You may have noticed post-its on your bathroom mirror, in the Pearlstone atrium, in the Athenaeum, proclaiming what seem to be affirmation messages along the lines of, “You are beautiful!” I found one taped to a bathroom mirror that read, “You have a perfectly symmetrical face.”
Recently, other fliers have been posted, which seem to respond to these post-its, claiming the “ugly truth,” that not everyone is beautiful, and the value we feel about ourselves should not be based on whether we think we’re beautiful or not, but rather on our accomplishments, character, etc.
While the beauty-based post-its were intended, I think, as positive messages, encouraging self-love and appreciation regardless of how individuals conform to conventional beauty standards (“EVERYONE is beautiful!”) the “ugly truth” responses inspire an incredibly important conversation about what kinds of affirmation we might really need. What does it really mean to say that “EVERYONE is beautiful”?
While striving to subvert normative beauty standards and open the circle of beauty to every shining individual, doesn’t such a message simultaneously reinforce the idea that physical beauty is desirable, and that self-love must depend on the acknowledgement of oneself as beautiful?
This conversation was raised recently on Facebook as well, as many users posted Dove’s new and widely admired beauty campaign ad. In the video, women sit behind a curtain, and a forensic sketch artist asks them to describe themselves. The women give detailed descriptions of their physical features, and the artist sketches their faces. The women are instructed to get to know each other in the waiting room, and then describe each other for the artist in the same way they described themselves. The artist then hangs two portraits side by side for each woman: the first, which shows the way the woman describes her own physical appearance, and the second, which shows a sketch based on how someone else described her.
The women are touched as they look at these sketches, moved by how much more attractive they find the sketches of their faces as described by others to be. The message is clear: we’re really much more beautiful than we think.
While this message, like the messages on the affirmation post-its, seems at first glance positive, what does it really tell us about how we’re supposed to be deriving our self-worth? Suspending for a moment the fact that all of the women in the Dove video are thin and most are white, the ad reinforces the idea that we should be happy, tearfully thankful, that “we” (a very limited “we”) can think of ourselves as a bit more beautiful than we usually hold ourselves to be. Silly us, we’re just needlessly insecure, because really “everyone” can be beautiful!
But what if our lives could have meaning even if we cannot, or will not, think of ourselves as beautiful. What if I look in the mirror and see ugliness, and imperfection, and asymmetry, and I choose to value and love myself anyway, because I’m a valuable human being worth a whole lot more than my externality?
This is not to say that those of us who do feel beautiful should not; for a lot of people, finding beauty in themselves becomes an important part of healing and surviving—a journey which is deeply significant, valuable, and not to be diminished. But that is an effective process for some people, and not for everyone, and so it is important to recognize that beauty doesn’t have to be the goal without which we cannot love ourselves.
For some of us, beauty feels unattainable, and striving to see ourselves that way is only frustrating and not at all liberating. It doesn’t matter how many times we look in the mirror and say, “I am beautiful”; we still may never feel that way, and that may be just fine if we can upset the beauty paradigm that attaches self-love to a conception of oneself as beautiful. As poet Warsan Shire has said, “It’s not my responsibility to be beautiful, I’m not alive for that purpose. My existence is not about how desirable you find me.” Or, for that matter, how beautiful I find myself.