Try it. In a group of self-identified women, try calling yourself ugly. Out loud. Try telling these people, possibly your friends, but even if they aren’t, that you don’t think you are beautiful. At best one of them might offer you condolences on how hard that must feel. But probably, you will be straight up denied. NO! That’s not true! You are so beautiful! Don’t even say that! Oh please! If you are ugly what am I? How can you think that?
I could go on.
And I’m pretty sure that this is true, kinda whatever you actually look like. Perhaps not globally, there are places in the world where telling someone they are ugly or admitting to your own ugliness is not as culturally taboo as urban middle class white Canada. But in urban, middle class, white Canada, a self-identified female cannot call herself ugly to another self-identified female. You are simply not allowed.
For one, there is inner beauty to consider. But that is not what I am talking about. Inner beauty has other names, like kindness, generosity, compassion, insight. Inner beauty is a catch all for things that aren’t outer beauty. It is not a helpful term, not really. Only perhaps to highlight that it is something people attribute to others in relation to their outer beauty. Because outer beauty, like whiteness or middle classness, is the standard, against which all deviants are measured.
For another, of course someone out there, somewhere, will find you beautiful! Of course! This must be true and if it is not, it is just not yet true. But this is also not what I am talking about. I am not talking about people finding each other attractive. Attraction is different. I can be attracted to the way someone parallel parks, or makes me a picture in the foam of my coffee. Attraction is chemistry and history and context and weather and how much caffeine or alcohol you’ve had. This is not the beauty of which I speak.
And then, of course, there is the fact that you are beautiful! Look at those eyes! Your hair! I wish I had your boobs! Your hands are so elegant! Or whatever! There are often features, some part of one’s body that can be picked on and praised, raised up to such glorious heights that it is quite surprising that one does not find oneself amidst an illustrious career as a hand model or setting the shampoo commercial standard. There are things, always things, about you, that conform. There are individual parts of a person that can fit so tidily into beauty that the very idea of ugly is reprehensible.
Do not forget (depending on your group of interlocutors, this may not come up) that it is the patriarchy that makes you feel ugly! It is racism and ableism and ageism and lookism and capitalism and consumerism. All of this is true, of course. You were no doubt shamed, at some point, about your body. Learned to fear what it represented, learned to hate it because it could never conform, learned to punish it, learned to hide it, learned to consume (and not consume) to improve it and do all manner of injury to it and your heart because the world made very clear from very early that your body is wrong and therefore you are wrong so fix it or ye shall fail, fail, FAIL. You worthless piece of shit.
It was hard, having a body, and being a self-identified female. It is hard. So you’ve earned your beauty, you’ve won it, after years of self-hatred and pain, beauty is the prize. Beauty is the proof that patriarchy was wrong all along. That in fact our bodies are perfect temples to be worshipped and moisturized.
Still, I am not talking about self-love. Important as it is, the beauty I am talking about is not the (mythical?) feeling of completeness or accomplishment that comes from years of battling the narratives of hate and sexism.
In the hypothetical (and for some of us, very real) conversation I dared you have however, before you are allowed to speak again, some or all (and more) of these responses will be leveled vehemently against your claim. You will, mostly likely, be silenced. If you defend it at all, efforts will be re-doubled, at worst they will give you specific beauty or dieting or exercise tips. The whole conversation will be a hot awkward mess and anyone with any body (or general) anxiety will be glad to be rid of it.
So, here’s the rub.
The problem is, that a lot of us, a LOT of us, do not have the body or shape or face or skin or hair of what we think of as beautiful in this society. Archetypically beautiful. The kind of beauty we are sold as ‘beauty’. The commodified kind. The one in the magazines. The one we talk about to our friends. The one that makeup is supposed to help us with. The one we go to the gym for. The one we are taught to want to want. That beauty, that unattainable goal that supposedly nobody has.
Some people, do in fact, look a little bit like this ideal. Very few people think that they do. Very few people feel beautiful all the time. Regardless of this, some people do in fact get real jobs as models. Some people do fit into the clothes that they buy. Some people are more easily classified as archetypically beautiful. Many of us know these people. We see them with our eyes.
Please don’t stop reading, I am not creating more hierarchy, I promise.
Some of us, are so far from conforming to that image that it really is quite a stretch to call us beautiful. It is just, as a matter of fact, not accurate. This is not low self-esteem, this is not hunting for compliments, this is simply noticing that, in fact, I do not have the features of someone even vaguely resembling our current beauty norms. And to some of us, that’s fine.
Let me rephrase that. For some of us, we are fine with not being beautiful.
In fact, although beauty is a good all over the world, in some places, it is not the only good, or even the primary good, a woman can have. In some self-identified women’s hearts, it is just as valuable as, say, being a good chess player. And some people are not good chess players. That is ok. Not everybody needs to be. Just like, drum roll please…not everybody needs to be beautiful.
It does not make me less of a woman because I am not beautiful. It is really fine. It doesn’t mean I have low self esteem. It means I can look at a magazine, or a billboard, or most of the clothes on sale anywhere in this city and think ‘not applicable’. It’s an entire category of existence that I can simply not worry about. I have worried about it, I’m not an alien. But I currently happen to be relieved of the duty to report ‘beautiful’ on the list of attributes included in my existence.
In some ways, it is a great relief.
But alas, I am not allowed to say this. Because we still cling so tightly to our worth as woman being aligned with our esthetic value (which, by the way, is the work of patriarchy, thank you very much). But by shutting me down, you are, in fact, making me feel worse. You are, in fact, reinforcing the idea that beauty IS the most important feature of my humanity, so much so that it CANNOT POSSIBLY BE THE CASE that I am not beautiful because …it’s just impossible. It is too important.
Can we imagine a world where it is just fine for women to not be beautiful? Just as fine as not being good at chess? That it is just a thing, like all other things, some have and some don’t, we can appreciate in others but should we not be blessed with, we are not terribly bothered with?
Our sisters combat us when we call themselves ugly because they do not want us to think lowly of ourselves. I offer that it is possible to call yourself ugly and be fine with the label and not actually think lowly of oneself and, in fact, not want to be argued with. That it is, actually, not up for debate. Feel free to find me beautiful if you choose, that is on you, but if it is a good that I care nothing for, do not expect me to defend your categorization of my looks. I have a right to value what I think are my strengths, and not have you enforce your values on my skin.
I think some of our sisters also combat us when we call ourselves ugly because it reflects on them. Because they, understandably, are afraid that if some women can get out of the beauty complex, it makes their own struggle with it redundant, stupid. This is not selfishness, this is survival. I am not judging you who fear the disruptors. For so many people, it is not safe to disrupt. It is a privilege of mine to disrupt. I am white. I am able bodied. I can get away with this.
I am not here to undermine your struggle. It is real, it is hard. It is not mine. And it is not my duty to defend your membership in the beauty club. My ability to step out of it should make it easier to choose — choose to perform beauty or not. It’s a great choice. It’s not a great duty. My lack of desire to be understood as beautiful does not mean you should not want to be, work to be, bleed, sweat and scream to be. You are welcome to become the best chess player you can be, if anything, my not participating in the game should make it easier. Please stop reminding me how important it is to be beautiful. For me, it really isn’t.
So maybe next time a lady friend says that she doesn’t think she is beautiful, consider asking “and is it important to you to beautiful?” instead of pouncing and silencing. It might make for a more interesting, and maybe even liberating, conversation.