see it, breasts are the only body part that people will argue about their purpose. You don’t see people demanding that hands be covered up because they can and do get used during sex, while another group argues that hands are perfectly fine and should be accepted because they can be used to tickle children as well. The truth is, breasts are just breasts. They are a body part, and their purpose is to be bags of fat that hang off your chest. I know that that sounds much less romantic than the alternative, but it’s true.

And as I might have hinted at before, their use changes depending on the woman and depending on the circumstance. Sometimes, breasts are a symbol of femininity that make women feel more comfortable in their gender identity. Sometimes, breasts are an annoyance that flop around awkwardly while you run. Sometimes, breasts are used in sexual acts. Sometimes, breasts are used to feed children. Breasts have uses, but they don’t really have a sole, defining purpose.

And the way I see it, it is dismissive and unfair to say that the purpose of breasts is to feed children, just because, for years, we as a society considered the purpose of women to be bearing children, when that just isn’t reality anymore. Women have options. We can choose to conceive our own children, we can choose to adopt our own children, or we can choose to forego the whole business and raise dogs or cats. We cannot consider the sole purpose of our bodies to be creating and sustaining children, because when we do that, we imply that, by not creating and sustaining children, we are failing at something. But that isn’t the case. Your body is not one, big reproductive organ; you are a person, filled with thoughts and feelings and emotions and passions, and the purpose of your body is to carry all of that. I think that society sometimes makes it too easy for us to forget that, with the sort of language that it uses toward women.

So the next time that you want to say, “it’s ridiculous that we tell girls that they need to cover up their breasts when they aren’t even sexual organs”, say that instead. Because there are too many experiences out there that we ignore and belittle by assigning breasts with a singular purpose.