You see her here and there, in pockets of candlelight or on the subway. Just a glimpse of her — and you know she knows. There’s no way she can’t. It’s in the way she dresses herself, in the way she’s smiling over the book she’s reading or the story her friend is telling, or the way she’s surreptitiously checking her makeup to ensure that it’s still in all the right places as it was when she did it that morning. It’s in the photos she posts on Instagram and the ones she leaves tagged on Facebook.
She knows she’s beautiful, but it’s more than just the appearance and her outer trappings. It’s how she holds herself. She knows. And you can’t begrudge her for having that knowledge, because it is a rare sort of self-assurance that isn’t stuck-up or snobbish. For all its wonderful self-esteem, it just is.
In a world where we’re told left, right, and center how to look and what to wear and how to act and what beautiful is, you sort of want to thank her for not taking cues from anyone else or for the sake of anyone else, and simply presenting herself as how she wanted to be viewed. As beautiful.
And there’s nothing wrong with that either.
I remember the first time someone told me I was ugly to my face. I’m not naive enough to think that it was the first time someone said it about me — kids are vicious and catty and mean, and will latch onto any insecurity they can find, only to dissect it ad nauseam amongst themselves — but it was the first time someone had the guts to say it to me, and it stuck with me. It was in 8th grade, and I was wearing a lime green shirt, the kind with the kind of high spandex content that might have made it more suitable for a workout shirt than a casual tank. But this girl called me over to where she and her friends were sitting, and as they giggled on behind her, she asked me what it was like to be ugly, and if I should be wearing that shirt because I looked like (I will never forget these words) “a pregnant 13 year-old.” I think I stared at her rather blankly before walking away. I don’t think I gave her the satisfaction of a reply. I would like to think I didn’t. I honestly can’t remember much beyond the fact that she said that.
I grew up in a household that was, for all its struggles, full of love. My mother would (and still does, bless her) tell me I was a beautiful child, and told stories about how people would gush about what a beautiful baby I was. As most children who squirm under their parents’ adoration are liable to do, I batted it off and told her she was embarrassing me. I was also a rather ungainly kid — chubby, loud, too smart for my own good, and awkward as hell — so I imagined my mom was biased. And as I grew, boys would try to tell me I was pretty — this is not to puff myself up, but just to relay the naive dating rituals of unsure preteens who are copying what they see people do in popular culture — and I would squirm under their words, too. I was much more comfortable with being funny, with being silly and goofy and smart. Not pretty. I didn’t look like the stereotypical version of pretty plastered all over the place, either. I figured they were lying.
Something funny began to happen once I escaped the hell that is puberty and changing bodies and hormones and grade school — I did a lot of work for myself, and went to therapy and read self-help books and exercised not for looks but for how it made me feel, and began to explore the idea that the person staring back in the mirror at me wasn’t such a bad person after all. That she didn’t need a whole hell of a lot of fixing. That she was fine as-is. And, yes, that she might even be pretty. (What’s more, that she was allowed to be pretty, and allowed to want to be pretty, and could do things to enhance that prettiness for herself.)
I know this sounds self-absorbed and conceited, and I think that’s in part because we’re conditioned and taught to think that women who know and own what they look like are these things. We’re taught from a very young age that modesty is best, and that taking pride in your appearance is a sign of misaligned morals. We’re taught that models are vapid human beings, and that looks fade (and sometimes they do, and sometimes people get better with age) so we shouldn’t put stock by them. But we’re also told to retain as much youth as we can, and to do everything we can to stay beautiful – for other people. All told, the search for perpetual beauty is an industry that tallies in the literal billions, so maybe the people for whom we’re staying beautiful are the people who sell us our beauty. It’s a cycle, and it’s not a good one, at that.
We also rally behind ideas that it’s good to be smart — and this is true. J.K. Rowling once railed against the “skinny-obsessed world” to thunderous applause. (Though this is Hollywood talking, even the ultimate smart girl, Hermione Granger — well, Emma Watson — turned out to be other-worldly beautiful and graduate from a top-ranked university. Maybe this is proof that we can have it all.)
