There is a dialogue often heard among well-intended women in which insecurities are expressed, whether about skin or hair or weight or facial features, acknowledging a gap between their own appearance and the appearance of other conventionally beautiful women around them. The next part of the dialogue is other women offering reassurance that no, they aren’t ugly, they are beautiful, as they uncomfortably shift their weight or momentarily break eye contact.
This discomfort doesn’t necessarily come from a lack of compassion or genuine love for that woman; but what is one supposed to say to a woman who is insecure about the acne that truly is on her face? Or about hair that really is thin or uneven? This discomfort is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between “pretty” and “beautiful.” It’s the same discomfort we feel when an overweight woman says, “I’m fat,” and there’s an immediate perceived pressure to respond with, “No, you’re not!” But what if she is? You both know you’re lying and even the times you truly aren’t lying, that woman has already made a decision about herself that cannot be reversed by another woman. So, what do we do?
I was talking to my mom and sister about this a couple of years ago, and my sister said maybe one of the most genius things I’ve ever heard. “You don’t have to be pretty.” I don’t know why that had never occurred to me before. By insisting to all the women around us that they are pretty, the message we are sending is that it’s not an option to not be pretty. We are adding to the pressure to get pretty, and be pretty, giving some women no other option than to manipulate something to make two pieces fit together that maybe simply don’t. Pretty has a place and serves a purpose, but so do athletes and mathematicians and artists. Are we all then expected to be able to throw a hail Mary or paint a Mona Lisa to be taken seriously or valued? Ladies, here is the honest truth: You don’t have to be pretty. And you don’t have to be skinny. These things are not requirements to be a woman. They’re not even requirements to be a woman of great value. And they certainly are not requirements to be beautiful.
In every interview, I end by asking each woman a very important hypothetical question: “If someone were to approach you and tell you that you got to choose a new definition of beautiful, and it would be universally accepted, no questions asked, what definition would you give?” I would like to give my answer to that question now.
In all honesty, by the time I explicitly asked myself this question, at the beginning of this project, it was an easy one to answer. I am an extremely introspective person, and in the years leading up to this time, I had started to notice a pattern in the things that I found to be beautiful.
I remember the first time I went to Times Square. I looked around at the tourists, the street vendors, the giant costumes, the street marketers, the activists, the street musicians. There was plenty around my to be offended by, or to disagree with, as there was an obvious difference between all that surrounded me in that moment and my own personal beliefs and principles. But I was completely fascinated by the fact that so many different representations of beliefs and morals and lifestyles could even exist. And right there, in the middle of Times Square, they were not just existing, but coexisting. Thousands of people, all with different ideas and feelings and opinions and backgrounds and damages and traumas, all with a different place to go and reason to go there, with individual features and individual fears, contributing to and sharing a singular experience called Times Square. No two of them would experience it the same way or remember the same things. And i recognized the beauty in diversity. I think in an imperfect world, a perhaps inevitable result of diversity is dissonance. Difference of opinion, coupled with limited understanding, is bound to create a contradiction or two. Throw in passion and investment, and you’ve got yourself a conflict. But by that we learn that conflict is a actually often a result of some of our greatest strengths as humans: conviction, investment, passion. This sometimes extremely difficult thing is born of such extremely positive characteristics. It comes full circle as it then initiates an opportunity for one of the most positive and strengthening privileges known to us: conflict resolution. The calm after the storm, and a calm that you not just had to wait for but work for. In all these things, we learn the beauty of conflict.
Because our understanding here is so limited, each person is left to create their own reality, and no reality is complete. We all lack knowledge of the future, of the present, of the bigger picture, and of other people. The amount of what we don’t know compared to what we do is incomprehensible. Despite this, we as a race still manage not just to function but to progress. I believe that our lack of understanding is the reason for our progression. If we knew everything, there would be no direction – nowhere to go. Change, if possible, would be somewhat unnecessarily. And here, we find beauty in the unknown.
However, the unknown, despite its beauty, still reigns as the Great Initiator of Anxiety. Fear will hinder and cripple us. It will take all that we allow. It is fear that spews and perpetuates toxic negativity – negativity of the future and resentment of the past. Negativity targeted at factors that we can’t control, including people around us. Negativity towards ourselves and our failures, or our perceived imperfections. But fear will rob us of success. Anxiety will deprive us of joy. Beauty will smother our hope. And so, beauty is to be recognized in the existence of, against all odds, confidence.
As a realist, I find it difficult to ignore the hard things about life. I generally recognize positivity just as easily, but in a society that sometimes aggressively pushes an agenda of optimism, there was a time that I found it hard to reconcile my desire and need to acknowledge negativity. But the truth is – bad things happen. People get hurt and they suffer. This is not a pretty truth – it’s discolored, asymmetrical, and covered in acne. But as every wound provides an opportunity to heal, and infinitely offers a better understanding and appreciation of the times that are good, there is infinite beauty to be found in pain.
As we experience pain, we are challenged to go to scary and hurting places within us. We are given a choice to either close the door and add a lock, leaving the wound to scar and stiffen, or to acknowledge the negativity there and apply some hydrogen peroxide to the open wound. The cleansing sting will almost inevitably cause us to wince and gasp, but we are comforted with the knowledge that it will be best for us. We must remember that applying a cleansing agent to a bandaid will do nothing for us. We have to expose the open wound to apply the solution, and then we can see and understand the benefits of the momentary pain. We must bring our secrets out of the shadows and expose our deepest, messiest wounds. No bandaid, no facade. It is here that we learn the beauty of vulnerability.
As I have felt and seen these beauties in my own life and the lives of those around me, it has struck me on occasion just how much beauty we hide from. We have created a culture in which we not only fail to recognize some of the most beautiful things, but we trade the beautiful for the pretty – the contoured and color-corrected faces whose acne is covered with concealer. The faces that enhance the positive, not imply to honor it, but to distract and call attention away from our least favorite parts. We do our best to cover every perceived flaw. But some of the most beautiful things of this life are being smothered. The beauty is in the conflict, and in the pain. It’s in every scar and wrinkle of the face that has understood suffering. The beauty is in the ugly unknown and the misshapen diversity. Beauty cannot by manufactured or created.
And so I submit my definition of beauty. Beauty is to be found in the realest of the real. It’s the ugliest, non-manufactured truths. The ones that hurt and challenge us to empower ourselves with true confidence rather than “fix” or distract from what we don’t like. It’s the unfiltered, the BareNaked, and the vulnerable. I propose that the definition of beauty is authenticity. And though “pretty” may have an important role in this world, Authenticity Above All.