“i want to apologize to all the women i have called beautiful
before i’ve called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is all you have to be proud of
when you have broken mountains with your wit
from now on i will say things like
you are resilient, or you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re beautiful
but because i need you to know
you are more than that”― Rupi Kaur
March is Women’s History Month, and at the beginning of the month, we celebrated International Women’s Day. There are so many different facets of womanhood to honor and acknowledge during this special time, as well as challenges to take up, battles to fight. I want to use this poem by the eloquent and profound Rupi Kaur as a springboard to take a look at one particularly nuanced and difficult element of femininity: women and physical beauty.
In the 100 years since women’s suffrage in the United States, women have gained a kind of social, economic, political access and power that most women in human history could only have ever dreamed of. Of course, we are far from full equality, and will continue to work toward that end, for each and every woman and girl all over the world.
However, even in this time of unprecedented progress for women, we still face the pressure – from society, from the beauty and diet industries, from our families, from the media, from men, from women, from inside our own heads, to be physically attractive. Beautiful. Alluring. Sexy. Young. Glowing. Thin. Gorgeous.
And the message, the pressure, is both explicit and implicit. It is bold as well as subtle, and is an attack from all sides. Much has to do with making women feel inadequately beautiful so that they will buy more products to help craft themselves into a physical ideal that the world will accept and validate. Keeping women from embracing the beauty they were born with is quite a profitable venture, and ensures customers for a lifetime, in that exhausting pursuit of physical perfection.
Of course, we know that this pursuit only leads to disappointment, anxiety, depression, obsession, eating disorders, yo-yo dieting, and a plummeting sense of self-worth. While we have come so far in so many ways, we still tend to be influenced (often subconsciously) by a culture telling us that physical beauty is a female distinctive, a kind of glory that if achieved, makes all other problems small.
So let us stand up and say, finally: “No.” And let us start with action ourselves. How often is another woman’s beauty, or our own, the first thing we notice? Or comment upon? Or judge? Or to create awareness in a different way…. How many women do you know that you can hardly honestly evaluate whether or not, by society’s standards, they are “pretty,” because you know them and their heart so well, that you would only describe them as “absolutely beautiful?”
Physical beauty is an attribute that belongs to every woman who is born on planet earth. Society’s current interpretation of beauty (which has changed throughout history, I might add), some may be born with, others not. To comment or esteem whether a woman’s physical attributes align the present time’s definition of beauty is solely a description of whether or not the genetic lottery was favorable to her. It was not her choice to be born in the body she is, at this time in history. So there are two very important points: 1. ALL women are beautiful, in their own unique way. And 2. Whether a woman’s beauty matches up to the standard of beauty of the day is completely outside of her control.
So what shall we acknowledge? We all love to be inspired by and surrounded by beauty, there is no shame in that. However, how do we SEE and define beauty? In ourselves, and in others? Let us challenge ourselves to look beyond what the eye can see, to what the spirit can feel: another woman’s bravery, her resilience, her sense of humor, her warmth, her compassion, her intelligence, her strength, her wisdom. As women, we must first TRULY believe that we are worth so much more than our physical beauty, in order to change the culture around us. But it begins with us, in our own hearts. It begins in our comments to and relationships with other women. It begins with how we choose to define beauty, and live that truth out every day. This way, together, we can cherish all there is that is unique about women as a whole, and individuals, and refuse to be defined by our times. Throughout history, women have fought to establish their worth; to be seen as so much more than possessions, property, reproductive machines, or sexual objects. We are more than our bodies. YOU are so much more.