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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Why We Cannot Force Labels on Others

I have discussed why labels are important in the past, and regardless of anything that you are about to read here, I still believe that they are. We do not exist in a society that is beyond labelling yet – identifying as queer or transgender or black or Muslim still affects the way that you go about your day, the way that people treat you and the way that you are viewed by society.

But that being said, there is another trend that I have noticed when it comes to labelling individuals that I think needs to be addressed.

If you have been following following celebrity news lately, you might have noticed headlines such as, “Sam Smith Comes Out As Gender-Nonbinary” or “Sam Smith Reveals He Identifies As Gender Nonbinary“. Now, for those of you who might not be aware what non-binary identities are, what this would essentially mean is that Sam Smith identifies as neither male nor female, but rather, as a third gender that exists (as you might expect) outside the binary. Many non-binary people prefer to be referred to with pronouns that are neither masculine nor feminine – in other words, they do not wish to be called “she, her” or “he, him”, but as “them, their”.

This is not what Sam Smith actually said in his interview with the Sunday Time.

What Sam Smith said was that he’s “as much woman as he is a man“, and he then proceeded to explain how he enjoys dressing up in women’s clothing and heels. The closest that Sam Smith came to identifying his gender was when he stated that he “[didn’t] know what the title would be”. He did not actually use the words “I am non-binary” in the interview, and he did not ask to be referred to using gender-neutral pronouns; more than anything, he seemed to express a desire not to be labelled at all. And yet, despite this, Sam Smith has been labelled by People and Vogue as non-binary.

Something similar has been happening to singer P!nk for years now as well. All over the internet, you can find people arguing about P!nk’s sexual orientation, and some, such as Perez Hilton, have even identified her as bisexual. Yet, P!nk has never made any active attempt to label herself at all. In a 2012 interview, P!nk discussed what dating was like for her (before she was married to a man), stating, “I wasn’t gay, but all my girlfriends were. So no, it wasn’t a big deal for me, but when (a tabloid) comes out and says, I just said I was bisexual, it’s like what? That wasn’t my truth, and I like truth. I like absolute truth.” And yet, regardless of this, you can still find her identified with the label ‘bisexual’.

Now, on the one hand, I understand why some people might want to identify Sam Smith as non-binary and P!nk as bisexual; both of these identities are seriously underrepresented in the media. So, as a result, people who do identify with these labels want to be able to see themselves in others, particularly in celebrities who they look up to and admire. It’s a bit easier to do this when the celebrity in question actually identifies with your label, and lives with all the same stigmas and experiences that you do as a result. It’s easier to know that your identity exists and has value when you can see someone who is loved and respected and powerful identifying with it as well.

But the problem with these two specific instances is that neither individual has claimed the label that is being put on them.

Choosing what label you identify with, particularly when it comes to gender and sexual orientation, is a very personal matter; nobody else can choose it for you. You need to decide what feels most natural for you, what you think best reflects your experience. And if you do not feel comfortable adopting a label, even if it does reflect your experience just fine, then you should not feel forced to adopt it.

Perhaps Sam Smith is non-binary, or the way that we might think of non-binary anyway, but even if he is, he should not feel forced to accept that label just because others think that he should. He should be allowed to come to the conclusion himself, to decide what he feels best reflects his own experience without anyone else telling him how to feel or identify.

And, meanwhile, for those of us on the outside, we should not try to decide what someone else should or should not identify with. If someone tells us that they identify as bisexual, or non-binary, or as no label at all, then even if we do not agree with their choice, it is not up to us to tell them how they should identify themselves. That is their decision to make, based on how they feel and how they wish to be perceived and understood.

And at the end of the day, you need to make the decision of what you’re comfortable with. Live your truth, whatever that might be, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you are any more or less valid because of the word that you use to describe your experience. Because, as much as labels are a useful tool in helping us to sum up and explain our experiences, at the end of the day, they are just words, with all of the limitations that that implies.

Why I Like The Word ‘Queer’

Recently, I found myself sitting in a room with a whole bunch of people, where one older gentleman was talking. While I was there, he laughed and made the comment, “I don’t know what sort of language the kids are using today, or what words have been reclaimed now. Is it alright to use the word ‘queer’?” to which the majority of the people in the room, most of them straight and cis-gendered, responded by saying, “oh no, no, no, don’t use that word. You use that word and you get in trouble.”

