by Sarah Kaplan
“You’re so beautiful!”
It’s one of the most pervasive of pleasantries, cooed at pigtailed toddlers, gushed to friends. I’m guilty of it too. It’s so much easier to compliment someone’s appearance than find something more substantial to talk about. And it’s easier still to accept that vague flattery without question. Everybody likes to be told they’re beautiful.
Here’s the thing though: I’m not.
This isn’t some expression of feminine modesty or self-loathing. It’s the truth. I’m not ugly, but I’m not beautiful either. My hair is frizzy, my skin isn’t clear. My cuticles are eternally ragged. Some days I manage to pull off a particularly cute outfit, and my hair chooses to behave, and then I look in the mirror and think, “I look great!” But I don’t believe that’s the same thing as beauty. Beauty is rare — an exception, not the rule. And I know that my appearance is not a category in which I’m exceptional.
I’m okay with that. Because although I don’t think of myself as beautiful, I pride myself on being intelligent, compassionate, and hard working — even exceptionally so. I have dry, uneven fingernails because I bite them while writing breaking news stories. My face is sunburned and acne-ed because I run marathons. I’d rather be acknowledged for these accomplishments than for how I look.
That’s why I wish people would stop telling me I’m beautiful. Hearing those words don’t make me feel beautiful, especially when I know they’re not true. Likewise, those ubiquitous well-intentioned ad campaigns and children’s television shows that insist every woman is beautiful aren’t giving girls more confidence. Instead, they’re a reminder that femininity is inextricably tied to appearance. That a woman can be many things, but beauty is essential.
After all, no one is selling soap by telling women that they’re all smart, athletic, articulate, generous, funny, or reliable. “Beautiful” is the buzzword that can contort a woman’s mind, grip her heart (and her wallet). American women spend $28 billion a year on beauty products, more than we spend on education, but we’re not any happier for it. In fact, ads for products meant to enhance women’s appearances wind up making us feel more inadequate. Watching TV commercials that feature skinny models makes girls feel less confident and more than a third of women say that concern about what they eat or weigh interferes with their happiness. Beauty is so essential to how we judge a woman’s value that women who have “below average” looks earn 9% less than their more average-looking counterparts.
I find these figures staggering, and I want out. I want to not want to be beautiful. I want beauty to be incidental — just another one of the qualities that make a person special, like perfect pitch: nice for those possess have it but by no means essential to who they are. That won’t happen until we stop pretending all women are or can or should be beautiful. Until we allow each other — and ourselves — to simply be what we are.
Call me smart. Call me kind. Call me, maybe? I’ll be thrilled by them all. But you don’t need to call me beautiful.