Not many people can say that they rely on SPF 70 to avoid looking like a toasted strawberry. I’m also left-handed, I can ramble on for hours, and I kind of glow in the dark like Casper, the friendly ghost. I’m unique and different, that’s for sure.
But I’ve never thought of myself as beautiful. Can unique and different be beautiful?
As a little girl, I used to study my reflection in the long wide mirror in my peppy, pink gingham printed bathroom. Staring straight on, so close to the mirror that my nose brushed up against the glass, I remember asking myself, “Am I pretty?”
As per usual, a yes/no question turned into a lengthy explanation, clearly avoiding a decisive conclusion.
“Well not in the typical, traditional sense, but maybe in a classic, old vintage-esque way.”
I studied my milky white skin. Too young to have yet learned the wonders of Clinique tinted BB moisturizer, my face was lightly speckled with freckles and my skin tone was slightly uneven. I noted the full cheeks (that to this day remain one of my biggest insecurities), the straight dark hair lying flat against my semi heart shaped face, and the naturally thick, dark eyebrows highlighting big, expressive eyes that I hoped resembled the actress and timeless style icon, Audrey Hepburn. But the more I stared, the more I began to question my looks.
I stepped back from the mirror and began to analyze the rest. In the end, I determined that I was the polar opposite of Audrey, my ultimate beauty standard. And since I could never have her small, delicate nearly 5’7 frame or her teensy tiny waist, I decided that I could not possibly be beautiful or “pretty.”
I was young, a middle schooler stuck in the years of awkwardness, catfights, and endless drama, but even at the ripe age of 20, I still think about that night — the night I decided that I wasn’t “pretty.”
To clearly understand the extent to which our celebrity culture and infatuation with Photoshop perfection has infiltrated our even most basic logical reasoning is difficult to say the least. The media tempts us with this idyllic fantasy that seems so tangible you can almost touch it, and then suddenly jerks it away with a sly smile that seems to say, “You can always do better. Be prettier. Be thinner. Be more ‘perfect.’”
There is beautiful or ugly. Fat or skinny. Good or bad. Slutty or prudish. Girly or tomboyish. Smart or ditzy. Sweet or bitchy. We are trapped in the either/or’s, caught up in the race to conform to a standard that ignores the merits and beauty of individuality — a No Man’s Land for any variation of “pretty” that poses a threat to the beauty binary.
A friend once described my face as “striking.” It was a rather rare compliment and as I spent the rest of the afternoon skiing against a picturesque backdrop of the heavenly Colorado mountains, I couldn’t help but wonder what “striking” truly meant.
An internal dialogue commenced:
“Striking implies some level of attractiveness, but also a certain distinctive type of attractiveness. Striking isn’t conventional. It’s unusual, but is it beautiful? Can a word like ‘striking’ be beautiful in terms of society’s narrow construction of beauty?”
And once again I questioned if I was beautiful.
This past summer, when I was living in Medellín, Colombia, immersed in a culture that celebrated an entirely different standard of beauty, I asked myself time and time again, “What is beautiful?” Is it the tall, flat-chested runway model or the average American woman with breasts, hips, and thighs? Up until that moment, I had grown accustomed to equating thinness with beauty. But in Colombia, one of the plastic surgery “Meccas” of the world, the widespread appeal of a curvier physique blurred the subconscious connection we are socialized to make between thinness and beauty here in the United States. And while my translucent paleness and intolerance to the strong Colombian sun still made me somewhat of an anomaly, over the eight weeks, I felt a steady decline of that nagging self-deprecation.
And now, in Spain, I gaze down a full metro car and once again struggle to pin down the concept of beauty, to one face, to one style, to one among many. I see the savvy Spanish women, statuesque and slender, styled and sophisticated. Not a hair out of place, carefully arranged from head to toe in their loose silky tops and bright, colorful skinny jeans. I feel out of place and self-conscious. I don’t look like them.
We are all products of our environment, marked by countless experiences, relationships, and encounters within our global society. But how must we internalize beauty ideals and cultural norms that seemingly contradict each other? If the criteria for fitting any such beauty norm is dynamic and heavily influenced by culture and tradition, how can there be any one standard of beauty? And why are woman striving or expected to desire to be “beautiful” — a loaded and yet elusive word that fails to proclaim anything profound about ourselves as individuals?
So my last question is:
What is “beautiful”?