Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Beauty: Post One

People are like stained - glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.

Standards of beauty are arbitrary. Body shame exists only to the extent that our physiques don't match our own beliefs about how we should look.
Martha Beck

I have one friend in particular who is absolutely beautiful (she’s an utterly beautiful person on the inside, too, but for the purposes of this post, I’m referring to her physical beauty). She had her first baby recently, a little girl, and sent me a photo of the new arrival. It was taken right after the birth, and Mama had been in brutal labour for something like forty hours. I opened the attachment expecting her to look happy, of course, but also suitably pale and exhausted – you know, like she had just been through something traumatic. Like childbirth. Instead, she looked radiant. Clear-eyed, glowing, beautiful. Ridiculously so.

This same friend struggles with her weight. She was a chubby child (her words, not mine) and an overweight teenager (ditto). As an adult, she is very vigilant about what she eats and how much she exercises. She puts on weight easily and will never be naturally skinny.  And yet I’d LOVE to look like her. It never fails to astonish me when she bewails her height (or lack thereof) and tells me that she’s jealous of my long legs. Or when she wishes aloud that she could swap her short, dark hair for my long, red braid. Or when she says that she would love to have pale, clear skin like mine.

Physical beauty is arbitrary. Our concept of physical beauty is also entirely unique and personal. Beauty is in deed in the eye of the beholder. My friend Steven, for example, thinks Angelina Jolie is ‘actually quite plain, when you really look at her.’ I suspect that most of the world’s population would disagree with him there, but that is his honest opinion.  Previously I’ve said things like, ‘He has such a beautiful face’ and people have looked at me as if I were bonkers, because it wasn’t someone who would typically be considered ‘beautiful’. Not Brad-Pitt beautiful or George-Clooney-beautiful. And yet…I think they’re beautiful anyway.   

I read something online where the writer called Tilda Swinton a ‘handsome woman’. I hate that as a compliment; it’s so backhanded. It always seems to me like what the writer is actually saying is, ‘Well, we can’t get away with calling her pretty, she’s not girly enough for that…let’s call her handsome, so that we’re implying she’s not unattractive, she’s just not attractive in a womanly way’. I happen to think Tilda Swinton is spookily beautiful.

I also think Cate Blanchett is stunning (that bone structure!) but hardly any of my male friends agree. (‘Yeah, she’s ok looking’, one of my male friends said recently in response to a comment I’d made, ‘but she’s not the kind of actress men want to sleep with, is she?’).

I think certain men look beautiful wearing eyeliner. I think certain women look beautiful with buzzcuts (Natalie Portman, anyone?). My sister thinks both of those things look ‘weird’.
I think the ridiculously elaborate photo shoots in Vogue are beautiful, with the models dressed in complicated lace and gold and feather eyelashes, their lips covered with diamonds. I also like looking at the ‘beauty shots’ (which interestingly enough, are the freshfaced ones, where people are scrubbed clean and plain, free of make up or accoutrements) which are about as simple as it gets.

There is beauty everywhere, in everyone, if we only look for it.

A million magazines might say that Angelina Jolie is the most beautiful woman in the world. It doesn’t matter, because there will always be people who disagree, like my friend Steven. People who think she’s plain. Or unattractive. And that’s a personal preference - each of us will find different people beautiful and be attracted to different things. Our differences are part of what make us interesting. If we were all attracted to the same kind of person, the majority of the world would be a very lonely place.

Imagine that there are twenty six kinds of people in the world. A people, B people, C people and so on. Everyone is attracted to A people, but A people are only attracted to B people. This is great for all the A people and B people out there who can happily pair up and have lots of l little lower-case babies together, but it leaves a lot of lovesick and lonely C’s, D’s, E’s, F’s, G’s, H’s, I’s, J’s, K’s…

We might initially be attracted to someone because of how they look, but that’s not how we decide that we want to build a relationship with them. It’s not why we want to see them again, or spend time with them. We love the people we love because of who they are, not because they’re super-pretty or take a great photograph.

I’ve met some people who I’ve thought were absolutely beautiful to begin with. But sometimes, as you get to know a person, that beauty dims and fades. Maybe they have a mean streak, or a brash sense of humour.  Maybe I think they’re rude or unpleasant. Maybe we just don’t connect as people.

On the flip side of that are the people you meet whose looks don’t really register at all at first, but the more you get to know them, the lovelier they become. Their personality, the way they make you laugh, their ability to always say just the right thing at just the right time, their kindness, their sense of humour, their open mindedness. When I see a photo of a friend, I will smile because I love that face. It doesn’t matter what the face looks like. It’s not the slightest bit relevant.

I think we’d all change things about ourselves if we could - and don’t get me wrong, if a fairy godmother offered to wave her magic wand and make me fairytale beautiful, I wouldn’t say no. But physical beauty isn’t important in any real sense. Not the way health is important, or the way love is. Not the way self-development is important, or freedom, or family, or friends.

I think of beauty as a sort of added bonus: it’s nice for those who have it, but for the vast majority of us who aren’t picture-perfect, it doesn’t actually matter one bit. We are all beautiful in our own special ways. And physical beauty, anyway, is temporary and fleeting. It’s the person we are that counts. That’s where our real beauty is. Everything else is just surface-stuff.


  1. This was a wonderful read and really opened my mind a great deal. Thank-you for sharing this <3

  2. I LOVE the Kubler-Ross quote - one of my favorites of all time. And I love this whole post - this needs to be quoted "There is beauty everywhere, in everyone, if we only look for it." and I just might have to turn it into an image :)

    Quote queens of the world unite!

  3. this is a really great post. i needed to hear all of this ; )

  4. So, so true

    Beauty from the inside radiates on the outside x