Beauty is not an attitude

'No amount of grinning is going to turn you into Adriana Lima.'

'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

12 comments

  • Beauty is simply a summary of how other's feel about your social and sexual value. Looks are a major, inextricable part of that, as is your personality. Putting on 5 minutes of attitude won't change either of those things.

    But there is no rule that says you MUST change that, that you MUST be beautiful.

    The reason why women have such a problem with beauty, is because they're told constantly to worry about how others feel about them.

    Males generally aren't taught to think this way and hence generally don't get such fierce insecurities about their bodies and self-worth.

    My advice: make your own minds up as to which is the better approach to beauty and act accordingly.

    Commenter
    Christian
    Date and time
    July 01, 2013, 1:00PM
    • I can agree with you that men probably do not grow up with as much importance placed on their physical appearance, but there are many other areas where they are made to question their self worth (you MUST be strong, you MUST be confident, you MUST be successful etc). It may tend to manifest itself more as bitterness in men than as insecurity, though, which could be why it seems less obvious.

      Your final advice is spot on though, and it is advice I would give to anyone - stop caring what other people think about your looks, career, and decisions in life, and focus on what you actually want.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 4:24PM
  • I AGREE! As I grew up it became completely obvious who of my friends where considered beautiful as evidenced by the sheer number of people who told them at any time, for any reason, that they were so. Alas I was never told...
    It took me years to buy into the whole beauty is from within/in the eye of the beholder/project beauty and you will lookl beautiful bull****, and even then it all proved to be a bitter disappointment.
    There are still some days when I feel so great with my life and with myself, I feel all shiny and happy and wonderful, and then one look in the mirror brings it all crashing down and I just want to smash the mirror! Terrible I know!
    Most days I feel like the person I am inside is not at all reflected by my face...sad but true.

    Commenter
    bernadette
    Location
    melb
    Date and time
    July 01, 2013, 1:01PM
    • So the rearrangement, size and or shape of your features does not conform to the socially accepted notion of beauty. Do not worry Bernadette; statistically you have a greater chance of finding and keeping everything from friends to the love of your life. Be happy; you are one of the lucky ones.

      Commenter
      reality bites
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 2:19PM
  • This article articulates what I've been feeling for a long time. I've always wondered how if it is true that beauty is supposedly so influenced by attitude, how is it possible that many good-looking but neurotic, insecure and nasty people manage to have people dying to go out with them all the time, while some absolutely wonderful yet not so beauty blessed people struggle to get a date. Yes, a positive attitude is important. If you're a happy, confident person to be around, people will instinctively be more likely to like you. But that only goes so far. It doesn't matter how happy, how positive you are, if you got dealt a dud hand of cards in the looks department, you got dealt a dud. End of story. We may all be flowers (at least according to Miranda), but while some of us are roses, orchids and the like, most of us are boring old geraniums, agapanthus and those funny little daisies that you pick and make into daisy chains... common, hardy but unspectacular. That's just the way life works.

    Commenter
    Flower child?
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    July 01, 2013, 1:53PM
    • Beauty is visceral, physical, facially and bodily-based; this is the truth as evidenced by the amount of comments and attention beautiful people generate. Not everyone is beautiful and there are obviously many degrees of such, but it is generally recognised as a standard of measure. Consider these two statements: "She's beautiful" and "She's a beautiful person"; very clearly referring to different things.

      Commenter
      reality bites
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 2:16PM
      • Could someone correct the spelling of UNFORTUNATELY on your front paper of the website?

        Commenter
        david
        Date and time
        July 01, 2013, 2:30PM
        • "No amount of grinning is going to turn you into Adriana Lima" interesting image to use, as Adriana was criticized for being over weight, after having her child a month or so before the VS fashion show, so even Adriana has her own things to deal with regarding the media.....
          Smiling and positive thoughts may not seems important however it makes you feel great and others see this and someone smiling, who is happy within themselves is far more beautiful than a frowning 'hot' girl.
          Miranda Kerr was right, just be happy within yourself, you can't change your looks as everyone is unique in their own way, just move on and you will be much happier!

          Commenter
          starie
          Date and time
          July 01, 2013, 2:47PM
          • I understand the point that this article is making, however, I do feel that saying empowering things to yourself will have an overall effect on the vibe that you send outwards making you more attractive as a person.

            This may not necessarily change your "beauty" however, any person looks in my opinion 100 times better when they are smiling as opposed to scowling or frowning.

            We typically associate smiles and laughter with happy friendly people and this is much more appealing to other people seeking connections with others.

            Now this does not mean we should "force" ourselves to be smiley and happy if we are not. However, on a first date or when meeting someone for the first time, I think having a ready smile and a friendly attitude is much MUCH more attractive than a "everything is crap" attitude coupled with a grim expression.

            Commenter
            Adrian
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            July 01, 2013, 3:47PM
            • I think you are using beauty the way people use "attractive" or "hot", and that is shallow. I don't think that beauty means the same as this.
              I feel beauty is less bound by societal ideals, and it transcends the physical when it comes to human beings, as well as other things.
              To me, Marie Curie is beautiful because of who she was and what she did. It came to mean so much to science, and to women. She was an intelligent, unshakeably curious soul who had to find things out for herself, from a young age. Obviously I didn't meet her but this is what countless historical sources reveal. Sure, you don't go "wow" when you look at her, but she's not about image.
              Beauty is more than the surface, and that is something most people fail to grasp.

              Commenter
              AngryAnon
              Date and time
              July 01, 2013, 5:54PM

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