'No amount of grinning is going to turn you into Adriana Lima.' Photo: Getty
Being beautiful is all about having the right attitude! It’s not about how you look, it’s about how you feel. Smile! When you look happy, you look beautiful! Beauty is a state of mind.
Statements about beauty as an attitude are so popular, a woman might get the impression that she can think herself onto a Victoria’s Secret runway, if only she focuses on being super, super positive. And puts her shoulders back.
A lot of this advice is well-meaning, I’ll give it that. It’s sort of sweet and hopeful on the surface, and I think that often the people who say these things mean “beauty is complicated. It’s not just about fitting into some restrictive standard, it’s about who you are, as a person.” I love that. I spend a lot of time, after all, encouraging girls and women to feel good about the way they look, right now, for their uniquenesses as well as the ways they fit into common definitions of attractiveness. Own it! Rock it! You are gorgeous just the way you are!
Yes. Definitely yes.
But it is also true that no amount of grinning is going to turn you into Adriana Lima, unless you are already Adriana Lima, and, beyond that, there is something that just keeps bothering me about the idea of feeling good = looking good. My mind kept snagging on it. So I told myself that it’s entirely possible that I think about this stuff too much, and then I just put it aside and ate my dinner and read some pop science. But I think I’ve figured it out, finally: the problem with the “beauty is an attitude” logic is that it places all the blame and responsibility on women.
I don’t like it when that happens.
“Beauty is an attitude” suggests that if we just smile bigger, if we just feel better, if we just learn to be happier and more confident, then we will look better, too. In this system, beauty is still really important. We are implicitly acknowledging that we want to look beautiful, we care deeply about looking beautiful, we should look beautiful. Only now, it’s our fault, psychologically, if we don’t. If we don’t, we aren’t just failing to be attractive, we’re letting ourselves down with our crappy personalities, too.
This is a sensitive argument, and I want to make it very clear that I am not arguing against women acting more confident or feeling good or smiling. I think we can all agree that all of those things are good. What I want to say is that feeling confident and smiling and stuff are not the same as beauty, even if they sometimes interact with or inform beauty. What I want to say is that no one should have to feel that she is going to blow her shot at being pretty because she’s having a bad day, or that if people aren’t telling her she’s pretty, it’s because she’s not projecting a pretty enough attitude. And, to push this a bit farther, no one should have to feel that the point of feeling good is looking good.
As a teenager, I was confident (perhaps weirdly—but then, I was homeschooled, so I was just weird, period). I’d even go so far as to say I was happy. I wore these fantastic billowy green pants that I’d mail-ordered from the Delia’s catalogue, and my hair was down to my waist, and I was cocky and probably insufferable and I felt totally sexy. I had a really close friend who was going through a rough patch. She was depressed and frustrated and a little lonely. She was also blond and buxom, with delicate features and long legs. We would walk down the street together sometimes and all of the guys would call at her. And all of the guys she knew were in love with her. Random people would come up to her and tell her she was beautiful. Let me tell you something: it had nothing to do with her attitude. And let me tell you something else: the guys weren’t picking up on all of those super sexy fantastic billowy pants confidence vibes I was putting out.
Maybe I was doing it wrong? Maybe I wasn’t thinking “happy happy happy” hard enough?
Sometimes I get letters from women and girls who have never been called beautiful. And it really bothers them. And they tell me that they wonder if they’re doing something wrong. If maybe they’re not projecting the right attitude. If maybe they’re not thinking confidently enough. Because they’ve heard so many times that if they would just change their approach, the world will see them differently. That sounds like a lot of pressure.
I’m all for agency and self-actualization and taking the reins of your life and riding it like a wild stallion with a flowing mane that you just friggin’ tamed because you are a badass like that, but let’s not pretend that’s the whole story. Let’s not pretend that when we work on our dispositions, we’re working on the sheen of our skin and the perkiness of our boobs. Because that’s a little insulting. That implies that beauty is always the end goal, even of confidence, which really has a right to be totally unrelated to beauty.
Maybe we should acknowledge that beauty rules and restrictions and standards are real, and annoying, and there are a lot of them, and they fill up magazine articles and they are plastered on billboards everywhere we look. Sometimes, when we feel like shit about the way we look, it’s because we’re reacting to a world that keeps telling us we probably look like shit. That is a reasonable reaction. Sometimes, we don’t fit into the mold. Sometimes our appearances don’t actually translate as super sexy and gorgeous to the scores of other people we encounter on the subway. This doesn’t mean that we suck and have failed and that there is nothing attractive about us. It doesn’t mean we have to work on being more chipper about our whole, you know, thing. We might already be perfectly confident and proud of other aspects of who we are, and more power to us for that.
Maybe we shouldn’t have to involve beauty at all.
Kate Fridkis blogs about body image issues on Eat the Damn Cake.