Defining ourselves beyond beauty

Many women yearn to be, and to feel, beautiful. A bombardment of messages from our earliest days teaches us to equate being beautiful with being accepted, with being loved. It’s hard to escape that kind of conditioning. Even if we recognise that this is flawed, we may not initially be able to force ourselves to unlearn it emotionally.

Plenty of companies have swooped in on our insecurities and become wealthy as a result. Advertising campaigns promise us that this or that product will make us more beautiful. People dream up diets that will supposedly enable us to drop 10lbs in 10 days, or exercise routines to “flatten that tummy” and “tone up those thighs”.

Collectively we spend millions every year on lotions and potions, waxing and lasers, tanning and bleaching and dyeing, nipping and tucking, cleavage-enhancing bras and knickers we can’t eat in. There has been a backlash against this more recently; assuring us that we are beautiful, just as we are.

Yes, we are. Or perhaps not. The thing is: it doesn’t matter.

We are so much more than beautiful. We are no ornament on somebody’s mantelpiece. We do not exist as passive things to be looked at. We can participate. We can pursue our dreams, instigate change, help others, create art, fight good fights and speak to be heard. We can look damn fine doing it or we can look like roadkill – it doesn’t matter. We are equally valuable either way, because beauty is not our purpose. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, anyway.

Shanghai red.jpg

If we took our attention from fretting about our appearance and used that energy productively, what could we achieve? We need to take our eyes off the mirror and onto the world.

That doesn’t mean we must all go bare-faced and hairy. By all means, alter your appearance however you wish – but do it because it’s what you want, as opposed to what you think you should look like. We need to move from performing these rituals out of fear of rejection and ridicule to genuine, uninhibited choice, self-expression and celebration of who we are. We should do these things because we want to, mindfully and joyfully. We must realise that whether we are loved, desired, wanted, admired and accepted is not dependent on our beauty. Those who would dismiss us based on our appearance are not worth our time or consideration.

The question is, how do we overcome years of social conditioning to reach this place of strength? How do we free ourselves from self-consciousness, from the fear that we may not be beautiful, when we have learned to equate being beautiful with being acceptable? I fear there is no quick fix. It is a long road of staring down the mirror, and of telling ourselves over and over that beauty is irrelevant and we are so much more. It involves refusing to listen to those critical thoughts and to the whispers that we are not worthy. It involves filling our lives with authenticity and relationship and meaning. It involves using our talents and engaging with the world around us. It involves learning to receive support and affirmation from others.

I am walking this road. Sometimes I’m stumbling, sometimes even running back to the start, but slowly getting there. When I do trip up, I remember this quotation from Laurie Penny – it reminds me why I’m trying to live my life beyond the confines of society’s obsession with female beauty:

“Rather than fighting for every woman’s right to feel beautiful, I would like to see the return of a kind of feminism that tells women and girls everywhere that maybe it’s all right not to be pretty and perfectly well-behaved. That maybe women who are plain, large or differently abled, or who simply don’t give a damn what they look like because they’re too busy saving the world or rearranging their sock drawer, have as much right to take up space as anyone else”

I know other women who are also on this journey. Will you join the movement?

Image Description:

Image depicts a woman in a red dress walking down a street in the French Concession in Shanghai.

Credit: Jamie Manley. Used under Creative Commons licence. Image has been resized, but not otherwise altered.

Laura Wood is a historian, writer and mother. She blogs at and tweets @MrsJellybobUK.

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