But then come in the songs about the women who don’t know they’re beautiful, and this is where I take pause.
Arianna Rebolini at Buzzfeed wrote a wonderful takedown on these songs already, so I won’t get too deep into it, but it always seems like there’s at least one love song in the collective conscious about how a woman doesn’t know how pretty she is. In swoops the singer – often a man, but Colbie Caillat’s new song ‘Try’ also has that overarching message — to reassure her that there’s no other woman in the world quite like her, and she swoons.
Like Rebolini, I have to admit that I cried at Legend’s and Caillat’s videos, and if you stood Lloyd Dobler-style under my window with Bruno Mars’ anthem blaring from a set of iPod speakers, I’d probably think it was sweet. These songs are catchy, and they hint to something that exists deep within us — our insecurities, and the fact that at the end of the day, we do want to be considered pretty — and the thing that lies behind that: loved.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, however, are the songs about the girls who know they’re pretty — the bad girls, the bad bitches, the ones who know they’ve got it. And funnily enough, these are the messages most played out in rap music — a genre of music that a lot of people consider to take unkindly to women. And sure, these women are considered confident and pretty, and it ultimately benefits the narrator of the song, who then usually turns the woman into a sexual prop. Again, the artist is often male, but artists like Nicki Minaj are turning that around, slowly. And every once in a while is a song about how a pretty girl did a man wrong, but you can’t exactly blame her skewed habits in love and life on her looks alone. (More often than not, her looks are something that enable her heartbreaking, terrorizing ways, and not the underlying problem.)
My point is, there’s a whole host of women — and none seem to know what they should do. Should they not know they’re beautiful, and then in turn know that they’re beautiful for it? (Stephen Colbert doesn’t think so.) Or should they know they’re beautiful and then wreak havoc because of it? Should they use their looks to get ahead in the world — to marry well, to go after that job promotion? Or should they feign modesty and hide away as dutiful and silent portraits of beauty, and nothing else? Should we spend that money on the clothing and makeup that are positively hawked at us and promise beauty? Or do we decide we’re beautiful as is, eschew it all, and withstand the judgment that lies therein?
That’s why it’s always so wonderful to see that woman on the street, the one who just knows it, whatever “it” means to her. And sure, sometimes she has bad days, and fat days, and days when she cannot physically be bothered to put on anything nicer than her grubbiest sweats and march her butt to the bodega for a pint of ice cream and a carton of Cap’n Crunch to crush on top. And some days, she’s going to look better than even Marilyn Monroe, that tormented ghost of feminine beauty and wiles, whose beauty routine is the stuff of legend. But the point is, she does all of these things and more. Because she knows that though beauty might be fleeting, and though it might not exactly be something that changes the landscape of world peace (unless you’re like, Helen of Troy) it’s still something she could take pride in.
So here’s to her, and to the women like her. Here’s to the women who might have been called names growing up — or even to to the ones who were told nothing but that they were pretty, and who actually listened. Here’s to the women who take pride in what they look like, and, at the same time, in the words that come out of those pretty mouths. Here’s to the women who know that your looks don’t diminish your brain, and that though people might be looking at you, you can still force them to listen to you. Here’s to the women who see nothing wrong in being both the brains and the beauty, and who don’t need a song to tell them that they’re either bad or beautiful.
Here’s to the women who take those cues from and for themselves. To the ones who see nothing wrong in wanting to be, and then manifesting their own sense of self and style and grace and beauty. Here’s to the ones who define what they believe beautiful to be for themselves and their lives.
Here’s to the women who already know they’re beautiful (and don’t need another article to tell them that they are). And here’s hoping they instill this self-worth into their sisters and daughters and nieces and granddaughters. Because my God, there’s so much beauty in this world, but we would never lose anything by having more.