The topic of conversation moved on from there, but through all of this, there I was, this tiny queer voice in the back of the room, thinking, “really?” Because, personally speaking, this response did not at all reflect my experience. To be honest, I actually really like the word ‘queer’.

And, admittedly, perhaps a bit of my liking toward this word comes from a place of privilege, because I never had this word used toward me with a negative connotation, and I know many people have. Historically speaking, this is a word that has been used to harass and belittle many people, to dismiss them as “weird” or beyond understanding, and of course, that is never okay. And if you are a person who does not like being labelled with this word because of an unpleasant history with it, I can totally understand this and will not tell you that you need to feel differently.

But that being said, as a reclaimed word, I find ‘queer’ to be an incredibly liberating identity.

If you are not familiar with the practice of reclaiming words, this is when a specific word has been used in an attempt to hurt people in the past, but in the present, that word is taken by the oppressed group and given a slightly different connotation, with the intention of taking power back. For example, the word ‘bitch’ can be considered a reclaimed word: historically speaking, it was used to describe an unpleasant, despicable woman, usually one who asserted herself in a way that made men uncomfortable. But nowadays, many women will proudly describe themselves as a ‘bitch’, because they are willing to assert themselves, even if it makes men uncomfortable, and they aren’t ashamed of that.

In a similar vein, the word ‘queer’ has been taken from one that means “weird” and, by extension, “wrong”, to one that means… something else.

Because, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure if ‘queer’ has a solid definition yet.

I have sometimes heard the word ‘queer’ used to describe gay, lesbian, and bisexual people – which makes sense. This is the group of people that this word was most frequently used to wound in the past. And, more than that, the word ‘queer’ serves as a great, useful blanket term for anyone who has any interest at all in their same gender.

Because, let’s face it: sometimes, these identities can feel somewhat… limiting.

You may or may not be aware of the Kinsey Scale, developed by Alfred Kinsey as a way of measuring one’s sexual orientation. Now, this method is highly complex and multi-layered, but at its simplest, it is a scale from zero to seven – zero indicating exclusive heterosexuality, six indicating exclusive homosexuality, and seven indicating no sexual interest at all. Now, it was Kinsey’s belief that a person’s sexual orientation is subject to change over the course of their life (which is today considered a controversial belief, for perhaps obvious reasons), and that the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle of the scale, so in that nice one, two, three, four, and five area that indicates at least mild interest in both genders (this is, again, controversial). Now, you may or may not agree with Kinsey’s perspective, but the reason why I feel that it is important and relevant to what I am saying is because sexual orientation is not always as simple and straight-forward as gay, straight, and bisexual.

You can live your entire life thinking that you’re straight, and then fall head over heels for someone of the same gender. You can live your entire life thinking that you’re gay, but then realize that, while you definitely aren’t straight, your interests aren’t as exclusive as you once thought. Heck, you might even consider yourself straight, and think of Ruby Rose as that one exception. Not everyone will experience this, no; there are some people out there who do have totally exclusive interests, but for those of us who don’t, those of us who don’t necessarily feel like gay, straight, or bisexual entirely describes who we are, ‘queer’ is a nice alternative for us to fall back on.

Because queer isn’t limiting. Queer is whatever you want it to be. Queer is full of possibilities, full of options.

I have also heard ‘queer’ defined as a way to describe people who are not only attracted to their own gender, but to describe people who are transgender and/or gender non-conforming. And, again, this makes sense; again, this word has been used to wound these people in the past, and again, this word is a very liberating word in terms of gender as well.

Because, just like with sexual orientation, gender has historically been very stifling. When it comes to gender, you are typically expected to fall into one of two categories: male and female, determined by what genitalia can be found between your legs. If you are male, then you are expected to behave in a way that corresponds with that – you are to be ‘masculine’. You must be a provider, you must be in control of your emotions, you must be strong and powerful and commanding and in control. If you are female, then you are to be ‘feminine’. You are to be passive and quiet and kind and caring and understanding. It doesn’t matter the scenario, and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t come naturally to you; it is what is expected of you.

But ‘queer’ doesn’t expect anything. ‘Queer’ accepts you as you are, whether that be feminine, masculine, or somewhere in between. ‘Queer’ doesn’t tell you how to act and what to be, and ‘queer’ most certainly doesn’t care what’s between your legs.

