Blogger Erin McKean has a quote about beauty that I have been absorbing and realizing since I first heard it in middle school.
“You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street… you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female.’”
As a member of Gen Z, I have often heard the phrases, “everyone is beautiful,” and “inner beauty is more important than outer beauty.” When I was an angsty middle schooler in the throes of self-hatred I could not find it in myself to believe either of those two thoughts. When I read this quote, that all changed.
For some reason I have always thought that I needed to be attractive in order to be happy or valuable. I think this misconception is shared by many people, especially women. So many women in my life fear going out in public without makeup and won’t even go shopping without getting ready first.
For some people, this habit is one of self-care. I personally take great joy in dressing up and looking pretty for whatever occasion I can. I understand and appreciate femininity, self-care, fashion and makeup. The issue with this habit arises when someone cannot go outside looking less than perfect without becoming deeply anxious.
The unfortunate truth is that many women feel a deep urge to perform femininity at all times in order to simply exist peacefully.
This is because, in our society, most women are raised to believe they are valuable partly or solely because they are beautiful. This way of thinking is taught many ways, to a variety of extents and can be taught consciously or unconsciously.
When my friends worry about their appearance, the comforting answer is always “no, you look beautiful.” Often this is true! I believe all people have some level of beauty, and that everyone is attractive to someone. However, this truth is not as important as a more basic one: beauty does not give a human their value.
You do not exist to be beautiful; you owe it to no one and it does not give you value.
Humans are valuable simply because of their humanity: no caveats, no exceptions.
Dolled up in makeup and flattering clothes, or bare faced, sweaty, and in sweatpants, you are still valuable and you are still you.
Learning and processing this concept was hugely freeing for me as a young girl. I had felt for the longest time that because I had no male attention- basically, no boys in middle school had a crush on me- I was inherently less valuable than my peers. I was less beautiful, and since I thought beauty gave value, I was thus less worth less as a whole person.
Thankfully, I realized how incorrect and dangerous this idea is. Though societal teaching and internal loneliness can make it feel like one’s physical attractiveness is a hugely defining trait, it is not.
When I learned I did not exist to be attractive to others, several things changed.
First, I hated myself less. I knew I was smart, funny and interesting, I just thought that since I was ugly, in my own perception of myself, all of those facts were small and unimportant. But, if beauty didn’t give me value, I could ignore how I felt about my body and just focus on the traits I enjoyed about myself.
Second, I gave myself permission to express myself how I wanted to, without regard to how others would think of me. If others finding me attractive doesn’t make me valuable, then I can pair a leopard print shirt and a polka dot skirt. I can wear 80’s suit pants on Wednesday, oversized clothes in monochromatic pink on Thursday and a miniskirt on Friday.
I can be free to wear what I want when I want because I want to. Because I’m not dressing for anyone else, I can be as colorful and expressive and as modest or sexy as I want to be.
I can be put together or completely disheveled, and I am the same person with the same value.
Lastly, I could learn to love myself on my own terms. I don’t need to worry what the cute boy at the library thinks of my body because I think that it is great.
Ignoring societal perspectives on my body allows me to appreciate it more authentically. I don’t have to love my stomach when its flat and hate it when its not, I can appreciate it at all times for being an important part of me.
Realizing I don’t need to be beautiful to be valuable changed me. It let me comfortable in my own skin, express myself and love myself.
Building self esteem and tearing down years of self hatred is incredibly difficult, but it can start when you allow yourself to simply exist; free of the outdated notion that you must look good.