I am not the kind of person who is usually described as beautiful. When I point this out, people are promptly dismayed, and they rush to assure that I am quite beautiful, and lovely just the way I am. Those people are kind of missing the point, which is that I don’t need beauty. I don’t care about beauty. Being ‘beautiful’ is not an important goal for me and I’m not sad that I haven’t attained a form of beauty, conventional or otherwise. I really just don’t care.
I see a lot of talk in feminist communities about ‘inner beauty’ and promoting ‘more than just conventional beauty’ but one thing I don’t see aired very often is why, exactly, beauty is so damn important. I know that we are indoctrinated to believe that beauty in all people should be important, but is it, really? Is it really that important that everyone be ‘beautiful,’ inner or outer or any other way? Must we seek ‘beauty in ugliness’? Why can’t some things, some people, actually just allowed to be ugly, or be allowed to be neutral?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I feel like while people are well meaning when they try to promote beauty, and to expand the way people think about beauty, in the end, it all comes down to reinforcing the idea that beauty is important. Telling people they are perfect just the way they are carries a subtle hint, to me, a suggestion that they might think they are substandard and are unhappy about it and need to be reassured. This creates a kind of vicious cycle—I never started worrying about my weight, for example, until someone made a point of reassuring me that I ‘wasn’t really’ fat, and that’s when I became anorexic, in that quest to be thin enough, because surely if someone had made a point of making sure I knew I wasn’t really fat, I was fat, right?
There’s a culture among many women, a culture based on putting down your own body to fish for compliments, in full expectation that someone will respond ‘oh no, you’re not [trait you just labeled yourself with]’ because these traits are viewed as undesirable. And while many feminists rightly fight this, fight the labeling of these traits, some of the feminist ideas around ‘beauty’ trouble me.
The thing about formerly stigmatised identities is that they are very hard to repurpose and claim and one of the reasons for this is that people insist on stripping you of your identity, over and over. Fat people are constantly told they ‘aren’t really’ fat or they aren’t like ‘those’ fatties over there when they are proudly trying to wear that label. Us nonbeautiful people, whatever you want to call us—ordinary, ugly, plain—are told ‘oh no, you’re beautiful’ even as we are, perhaps, struggling with our identities and wanting to own them and identify them and claim them. I don’t want to be beautiful and this is a concept so alienating to people that I think it frightens them. Who wouldn’t want to be beautiful? Isn’t that the goal we all aspire to?
People tell me I’m beautiful all the time, and they mean it as a compliment; they are talking about my words or what they may think of as my ‘spirit’ and it irks me, but I can’t say it irks me, because ‘beauty,’ to be ‘beautiful,’ to be praised for being aesthetically pleasing or having an ‘inner beauty’ despite your ugly exterior, these are supposed to be positive traits. Rejecting those traits is offensive to the person labeling you with them. Claiming a plain identity and actively rejecting not just the beauty standard, but the shadow beauty standard, is an act of rude defiance.
What is the shadow beauty standard? It’s the beauty standard that has arisen in communities working to fight the beauty standard. It is the inevitable outgrowth of well meaning activism. As people actively and rightly work to fight a beauty standard that admits only a very narrow category of people and bodies, a shadow standard is created, the ‘beautiful just as you are’ and ‘inner beauty’ standard.
I see parallels between this and some aspects of disability activism, where people who have been told all their lives to ‘be strong’ work towards a place of acceptance with their bodies and who they are, a place that allows them to ask for help and to be interdependent, and their claiming of this interdependent identity is repeatedly stripped by people who call them ‘strong.’ Maybe they don’t want to be ‘strong.’ Maybe ‘strong’ is not a goal they are working towards or a place they want to be, maybe ‘strong’ is what they almost killed themselves trying to achieve and they are happy to finally be in a place where they are ok with being ‘weak,’ a trait traditionally thought of as bad. Maybe they are happy being in a place where they say ‘no, I am not strong enough to be alone, I need you,’ but the insistence on calling them ‘strong’ persists and erodes that identity they try to claim.
People mean to pay a compliment when they say that someone is ‘beautiful’ or ‘strong’ but what they are unknowingly doing is reinforcing the shadow standard, where certain traits are deemed universally positive and desirable and their opposites are lesser, undesirable, unwanted. For people working towards an acceptance of all people and all bodies, it is frustrating to see a continual slippage into upholding the shadow standard; even as we recognise that, say, ‘strength’ can take many forms, can we accept that it’s an identity that not everyone wants?
And can we accept that, for some people, these labels are actively harmful, that they may have been resisting and fighting them for a long time? That for some people who fought to meet the social standard and almost lost that battle, almost fell off into the abyss, rejecting these concepts is an act of empowerment? And having the shadow standard forced on them undermines what they have worked so hard for?