We Need to Change the Way That We Think About ‘Pretty’

When I was ten years old, I started wearing make-up.

It wasn’t good make-up, but it was make-up. It was a heavy smudge of black eyeliner, as though two big, bad raccoons walked up and punched me in both eyes. I liked it. It didn’t make me feel pretty, but it made me feel badass, like a punk rock rebel chick, and that was the look I was going for. I wanted to be Joan Jett before I was even old enough to know who Joan Jett was. I wanted to stand out of the crowd, to look unique. And as I got older, I discovered that there was more to make-up than just looking ‘unique’, and I learned about it as an art form. I started modelling myself after the beautiful girls I knew, who stood apart from the crowd, who looked like ethereal goddesses sent down from heaven to brighten our days with their presence. I asked them to teach me their tricks, and I learned them adequately.

People would say to me, “you know, you’d look prettier if you wore a bit less make-up. Boys don’t like girls with a whole lot of make-up”, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t spending my money and time on make-up for anyone but myself.

When I was nineteen years old, I started my collection of tattoos.

It was something that I had always wanted to do, ever since I was little, when I saw my mother get her first tattoo. She came home with a fairy on her lower back, and I thought it was the most exquisite thing I had ever seen. A form of art that could be carried with you forever. I saw people with tattoos and I loved them, because it was a piece of their story that you could read by sight. One look, and you knew that butterflies or bible passages or the infinity symbol meant something to them. Maybe it meant that they got drunk with their friends one night and accidentally agreed to regret something later, but still – it was a part of them. A piece of their personality that couldn’t be erased.

People would say to me, “you know, girls don’t need to get tattoos. It isn’t a very pretty or feminine thing to do”, but I didn’t care. It was a part of me, and the way I saw it, anyone who truly loved me would accept that part as well.

When I was twenty-three, I shaved my head bald.

And, okay, maybe I came to regret that decision. What can I say, I like my hair, and I like all the funky colours that I can dye it: pink, red, orange, puce, chartreuse, whatever. But end of day, I wanted to try it. I was curious to see what it was like. I was curious to see what would change if I stopped depending on my hair to be there, if I would feel more or less beautiful because of it. And the truth was, no, I didn’t feel less beautiful, I just felt less personally comfortable, and that’s okay. There are a lot of women who are jaw-dropping with a shaved head, and I wanted to see if I could be among them for a moment. And now that that moment has passed, I will join the women who are jaw-dropping with hair.

People would say to me, “you know, men prefer women with long hair”, but that really had no bearing on my decision either way. I don’t design my life and my style choices around what men want, because that would be a thankless way to live.

I never wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be me. I wanted to express myself and the way that I felt, and maybe that wasn’t always pretty, but it was always beautiful. In it’s own way. I believe that, whenever a person is truly being themselves, regardless of what that means, it is beautiful.

Because ‘pretty’ is accepted, but ‘beautiful’ is something more. Beautiful is an artist caught up in their work. Beautiful is smile lines and stretch marks and the scars that built who you are. Beautiful is unique to every person, because what makes them beautiful is what makes them them.

Beauty lives in tears and in blatant shows of affection. Beauty is honest and raw and real, and you just can’t capture it by trying to be what people want you to be. That is, unless you just happen to be one of those very rare individuals who happen to be everything that people want you to be – but I haven’t met many of those people.

We so frequently tell people what they can and can’t do to be considered ‘pretty’. We tell women what to do so that “men will like them”. We police their actions, their clothes, their make-up, their grooming habits, their food, their exercise. We give them no chance for unique choice, because we stuff their heads with what they ‘should be’. And we internalize these ideas so often; even if you know that there’s nothing wrong with being a little on the heavy side, how often do you look in the mirror and criticize yourself for being fat?

We all want to fit in. We all want to be pretty, but we strive for that at the sacrifice of our individual beauty.

So change the way that you think about pretty. Ask yourself what your individual beauty looks like, and indulge in it. Stop denying yourself. Stop shaming yourself. Stop worrying about whether or not you’ll fit in, because you will. It’s impossible to live up to mainstream expectations, but if you’re fully and completely yourself, then you will attract others who share and respect your beauty. You will give others permission to find their own beauty, to become their authentic selves. People will see you, being who you are, and they will know that they are alright, just as they are. They will know that there is nothing wrong with being true to themselves.

You can set the world free, in your own small way, by being yourself.

 

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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.