CATE O’BRIEN | OPINION COLUMNIST
What makes something beautiful?
It must have something to do with pleasure, right? Visual pleasure. Just as a symphony can exalt and entrance us, so can a portrait or a sunset. When we say something is beautiful, we’re saying that it is visually pleasant: that it brings us an almost inexplicable, overwhelming feeling of delight and joy.
What makes someone beautiful?
If I say being pleasant to look at again, people get uncomfortable. Because that implies that people who are not pleasant to look at are not beautiful, and it’s pretty taboo to say that there are people out there who aren’t beautiful. There are obviously reasons for this discomfort. Beauty is a really touchy subject in our current culture: people have physically harmed themselves in order to attempt to attain it. At some point, somebody realized this beauty obsession was a problem, and attempted to fix it by making sure no one felt like they weren’t beautiful. “EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL” was shouted from the rooftops, and it was empowering and exciting and it totally fixed the unhealthy culture we have surrounding beauty.
But did it? I remember being a thirteen-year-old girl with a constantly bloated stomach, dark circles around my eyes, and spotty red skin, thinking “Everyone is beautiful? Am I beautiful? Is this beauty?”
Because if beauty is being pleasant to look at, then no. I was not beautiful. Not everyone is beautiful. It’s painful; it’s hard to hear; and it’s probably kind of rude, so I apologize. But it’s true. Not everyone is beautiful.
I’m not writing this article to make everyone feel terrible about their appearances, I promise. The reason that this particular truth hurts so much (aside from the fact that it bruises the ego a bit) is that we value physical beauty so highly. Everyone needs to be beautiful, because if you’re not beautiful, you’re not worth anything in this society. And that is the problem we need to fix. We don’t need everyone to be beautiful. We just need everyone to be valued.
Telling people that they’re beautiful when they simply aren’t is ineffective and silly. If you aren’t beautiful, you aren’t beautiful, and that’s okay. Being visually pleasing is not the only (or even the most important) way to bring about others’ happiness and delight. Valuing yourself for who you are exactly as you are is so much easier than trying to convince yourself that you’re something you’re not.
There is no simple mantra that we can say to make the problem our society has with beauty go away. Claiming that everyone is beautiful was a well-intentioned idea, but it’s not going to fix the larger problem at hand: beauty and self-worth are tied so closely together it seems impossible to cut them apart. We need to realize that beauty should not define a person’s worth. Only then will we begin to tackle the deep-seated problem we have with beauty in this society.