It’s difficult to think of any woman who wouldn’t appreciate being called beautiful. From an early age, girls are socially conditioned, arguably above all other things, to focus on achieving and maintaining an appearance that others consider beautiful.
It’s hardly an exaggeration, if at all, to say “you are beautiful” is considered one of the best compliments you can pay a woman or girl. Women and beauty, in this sense, go hand in hand.
When I started to think about whether this association is a positive or negative thing, I couldn’t help but feel that it has the potential to be a mixture of both.
I can’t speak on behalf of all women, but I think many of us experience mixed thoughts and emotions when it comes to being naturally opposed to our own objectification, yet wanting to feel and be considered beautiful (and therefore appreciating when others find us attractive).
In other words, no woman in her right mind would want to exclusively be valued for her body, as if she were literally an object, yet most women appreciate being deemed beautiful.
It can be great and awful to be the more beautiful sex, and I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which we can reconcile something that’s as equally empowering as it may be demeaning.
Much of my inspiration for this article has come from times I spent in countries other than the US. During my junior year of college, I spent a semester in South Africa, where I studied human rights and taught at a school for children and adolescent refugees.
I’ll never forget spring break that semester, when my friends and I spent a week in Mozambique. I remember a group of local men approaching us and saying something along the lines of, “It’s nice to see you here. We never see beautiful women.” Um, there are plenty of women in this town, and you don’t consider any of them beautiful?
Later on, my friends and I decided they had said that because we had white skin. The same pale skin that I wished was tanner, resulted in receiving the much-desired compliment of “you are beautiful” throughout my time in South Africa.
In Thailand, where I am currently teaching English, white skin is also associated with beauty. In fact, one thing they told all of the program participants to pack was enough deodorant and sunscreen to last six months or a year because it is difficult to find those products here without skin whitening agents in them.
White models are often on the posters in shopping centers, and skincare products feature pictures of Snow White, and promise women and girls that they’ll make them look like a “white princess.”
When my students tell me I am beautiful, I can’t help but feel it is mostly because I have lighter skin than they do, and know this to be the case when they hold their arms up next to mine.
Though it is nice to be complimented in this way, it makes me upset to know that when I tell them that their skin and they are beautiful, many of them don’t believe it. That’s the thing about the compliment, “you are beautiful” — it is so commonly given, yet often not believed by the women and girls receiving it.
There are, of course, plenty of confident women who know they are attractive, and that’s great, but we, nonetheless, live in a society that perpetuates narrow definitions of beauty, most of which involve a near unattainable ideal.
In turn, as I witnessed studying and working in different countries, women and girls all over the world are left wanting to have or look like something they don’t in order to be considered beautiful.
Though not always the case, it so often seems that women with light skin want to be tan, women with dark skin want lighter skin, heavy women want to be thin, thin women want more curves, we all want bigger boobs and butts and whatever else is in line with ideas of conventional beauty.
It’s no wonder that when girls are brought up to be fundamentally insecure about our bodies and appearance, it is difficult for us to truly believe that we are beautiful when someone tells us we are.
In this sense, it can be a drag to be the more beautiful sex, or for women and beauty to go hand in hand. Only a relatively small percentage of women are free of all insecurities, and truly believing of the idea that they are beautiful.
In a world that tells women that they should consistently strive to be beautiful, this can suck; we are told to want something that it seems we can never fully have.
Not only does it suck to be the more beautiful sex when “beautiful” itself is defined so narrowly, but there’s something problematic about the very nature of valuing women first and foremost for their beauty.
When little girls are encouraged to focus on being pretty instead of smart (listen to the amazing poem, “Pretty” by Katie Makkai), that obviously has adverse effects on society as a whole, but it’s also just plain insulting to half the population when we are made to feel that the most important thing about us is our appearance.
It’s as if we are objects instead of people (and it’s easy to feel that way in a society completely obsessed with female appearance and being thin).
Men often seem to primarily care about looks in a potential partner. (Can you even imagine a world where in a group of girls going out to a club, the least humorous or intelligent among them felt the most insecure, as opposed to the fat girl?) Women are otherwise made to feel that society values our bodies more than our brains.
Being the more beautiful sex can definitely be a drag when it is to the point where our brains, talent, humor, etc. are belittled or overshadowed by the association of women with physical beauty.
All of this being said, I do want to explore the aspect of my argument that it can be empowering to be considered the more beautiful sex, or to be associated with beauty.
As stated, most women appreciate being called and considered beautiful. Getting free drinks, male (or female) attention, compliments, admiration, etc. are all great things that sometimes come with beauty.
Moreover, a certain power can accompany beauty, albeit somewhat superficial. One of my favorite movies is “Memoirs of a Geisha” (not just because I live in Asia now). I think part of the reason the film won and was nominated for so many awards is because it somehow manages to leave you feeling conflicted as to whether or not the geishas were degraded or empowered by being made into what was essentially the purest representation of beauty and sex.
The lives of the geishas centered on appealing to men, a fundamentally sexist concept, yet they possessed a satisfaction in doing so, and a confidence that their beauty had a certain power over men. They could make a man fall off his bicycle with one look.
When women are able to genuinely feel beautiful, it can be a positive thing to be associated with beauty itself.
It is okay for women and beauty to go hand in hand, but only when our definition of beauty expands greatly and is much more inclusive. This refers not only to what we consider beautiful in a physical sense, but also in a way that allows for beauty to be shaped and contributed to by factor other than physical appearance, like talent, brains, passion and humor.
In that way, women and girls everywhere can stop wishing they looked different than they do, and start feeling that they are valued and consequently empowered by an appreciation for their minds and physical beauty, exactly as it exists now.