“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” – Confucius (Tweet it!)
Question: What is beauty?
My answer: Beauty is a concept. Nothing is inherently beautiful. Nothing.
Or everything is…
How’s that for a teaser?
I’ve been working on this post for some time. A while back I said to myself, “Erin, if you’re going to make a website about freeing your badass beauty, you’d better get an idea of what that means and get it out there!”
So, what is beauty? It’s such a huge question, and I’ve been having trouble writing it. Then, last weekend, I had an experience that brought the whole topic to the forefront of my life.
A few days ago at a BBQ, some dude mistakenly assumed that I was the mother of one of my friends; she’s 27 and I’m 32. It was horrifying and funny at first, but then it really didn’t feel funny at all. It felt awful. All I could think was, do I really look that old? I know I have a few grey hairs, but surely I don’t look that old! Old and ugly.
His comment overshadowed all the good things that had happened that day. By the time I got home I felt like crying or shooting someone. And why did I even care about what he said? Why was it so important, this comment from a random dude? Why did it hurt so much?
He’d obviously triggered a sore spot in me. That place where it feels like all the things that I’m missing in my life — love, a relationship, kids, a dog, a home, maybe some horses — are because I’m not pretty enough.
Like many women, I’ve had a lifetime of feeling unattractive. Of looking in the mirror and not approving of what I saw. And everyday I work so hard to change that. I have to be so careful and purposeful about loving myself and the way I look. And there is very little in the world around me that supports this view of myself. I don’t have a crowd of people saying I am beautiful. I don’t even have just one, outside of myself. I don’t look like the magazines. But even if I did, I don’t know that I would feel beautiful.
What I want, almost more than anything, is to feel beautiful. To feel like who I am is enough. That it’s okay that my skin isn’t great. That it’s okay that I’m taller than average, my boobs are smaller than most, and my hips are larger. That it’s okay that I don’t have manicured nails. Or that I, God forbid, have hair on my body. I’m not talking about being vain. I’m talking about being okay. To be able to look in the mirror and say with complete honesty, “Yes, I look good.”
So, let’s ask the question again — What is beauty? What is it I have to be or do to be beautiful? (For this post I’m going to focus on the visual aspects of beauty.) It is such a tough question. It’s so subjective. It’s important.
Some people would answer that you know it when you see it. Really? What does that mean? How do we/people determine that something is beautiful? Is it purely biological? Is it shaped by past experiences? What influence do society and culture have?
My first step to answer these questions was to think of something that everyone thinks is beautiful. My thought was, if everyone thinks it’s beautiful, then perhaps it would have some clue. My answers were things like a rainbow, a sunset, a bouquet of flowers, or the stars on a clear night. These are the things I thought would have the broadest appeal.
You may have noticed that all of the things I listed are what we’d call “nature”. But is nature inherently beautiful just because everyone agrees that it is? What, then, about a thunderstorm? Or lightning? It’s natural. Some would say it is beautiful, but some would say not.
Even those things that we could all agree on, is that really true? Some people might look at a sunset and think only of the smog that causes it. Some might look at a bouquet of flowers and think only of the allergic symptoms they’re about to experience. So then, how do we determine what is beautiful?
Here’s what I propose: we see something that brings on an internal sense of pleasure, then at some level in our minds, we conclude that because what we viewed brought good feelings, it must be beautiful.
Let’s break down the process. Picture something in your mind that is beautiful. Perhaps you’re thinking of a sunset. What do you feel?
I feel awe. Like I’m in the presence of something unique. That this sunset will never look like this again. The colors are changing every second. The clouds will never be this configuration. And even if they were somehow able to be duplicated, I wouldn’t be standing in this spot, the earth wouldn’t be tilted at this angle. It feels like I’ve been given a gift.
Do you feel something different? A friend of mine included life-affirming. Another friend feels a sense of peace.
Each of us experiences different positive emotions when we see a beautiful sunset. So, what happens when you feel negative emotions in response to something. You might assume that you call that thing ugly, but that could be an incomplete assumption. For example, what if the last time you saw a rainbow you got into a horrible car accident? Or what if when you were younger someone told you a horrible story about how evil rainbows were? You can see how that might change your opinion of rainbows.
Can you see from these scenarios that we actually make things beautiful by seeing them in a certain way? There is no beauty without a person there to “feel” the beauty. Nothing has inherent beauty, but your personal feeling about it can make it beautiful or not.
When I first reached this conclusion I was like, “Ooooh. That’s what that always meant — Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!” (or as a friend cleverly put it, “Beauty is in the ‘I’ of the beholder.”) This was the first time I really got it. I guess part of me always thought that 80% of beauty was in the eye of the beholder, but 20% was inherent in the thing itself, or that some archetype of a beautiful woman existed somewhere on the planet, and all I had to do was try to look more like her. But no, 100% of beauty is in our minds.
“Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” – David Hume
The implications of this truth are astounding. First, nothing is inherently beautiful. Or everything is. It’s mind blowing.
“Beauty is not caused. It is.” – Emily Dickinson (Tweet it!)
Once this epiphany really settled in, the questions started flowing…
What feelings are men having when they say something or someone is beautiful? (That’s a whole other topic/post in itself.) How much do advertisers and the media play on, and exacerbate, women’s insecurities? (Yet another post.) Also, if beauty is in our minds, if we get to choose what we say is beautiful based on a pleasurable or positive feeling we have, then surely I can learn to look at myself as beautiful.
“The appearance of things changes according to the emotions; and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves.” ― Kahlil Gibran
And it is in our minds. Have you ever had the experience of seeing someone super attractive, but when you got to know them they stopped being hot? They were rude or mean or objectionable in some way, and all of the sudden they weren’t attractive anymore.
The opposite happens too. Sometimes you meet someone that you don’t find very attractive, but then you get to know them. Suddenly you notice they’re confident or have qualities you like, and then — BAM! — They’re a hottie!
In both those scenarios, their physical characteristics didn’t change. Your perception of them changed.
That’s why it’s so easy to tell your friends that they are beautiful. Because to you, they truly are. With your friends, the things that might be considered imperfections are, in fact, just the things that make them endearing and unique. Wacky afro hair? Awesome! Crooked tooth? It gives them personality!
If you’re like me, up until now those same characteristics in yourself were unforgivable flaws. I aim to change that now, to change my perceptions of myself. What would it be like in your life, to see yourself as beautiful? What would it be like for you to be as generous with your thoughts of yourself as you are for your friends? What would you have to do for that to happen? How can you work on that? Is there some kind of practice you can incorporate into your life?
Maybe you already have a few practices to help you feel beautiful. If so, please share them in the comments below. I’ll be writing about this topic in the near future, and would welcome your thoughts.
“Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” ― Albert Einstein