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.