Saturday, August 29, 2015

Beauty is Optional

I wish I could say that I have never wanted to be beautiful, but then I'd be lying. In freshman and sophomore years of high school, I was self-conscious of my appearance and thought quite a lot about clothes. I entertained the thought of using makeup, and if it hadn't been for my massive internalized misogyny I might even have asked my sister for lessons. 

Somewhere around junior year things started to change. I still don't think I'm beautiful, not by a long shot, but I don't experience the kind of confidence-crushing angst about it that I felt when I was younger. 

When I say "I don't think I'm beautiful," I wish I didn't have to defend my self-confidence at the same time. Well meaning friends will tell me that I'm wrong, that I'm pretty or cute, but that isn't the point. I don't need to perceive myself as beautiful or attractive to be happy.


This article says much of what I've been thinking and relates it to YA novels and the messages they send to girls about the desirability of beauty:


When I started talking to my sister about this earlier in the week, she asked me to run a thought experiment in which I went around with my face covered in splotches--would I still feel confident in my ugliness?

Probably not, because our society trains us to reward beauty and if I looked downright unattractive then people would treat me worse, and other people's opinions of us matter when we calculate our internal self-worth. 

But that is exactly my point. Does the presence or absence of acne affect my capacity to be kind and hardworking? If I started wearing makeup, would I become a better student and friend? (It had been implied to me that if I dressed a little better I would indeed improve as a daughter.)

Maybe the answer is yes for some people, and if someone feels more confident and happy with themself when wearing cosmetics, then power to them. The tools of beauty can be powerful when put in service of self-confidence. But not everyone needs the same tools. 

People who don't fit the narrow societal definitions of beauty may feel empowered when they celebrate diverse models of beauty. To be clear, I am not criticizing this. Recognizing the beauty of people of color is particularly important to me, as an Asian kid who resented their small eyes for a long time. 

There's nothing wrong with my eyes. There's nothing wrong with my face. I am content with how I look. Why is this not sufficient? Why do I have to claim my "hidden beauty" or some nonsense like that?

In Indonesia, my boss's twelve year old kid commented once that my looks were "raw." I think he meant plain, since his mom got mad at him, but, while I appreciate the sentiment, she didn't need to. So I'm plain. That's not even an insult, and the kid didn't mean it as one. 

I have limited emotional resources: there are only so many things I can care about at a time. I have limited mental resources: there are only so many things I can worry about and try to optimize at a time. Once I've gotten myself to "okay-looking" or "acceptable," I can stop. 

By nature, I am plain and smart and ambitious--so which traits am I going to put more effort into? Of course hinging my pride on my intelligence and accomplishments had its own pathologies, but I have more control. 

Being plain also has benefits. Namely, I have never been catcalled while walking on my own. (Partly this is because I'm sheltered, but this summer I never heard a single catcall on my way to work until my objectively pretty teammate joined me in the last two weeks.)

People who want to be beautiful, who work hard to be beautiful, who use cosmetics and post selfies and whatnot, are not shallow or vain. People whose journey of self-acceptance includes the realization that they are beautiful are valid. People whose self-worth is boosted by feeling attractive are worthy of support. 

But I'm not like that. I'll try to take care of my skin and hair, dress neatly, etc., and if I stopped I might feel worse about myself. But if I already like my face, why should I also try to find it beautiful?

If you choose to play the beauty game, best of luck to you. I'll be cheering you on--from the sidelines. 

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