Why (and How to) Be Beautiful — tl;dr: smash the patriarchy
Today I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times by writer Megan Nolan, titled, “Why Do We All Have to Be Beautiful?” with the subtitle, “The message of inclusivity is meant to be helpful, but it can actually do harm.”
As a person whose job description is “to teach women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies,” I feel compelled to answer her titular question, as far as it can be answered.
Here’s the gist of her piece:
What if I tried something that has always been too frightening to think about? What if I tried accepting that I will never be beautiful, and that I do not need to be?
What would it have been like to pass that mirror in my hometown, and to see myself — on the way to the library, or a party with friends, or a walk in the park — and simply feel glad that I was able to do those things, that I have a body that allows me to? What would it have been like not to look at it at all?
Everyone is beautiful, we’re told. But why should we have to be?
But take a few minutes to read the whole thing. It’s an argument I’ve heard lots of times in my travels, as audiences wrestle to free themselves from the choke hold of their culture’s opinions about their bodies. The longing to dispose of the necessity of being “beautiful” comes from the frustrated rage so many of us feel, after decades of trying and never succeeding at being whatever “beautiful” is supposed to be.
So here’s what I tell my audiences of therapists, medical providers, and women all over:
The first thing we need to do is differentiate between beauty, on the one hand, and the culturally constructed aspirational aesthetic ideal, on the other.
Every culture has an aspirational aesthetic ideal, though the details vary. In America these days, the ideal is a very thin, young body with long, silky hair and big, white teeth. If you’re missing any of those traits, not only are you “not beautiful,” you’re expected to do whatever it takes to conform with the ideal as closely as you can. Never mind the racist, classist, misogynist underpinnings of the ideal. If you don’t conform, you’re broken and bad and deserve to be punished. Our aspirational aesthetic ideal is a fiction that emerges from the Bikini Industrial Complex, the hundred billion dollar industry that profits from our self-criticism and “flaws.”
The ideal has no particular relationship to beauty. Beauty is a thing inherent in all of nature (which includes us.) It’s just there for us to notice, when we choose to. It’s in gnarled trees that survived hurricanes and lightning strikes; it’s in the one flower the pushes up through concrete; it’s in the puzzled expression of a puppy trying to understand what she has to do to get that treat you’re holding; it’s in the adolescent bird, molting its fluffy down, to make room for the feathers that will let it fly. When we notice it, it enriches our lives. It shows us where each beautiful thing belongs in the web of life.
It’s in us, too. On the day we’re born, many of us are fortunate enough to have an adult who holds us in their arms, gazes at us with the warmth of love, and calls us beautiful. And they’re right. Every wrinkle and hair, every roll of fat, every splotch is nothing but glorious. Beautiful. Because beauty isn’t something a body should be; it’s what bodies already are. It was true about your body on the day you were born, and it’s true about your body now. Nothing has changed.
Well, that’s not quite true. One vital thing has changed. The Bikini Industrial Complex got you in its clutches and began explaining how your body should be, how your body falls short of the ideal. We’ve all been lied to, our whole lives. We’ve become convinced that the only thing that counts as “beauty” in ourselves is this fiction.
And the entire power structure that values our conformation over any other trait — our intelligence, our abilities, our tenacity, our tenderness — needs us to believe this lie. It depends on us to hate ourselves and ignore or even despise the beauty we were born with, to measure our worth against its standard, so that it can control us.
And fuck that, right? Fuck that.
That’s what I tell my students.
But let’s go one step further.
What Megan Nolan is working toward accepting is not that she “isn’t beautiful,” but that she doesn’t conform to the Bikini Industrial Complex’s aspirational ideal.
And she finds herself stranded between two ideals — the ideal of how she should look and the ideal of how she should feel about how she looks. Neither of which has much to do with gnarled, embattled, puzzled, unfledged beauty itself.
But body positivity, as it has filtered down into her world, has never managed to be clear about what this whole “beauty” thing really is.
Let’s fix that. Here’s the thing:
Some people look “beautiful”— their bodies conform to the culturally constructed aspirational ideal.
Some people feel beautiful — they walk through the world with an abiding confidence in and affection for the body they live in.
(Not everyone who looks beautiful feels beautiful, and not everyone who feels beautiful looks beautiful.)
But everyone is beautiful. Because — once more, for the people at the back — beautiful isn’t something bodies “should” be, it is what bodies already are. It was true about you on the day you were born. It’s true today. And if you can see beauty in a gnarled tree, an embattled flower, a puzzled puppy, or an unfledged bird, I bet you can understand how I see it in you.
It’s harder to see it in ourselves than in others. I myself don’t “look beautiful,” in the sense of conforming to the ideal, and only rarely do I feel beautiful. But I know on some level I am beautiful, and every so often I can see it in myself, if I really look hard. I’m aided by the fact that I have an identical twin sister. I can see it in her, easily, and I’ve spent my whole life hearing how we’re so much alike — “Oh my gosh, they’re twins!!” — so when I see my sister in my own reflection, I can see my gnarled, embattled, puzzled, unfledged beauty.
Got that? There’s how you look. There’s how you feel about how you look. And there’s your actual, deep, living beauty, which has nothing to do with the aspirational ideal… except insofar as we all carry scars and half-healed wounds from our encounters with the Bikini Industrial Complex.
(Those scars and wounds? Beautiful.)
We don’t “have to” be beautiful; that’s already done. And we don’t “have to” conform to the ideal… though the Bikini Industrial Complex will reward you if you do and punish you if you don’t. Our task is not to change how we look or even to change how we feel about how we look. It is merely to be with our bodies, to spend a little time every now and then in a quiet space, protected from the haranguing of the Bikini Industrial Complex. It is to turn toward our own internal experience with kindness and compassion.
To recognize beauty — beauty, not the ideal — in ourselves is nothing more or less than to recognize that we belong in the web of life. And when we recognize that we belong, we feel a little abler to hold that space, to defend it.
Which is precisely what the Bikini Industrial Complex does not want us to do.
Why see our own beauty, and each other’s?
Because the patriarchy doesn’t want us to.
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. is the award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller, Come As You Are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life and, with her sister, of BURNOUT: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. As a professional sex educator, her job is to teach women to live with confidence and joy in their bodies.