What is beauty? Do we think about how we define it, and why? Do we think about how it’s modeled to us? How do culturally conditioned ideals of beauty affect the way we see and value ourselves? 

These are questions that weigh more heavily on women than on men. Men are bound by a different set of social standards; as women we are told, whether directly or indirectly, that if we are beautiful, we are worth more. Beauty is our social currency. We are the primary targets of messages about beauty communicated by the transmitters of our culture -- magazines, TV, the internet. 

In 1990, Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth, a book often used in humanities programs at American colleges. In it, she argues that as women gained more legal and material rights, obligations to be beautiful became stricter, crueler. As women started to rise within the workforce, so did eating disorders and cosmetic surgeries and pornography. 

“More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before,” she wrote in her introduction, “but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”

This may be true and it may not be, but certainly we can’t argue that we’re inundated by marketing that tells us we need cosmetics, painful procedures, and pills if we are to be beautiful. We Botox and Spanx and conceal our flaws away. We put makeup on our kids.

We spend and we fret and we strive to imitate the faces we see, the ones we believe reward the people who possess them with money and fame and security and plenty of friends. We don’t even consider that the faces are Photoshopped, filtered, or perhaps even designed by plastic surgeons. 

The marketing is effective: it makes us feel worse about ourselves, then drives us to spend on possible solutions. American brand Dove did a study that found only 4% of women around the world think they’re beautiful. The LA Times reported that even Megan Fox has admitted to feeling insecure about her appearance. 

Are we aware of how perceptions of beauty and the marketing budgets that disseminate and determine them affect us? Do we stop to think about who defined what’s beautiful, and how we’re allowing them the power to shape our self-worth?

Beauty is culturally defined. When American magazines were putting bone-thin girls on the covers of magazines, people in the South Pacific, for example, were celebrating meaty women. I know because I am petite and I have lived there, on and off, for years. We tend to measure ourselves against the people around us and what they value. You may not care about the monetary value of your home, but when you are in the company of people who do, you may find yourself feeling dissatisfied or even ashamed. 

Allowing other people to dictate what you consider beautiful means you’ll never be beautiful. Think about it: no one can ever be everyone’s cup of tea.

So while it’s important to take care of yourself, to eat right and exercise and get enough sleep and moderate your indulgences, don’t let beauty be your only motivation. It’s too subjective, too elusive. 

India Arie’s song “I Am Not My Hair” deftly explores this idea that beauty is culturally conditioned, and that our desire to be beautiful represents a futile longing to be accepted by other people. Come back to yourself, she seems to be saying. Remember who you are. She sings: “When I look in the mirror and the only one there is me / Every freckle on my face is where it’s supposed to be / And I know my creator didn’t make no mistakes on me / My feet, my thighs, my lips, my eyes, I’m lovin’ what I see / I’m not the average girl from your video / And I ain’t built like a supermodel / But I learned to love myself unconditionally / Because I am a queen.”

Embrace your flaws, the way Cindy Crawford embraced her mole and Jewel embraced the gap in her teeth. Love who you are. That makes you beautiful.

We all know beautiful women who seem to lack substance and character; the more we get to know them, the less we recognize their beauty. My mom, who is 60 soon, is one of the most beautiful women in my world, and that’s because I know her heart.

Written by Allyson Welch

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