We don’t know what beautiful means anymore.
It’s not our fault. Not individually, anyway.
We all know on some level that beauty can mean many things. But that doesn’t change the fact that, when I try to picture a beautiful woman, I get a very specific image in my head — an image that I didn’t put there.
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First, she’s young. She’s got long, luminous hair, blonde or brown or red. And, of course, she’s slender.
Society has given us this list of boxes we must check off in order to earn the sought-after badge of beautiful.
But I’m here to tell you, that list is wrong. This archetype, in fact, doesn’t represent many people at all.
When I am out in the world, most of the women I see don’t fit this description. They might be 20 or 80; Black or white; blue-haired or grey; fat or thin; or anywhere on this spectrum. But none of this means they are not beautiful.
In celebration of the many facets of beauty, here are a brief list of words that are not, as society would have us believe, synonymous with the word "ugly."
Fat does not mean ugly.
I was talking with my nine-year-old daughter and she got off on the topic of looks — my looks, to be exact. "You’re skinny," she said.
"Nope," I replied. I’m not skinny. I’ve never been skinny. I’m particularly soft these days, actually, after having three babies.
"Well, you’re not fat," she said.
I wrinkled my eyebrows at her. "But what if I am?"
She paused, considering her words. "Well, I just thought it would insult you."
This interaction reminded me of another one I’d witnessed just a few weeks before. One woman, trying to be supportive, said to another, "You’re not fat, you’re beautiful."
No doubt she meant well, but that statement just encapsulates how the world has conditioned us to feel about fatness and fat people.
We seem to have forgotten something very important: You can be fat and beautiful. Both. At the same time.
Grey-haired does not mean ugly.
A couple years ago I coloured my hair red. After I did it once, I realised I’d have to maintain it, and so I dutifully layered on a fresh coat of dye every eight weeks.
I made it almost two years, but I eventually decided to transition back to my natural hair colour because regular colouring is just too much work.
Turns out, during those two years, my hair was busy changing colour all on its own.
I posted a new photo on my social media profile a few weeks ago, and a friend I haven’t seen in a while commented, "OMG look at all that grey!"
My daughters also seem to enjoy pointing out the short baby grays that have replaced the hair I lost after I had my son a year ago. It’s true. There is a grey halo around my head, and it’s spreading. But I shrug. "Meh," I say. "That’s the colour of my hair now." For the most part, it’s just an amusing fact.
Yet I can’t shake the idea that I’m somehow less attractive because of it. After all, it shows my age.
And that brings me to one more word.
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Old does not mean ugly.
Another well-intentioned comment I hear all the time centres around youth.
It comes in various forms of, "Wow, you don’t look your age!" This is said with an expectant smile, meant to make the recipient feel good.
Wrinkles, laugh lines, crows' feet. Grey hair and loosening skin. These things happen to all of us, yet the message has been pounded into our heads that they are unacceptable.
Instead of embracing, or at least accepting, the changes that come with age, the world around us tells us we should be buying this cream or that, going for treatments, injections and operations, so we can maintain our appearance of youth.
So we can stay beautiful.
As if the years of love and hardship, happiness and grief, have robbed us of our beauty rather than adding to it.
Society doesn’t get to tell us we’re not beautiful.
These messages come in from all angles, and the takeaway is loud and clear: Unless you meet an impossible ideal, you are not enough.
If you’re not slender, you need to lose weight. If your hair is grey, you must maintain your colour every eight weeks (preferably every six). If your face shows signs of age, you’ve got to try this treatment or that.
Only when all of that is done will you qualify for entrance into the elite club of beautiful women.
What an impossible situation we’ve found ourselves in.
All these labels, all these requirements, all the ways we tell ourselves we’re not good enough. All the things we must do in order to become beautiful.
And even if the day comes when we finally check off all of society’s boxes, I guarantee we will find some other way to not measure up.
What if, instead of measuring all our deficits with respect to that idealised image in our heads, we instead throw out that unrealistic picture altogether?
What if we built a new image — one that takes into account all the different ways beauty can look on a woman? We could begin to see our soft bellies and thick thighs simply as physical characteristics, much like a beauty mark.
Our grey hair and crows' feet would indicate years of smiles and laughter, signs of a full life rather than distance from the beauty of youth.
We would no longer see ourselves as deficient. We would realise the possibility of being beautiful just as we are, right here and now, without having to change a single thing about ourselves.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t play around with our looks.
If it makes you feel pretty to use beauty treatments, then do it. If you’re happier after a fresh cut and colour, go for it.
But before you do any of that, I challenge you to get to know that person looking back at you in the mirror. Get comfortable with her for a bit.
Ask yourself: what would it take for me to believe this woman is beautiful, just as she is?
She is, you know. You are. I am. Even with the grey halo and the lines that have appeared and deepened over the years. And don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise.
It’s not easy to change what society has hammered into our minds for so long. But I think it’s worth it, not to be chasing some unattainable ideal that has nothing to do with true beauty in the first place.
Nicci is an author, teacher, and mother living in Boston with her husband and children. Some of her hobbies are singing in the car, escaping from rooms, dreaming about a full night’s sleep, and perpetual cleaning. Along with sharing personal stories from all corners of her life, she writes books and short stories. Look for her debut novel, tentatively titled The Other Women, coming in 2022. For more from Nicci, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter on @kadilakwrites, or find her at her website: http://niccikadilak.com/
Feature Image: Getty