From time to time, I have even heard ‘queer’ used to define straight and cis-gendered people who simply are not in a conventional relationship. ‘Queer’ honestly just refers to any people who fail to live up to our society’s idea of heteronormativity, and this includes straight couples who are in open relationships, or are heavy into BDSM culture, or who are not engaging in sex with the primary intention of procreation.

Because ‘queer’ is not exclusive. When you identify as queer, what that means is that you fail to live up to what society considers the standard, the expected. And while that can be very difficult and isolating when you are the only one doing so, the identity of queer builds a community around you. It means that you are not alone, that there are many out there who do not feel like their experience matches up with the one that society tells them they should have.

That, to me, is what the reclaimed word ‘queer’ means. And that is why I have no shame identifying myself as a queer person.

3 Subtle Ways That Bisexual People are Regularly Excluded

So, I’m not going to lie: I like being bisexual. If I could choose my sexual orientation, this would probably be the one I would choose. I like that I was forced from a young age to exist between the lines – to see things from outside of the binary. There are many people, after all, who never think to question the binary because they’ve never had any reason to. They’re either straight or gay, either male or female, they see things in terms of either good or evil and black or white, but when you’re a person who falls outside of those terms (whether you be bisexual, pansexual, intersex, gender non-conforming, or even just a jerk who means well), then suddenly you’re forced to question why it is that people tend to see things as either one thing or another. Society rarely considers the murky middle regions, and I’m proud to say that I have firmly taken residence in those regions.

But there are some parts of being bisexual that are less than fun, and one of those is when someone doesn’t mean to be exclusive, but they are. This often goes back to what I was saying about the binary – most people see things either one way or another, and they just don’t realize that doing that ignores the infinite options in between. They aren’t trying to be offensive, and they don’t mean any harm in it, they just aren’t used to thinking outside the binary.

So to illustrate this, I’ve collected a list of three statements I’ve heard often from people who aren’t trying to ignore the existence of bisexuals, but end up doing so by default.

1. “Oh, insert-public-figure’s-name-here is dating/married to someone of the same gender? I didn’t know they were gay!”

This one I only take issue with when the above mentioned information is really all you have to go on: when all you know is that insert-public-figure’s-name-here is dating someone of the same gender, and the immediate assumption is that that must mean they’re gay.

I saw this a lot with Kristen Stewart recently, when there was speculation on the internet that she might be dating a woman, and most of what I heard jumped immediately to this conclusion. “I didn’t know she was gay!” or “Of course Kristen Stewart is a lesbian! I should have known!” was everywhere. Yet, the fact that she wasn’t outed yet meant that nobody knew if that was the case. All that they knew was that she might be involved with a woman. And if Kristen Stewart was/is involved with a woman, then that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s a lesbian. After all, her being bisexual or pansexual was equally as plausible in that scenario, but I never once heard anyone say “I didn’t know Kristen Stewart was bisexual!”

While I doubt that anyone was actively trying to be harmful, the immediate assumption that a person must be completely homosexual in order to be dating someone of the same gender erases the experiences of those who aren’t.

Better ways that you can phrase this sentiment include “Oh, insert-public-figure’s-name-here is dating someone of the same gender? I didn’t realize they were part of the queer community!”

2. “She’s so hot, I’m going to go lesbian for her!”

I remember hearing this statement a lot around the emergence of Ruby Rose as a public figure.

The sentiment that you’re trying to get across when you say that is: that woman is so physically attractive that I, as a straight woman, would actually consider having some sort of romantic or sexual relationship with her. And that is a perfectly fine sentiment. I understand better than most that sexuality is not as simple as it seems: a person can identify one way all their lives and then suddenly identify differently well into their adult lives, and there is nothing wrong with that.

But the problem with the wording in this statement is not only that is misunderstand what being queer is (you don’t just go lesbian because you saw a hot girl and now suddenly, your lifetime of being attracted to men is forgotten), but it reduces sexuality to a very one-or-the-other, binary system. You’re not saying “yes, I’m still attracted to men, but that woman makes me think that I’m not entirely as straight as I thought”. What you’re saying is that sexuality is either straight or gay, and this woman is somehow so hot that you started playing for the other team all of a sudden.

It ignores the possibility that a person can be attracted to men, and also be attracted to women. Because if you legitimately find this woman attractive, then the only thing you can be is a lesbian.

Better ways that you can phrase this sentiment include “That wo/man is so hot. I’d date him/her.”

