Like many of us, I often see inspirational photos and stories crop up on my various social media. Facebook, it seems, has the biggest soft spot when it comes to all things heartwarming. There are often these sweet little posts about people overcoming disadvantages and beating the odds to live life to its fullest, things your aunt might “like” and “share.” At times, it can all feel like one giant Successories poster taking up your entire computer screen. But for the most part, the stories stay to the charming side of cheesy, and rarely feel egregious in their near-fetishization of the triumph of perceived underdogs. Occasionally, though, they take a step into what I believe to be clearly unhealthy, never more so than when focusing on physical appearance.
There are often pictures of little girls or young women with congenital diseases such as progeria, diseases that leave their bodies ravaged and their day-to-day lives extremely difficult. There is nothing wrong with celebrating in their triumphs, but there seems something inherently wrong in the way they are often presented — dressed up in fancy clothes and captioned with the requisite “She’s so beautiful! So gorgeous!” The comments, of course, in an effort to be as supportive as possible, echo these sentiments. It’s all one big happy family in the inspirational photos section of Facebook, and everyone is beautiful.
It’s clear what the goal of this kind of reinforcement is: we all want to feel attractive, and lovely, and like we’re putting our best foot forward. No one wants to feel unappealing or hard to look at. And when we feel beautiful, we radiate a certain kind of confidence. That confidence, of course, makes us more attractive, more fun to be around. It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in that way, until we are reminded by the often uncaring outside world that we are not, in fact, as physically attractive as we might have been told by some reinforcing internet group or someone who is trying to placate us. Perhaps the only thing that matches the thrilling ego boost of being told we’re beautiful is the crushing defeat of being reminded that, to much of the world around us, we are not.
It is easy for us to accept the truth that most positive qualities are not universal. When it comes to things like intelligence, sense of humor, business savvy, people skills, and any number of attributes that make people appealing, we usually concede that we each have our strengths and weaknesses. It would be ridiculous to imply — or openly say — that everyone was a genius, or an extremely good communicator, or a very empathetic listener. It seems generally understood that, while we can certainly take active measures to improve our competence in a certain arena of life, traits such as these are not bestowed in equal measure upon everyone in the world. With physical beauty, however, it seems almost a requirement to say that each person — regardless of actual appearance — is gorgeous. Of course, one may counter that “beauty” implies a more radiant inner appeal that renders anyone who possesses it nice to look at. But we’re smart enough to know that we don’t have dozens of makeover shows to choose from that work on re-doing the soul. There is a premium put on physical beauty, and we are all universally striving to achieve some form of it.
Which is what separates physical beauty even more clearly from the other traits that we accept not everyone has, this idea that we should be constantly reaffirming for ourselves that we are, in fact, attractive. Through health problems, weight fluctuations, or any host of issues that may prevent us from being at the top of our appearance game, we are always told, first and foremost, that we are still “beautiful.” Even when a person is severely depressed and has, at least temporarily, lost interest in maintaining their aesthetic value — they are “beautiful.” We don’t tell them how smart they are, or how capable at their job, or how good of a listener, or how they can make people laugh. We tell them they are beautiful, because that is the balm that is supposed to soothe any emotional wound. It is the quality we are all supposedly in possession of, and it is what reminds us that we still have value.
No matter how much we insist that a person is beautiful, however, there are many people who will never be perceived by the world at large that way. There is a scale that ranges from “hideous” to “gorgeous,” and most of us fall somewhere around the middle. But all of us, regardless of where we fit in society’s perception, are going to be told from countless, well-meaning directions that we are lovely. We will also, it is very likely, have many moments which remind us quite clearly how unattractive society might perceive us. It is no secret that for some people who actually are stunningly, universally beautiful, the way in which they are treated by society can, in some capacity, ruin them. They are treated in a way that puts such high value on their appearance that they either do not develop or put little stock in the other parts of their personality that, when they lose some of their physical luster, are more essential than ever. There are people for whom the “gorgeous” rhetoric is true, but it clearly comes with its own pitfalls.
The problem, of course, does not lie in whether you are ruined by your beauty or slapped in the face by your lack of it when you walk out the front door — it lies entirely on the weight that society gives it in the first place. The fact that children (especially young girls) are told almost relentlessly that a huge part of their value and personhood lies in their appearance — and that this way of thinking is reinforced in even the most well-intentioned ways throughout life — is the actual issue here. Telling someone you think that they are beautiful because you honestly believe that is one thing, feeling the need to tell them because it is a token we feel we have to hand to everyone to confirm their worth is quite another.
It doesn’t upset me that people post comment after comment about how “beautiful” or “lovely” or “gorgeous” the little girl suffering from progeria or leukemia on my Facebook news feed is. I know that their hearts are in the right places, and that they really do see beauty in the girl’s strength and happiness in the face of adversity. I know that everyone — the commenter, the person who posted the picture, even the little girl — will walk away feeling happier for it. What does upset me is that hardly anyone makes any effort to know anything about the girl (what she likes to eat, her favorite books, a talent or hobby she might have) aside from the fact that she looks cute smiling in her flower hat. Her ability to still attend school and learn, to develop a sense of humor, to pursue extracurricular activities — those are all clearly more impressive than her ability to “look good” while suffering from such an illness. And yet, we are content to reassure her by telling her that she is still lovely. Will that stop a bully from making a nasty comment about her skin or her bald head? Absolutely not. Will our obsession with what she looks like make his comment sting more, because she has been taught relentlessly that so much of her worth lies in what she looks like? Quite possibly.
It stands to reason that being realistic about one’s own looks is possibly one of the best gifts we can give ourselves on a day-to-day basis. Whether it’s coming to terms with the fact that you may have to work harder than a more attractive or taller person to get the same things, or that developing other parts of your personality will only up your chances of success and happiness in life, or simply realizing that the beauty you have now is not going to last very long — tempering our expectations when it comes to physical appearance can only make dealing with everyday life easier and less filled with the stress of trying to keep up with an impossible standard of beauty.
We see Real Housewives-esque women who, in their forties and fifties, have turned to endless plastic surgeries to try to nip and tuck themselves into having their youthful beauty back. We see this and we cringe, not only because they don’t look younger (only tighter), but because there is a certain sadness in their clinging onto something that disappears for everyone at one point or another. When we see the desperation for beauty and physical affirmation played out in such a concise, visually jarring way, there is no mistaking how damaging our need to all be “beautiful” is. We can see how it cripples people into being jealous, even fearful, of those who are perceived as better looking — how it erodes our desire to develop other aspects of ourselves that aren’t so painfully ephemeral.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good about oneself, but there is clearly something unhealthy about depending on so much of that happiness to come from what you look like. The truth is that not everyone — not even most people — are viewed by the world around them as “beautiful,” physically speaking. And that’s fine. In fact, some might argue that it’s better to let go of whatever part of us is tied up in our looks as soon as possible, as what we have now is clearly not going to last anyway. But perhaps we should reconsider before we allow our first compliment towards someone be how “lovely” they are. We are so much more than what we look like, and it’s a shame that we allow ourselves to think that by constantly telling each other we are pretty, we are doing ourselves any kind of favors in the long run.