by Grace Carpenter
“Beauty” is a tricky word. We tend to think of beauty as primarily physical, as if beauty is something that one has or doesn’t have, something rooted in aesthetic appearance. Beauty is something we long for, chase after, desire—the word itself inspires a sense of rareness, of exquisite taste and refinement, of exclusivity. (Beauty, she breathed softly.)
Merriam-Webster defines beauty as “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” Notice something here: Beauty is not defined as “really pretty.” Beauty is not “skinny.” Beauty is not “perfection.”
Beauty is something that exalts, that inspires growth, that elevates one’s “mind or spirit”—an abstract, intangible something that blossoms into fuller, more mature affection and admiration than can ever be grasped by simple aesthetic appearance. The physical appearance isn’t absent, but it is accented and underscored by nonphysical loveliness.
With hours of makeup and Photoshop, however, advertisements and media have strangled the ethereality out of “beauty” and replaced that effusive glow with the machinery of objective, aesthetic attractiveness. Women are now chasing something other than beauty, some naked skeleton of it. “Beauty” becomes about what one sees on paper: a flat, two-dimensional image that cannot move, a lifeless image that carries nothing but that single slice of time, that fleeting moment between postures.
Jean Kilbourne, renowned for her work on the media’s influence on women, largely blames the media for women’s impossible beauty standards. In her essay “Beauty…and the Beast of Advertising,” she claims,
“[Ads imply that] beauty is something that comes from without; more than one million dollars is spent every hour on cosmetics. Desperate to conform to an ideal and impossible standard, many women go to great lengths to manipulate and change their faces and bodies. A woman is conditioned to view her face as a mask and her body as an object, as things separate from and more important than her real self, constantly in need of alteration, improvement, and disguise. She is made to feel dissatisfied with and ashamed of herself, whether she tries to achieve ‘the look’ or not. Objectified constantly by others, she learns to objectify herself.”
Kilbourne alights on something crucial in our current mindset. We are all trained to do this—women, men, and even children. We are trained to estrange our physical appearance from the rest of us. Moreover, we are bullied into sacrificing the health of “the rest of us” in order to craft our physical appearance according to warped standards and unrealistic expectations. The distinction between self and body is not only dangerously defined, it’s also dangerously weighted: the body somehow roars into the forefront of our minds, clamoring for attention, while our sanity and emotional vivacity are dismissed as “competent” or “normal enough.” We become consumed by the pressure to look good, assuming that beauty is a primarily physical attribute.
But, aside from being unhealthy, this is enormously misguided. Beauty is not something we possess. Beauty is not a mask we smear over ourselves or the size of the clothes we squeeze our bodies into. Beauty is something we radiate.
We will never fully embrace this inherent beauty unless we begin to mesh the self and the body, to understand the ways in which they interact. The body and the self are entwined in relationship, separate but linked—a wonderful symbiosis of each complementing the other and throwing various shades of light on its particular aspects.
Take, for example, that dimple you get in your cheek when you laugh. You might hate your chipmunk cheeks, but that dimple makes them look perfect. It’s not the cheeks that are perfect—its the shape they take when you laugh. Or, maybe, the way your eyes scrunch up when you smile. You might criticize your eyes for being too far apart, but that scrunching-up motion adds life and charm to them, and they are absolutely beautiful. Again, it’s not the eyes that are perfect—it’s their motion, the life in them when you are feeling alive.
When we look in the mirror, we see ourselves as objects. We see the reflection of ourselves, the image that looks back, as if it is us. Really, though, we are seeing the avatars, the flesh casings that hold together these little people we are, the channels through which our minds and spirits interact with the external world. And I understand the pressure to make that reflection as beautiful as possible. I do it every time I look in the mirror—Is my lipstick still on? I need to go for a run. Does my chin really look like that?—because it’s a knee-jerk reaction to seeing oneself in the mirror. We want to be beautiful; we want the image in the glass to please us.
What we find in that glass, though, is not who we are. The objective beauty in that image is all we see; we don’t see what everyone else sees, which is the way it expresses who we are. Your image in the mirror is the object, the representation of you—not the actual you.
The actual you shines through that image, bursting with light through the seams of your physical makeup. When you think about your own beauty, think about how your self is being narrated by your body, the way in which your heart expresses itself through your body. When you study the mirror, study not only the way in which your eyes are too far apart or your cheeks are too chubby, but also the way in which your squinty smile makes your eyes look brighter or your laugh carves out that adorable dimple. There is so much more than the flat image you see.
Because we are not objects. We get so focused on what we look like as objects that we forget what we look like as people, but we are people: lively, blossoming, filled-with-flesh-and-blood humans. We have hearts, minds, spirits, and bodies, and they are always interacting, expressing themselves, feeding into one another. Your body is not a mask; it is a vessel for you, and it is infinitely more beautiful when it radiates you from within. Your heartiest laugh, your warmest embrace, your most heartfelt smile will become you more than anything you will ever wear, because beauty is the life of you.
Grace Carpenter is a graduate of the University of Virginia Class of 2015. She’s currently living in Munich, Germany, where she’s writing her blog, Our Millennial Mind (www.ourmillennialmind.com), and finishing her first novel. She’s a camera nut with a sweet tooth and an affinity for very thick sweaters, and she dreams of someday dancing onstage and opening her own bakery.