3. “Oh, so you married a woman? Does that mean you’re straight now?” or “I had an ex ‘go straight’ on me”

I’m lumping these two together because they basically express the same sentiment: in both cases, it’s assuming that a bisexual person who enters into a long-term relationship with someone of one gender is now exclusively attracted to that gender.

First of all – that just isn’t how the world works. Straight women who have been happily married for years are still able to find men who aren’t their husbands attractive, and nobody bats an eye at that. It’s normal, it’s to be expected. “I’m married, but I’m not dead”, older people will jokingly say when they see an attractive person. Well, it’s the same thing for bisexual people. Even if they’re completely in love with someone and can’t see themselves ever being with anyone else, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t bisexual anymore.

And, secondly, this kind of plays into a very harmful stereotype about bisexual people: that we’re all either confused or faking our sexuality for some reason. Bisexuality isn’t real, it isn’t possible to actually be attracted to more than one gender, and someday we’ll all learn that when we find the right person and just become straight (spoiler alert: we won’t).

Better ways that you can phrase this sentiment include “Congratulations on getting married! I’m so happy for you!” or “Yeah, my ex is dating Jim now. I hope he treats her well.”

~

As I mentioned before, all of these statements are fairly common, and if you’ve said something like this before, I’m not here to judge you or say that you’re wrong. The only thing that I’m trying to do is point out the ways in which these statements erases the experiences of bisexual people, and hopefully, help you to think a little bit more outside the binary by pointing out that these experiences exist. We’ve all done or said things that we didn’t realize were harmful or exclusive at the time, and that doesn’t mean that we’re evil people. All that it means is that we keep trying to better ourselves and learn more about other experiences.

 

Becoming the Contradiction

Ever since I started to let people get to know me, I’ve been expending far too much time and energy on trying to find out who, exactly, I am. It’s strange – as a writer, I’ve created countless characters, and I’ve sent them on the path of more stories than I can probably name. I’ve fleshed them out, given them strengths and weaknesses, quirks and thoughts and feelings, but the one character who has been the most difficult to build thus far has been me – the character of Ciara. She’s been a bitch, really – unrelenting, unsatisfied. I tell her to be one thing, and she says no. I really hate her sometimes, but I want to build her for some reason.

And as of this morning, I think I’ve stumbled upon an identity that satisfies both me and her: that of the contradiction.

I exist in the space between gender and sexual orientation. I am both man and woman. Both the stereotype of the suburban, heterosexual housewife who delights in baking and caring for dependents, and the stereotype of the radical feminist lesbian, screaming until my voice is hoarse to kill all men. Kill all men and put me in their place, because as much as I might say I don’t, I want to rule. I want them all to bow down before me, to love me, to write my name with special care in their history books. But I know that they won’t do it if I order them to, so I don’t. Instead, I suggest it to them sweetly, with a smile on my face and a waiting embrace held in my arms.

I believe firmly in love and compassion in a world that so rarely accepts it. I want to help the people around me, to do whatever I can to give them a leg up, because I know how hard it is to get what you want out of life. But at the same time, I promised myself long ago that I would never let anyone, man, woman, or child, stand in the way of my dreams, and if I have to, I am prepared to cut your throat to achieve them. I might cry over it afterward, but I will do it. I have given myself no other choice.

I am known to one by the name of Daughter, and I am known to another by the name of Burden, and both titles suit me just fine. I am the bigot and the activist, the bleeding heart and the cold fist. I cry at Disney movies and laugh at horror movies. I have difficulties getting close to people, but I feel like I understand them well, and as much as I cannot connect, I still love them all dearly – even the broken ones. Even the poisoned ones. Even the ones like me.

As a writer, I am every character that I have ever created. I honestly don’t know which came first – them or me. Did they create me, or did I create them? (Which came first – the chicken or the egg?) I am the soul-sucking vampire, the forest-dwelling trickster, the bold hero and the cruel villain. I don’t fit into boundaries, because they don’t fit into boundaries. My characters are never just one thing, they are everything – male, female, gay, straight, wise, foolish, young, old – and because of that, I am everything, and I am nothing. I am only what they are.

There is only one label that I can place on myself that I feel comfortable bearing – the label of ‘writer’. Everything else feels wrong. It feels like a role, one that I am expected to play whether I want to or not. It feels like a narrow definition that I must shave off pieces of myself in order to fit into.

And maybe the problem isn’t that I can’t fit into these boxes. Maybe the problem is that I’m trying to fit into them at all. Maybe I was made to transcend boxes. Maybe I’m more than that.