After I recently made a comment on Twitter calling out a well-known game show host on his privilege, I received a lot of support from people who also found his post problematic. Those who agreed with me gave specific reasons why they felt that way too. Those who did not agree with me went a different route.
Instead of countering my argument with one of their own, they attacked my looks. Some commented on my weight, others on my general appearance, and one commenter even posted a GIF of Macaulay Culkin’s character in “Home Alone” giving a disgusted look at a picture frame they’d doctored to feature my profile picture.
It was certainly not the first time I have received negative attention directed at my looks. I was teased throughout my childhood, and plagued by my inability to “measure up” to my peers in the physical beauty department through my teens and early 20s. My insecurities about not being conventionally attractive overshadowed all the areas in which I truly did excel. No matter how skilled, accomplished or talented I was, not being considered conventionally attractive caused me to think of myself as less-than.
With a lot of time and a lot of introspection, I have reached a place where I am no longer so self-conscious about my physical beauty ― I am realistic about it. Still, having my appearance brought into a discussion completely unrelated to how I look is irritating, to say the least.
When I posted on my Facebook page about how frustrating the Twitter experience had been, I received a lot of well-meaning, but equally frustrating responses telling me that I’m beautiful. It was kind, and I appreciated the support, but it wasn’t what I needed to hear. I wasn’t upset about being called ugly, nor was I seeking reassurance that I was physically attractive. I was frustrated at having my intelligent discussion derailed by a focus on my looks.
The knee-jerk response to jump in with 'you’re beautiful' when someone’s attractiveness is questioned bothers me because it ends up reinforcing the idea that if someone isn’t physically beautiful, they aren’t valuable.
The knee-jerk response to jump in with “you’re beautiful” when someone’s attractiveness is questioned bothers me because it ends up reinforcing the idea that if someone isn’t physically beautiful, they aren’t valuable. This, of course, was not the intention of those who were being supportive but, unfortunately, it unwittingly perpetuates that belief.
Understanding what ― or who ― is beautiful is tricky because physical beauty is subjective. It can vary over time, differ among diverse cultural groups, and morph with the influence of advertising and media. And, of course, personal preference plays a large role. What I might consider attractive, someone else may not.
What’s more, there are so many ways to define beauty. Does it mean sexually attractive? Aesthetically pleasing? Something physical that stirs an emotion in us? Clearly there is no one measure of it. So, by this standard (or, perhaps more accurately, lack of standard), everything can be considered beautiful in its own way, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
On the surface, the “everyone is beautiful” campaigns appear to play off this supposed potential for physical beauty found in everything — and everyone — but their fundamental message isn’t the same. These campaigns are still positing physical attractiveness as a value that is preferred or privileged over other characteristics. Even if the aim is to try to explain or justify the claim that everyone is beautiful, the emphasis is still on beauty.
When I was flooded with “you are beautiful” comments after being called ugly, I received one response that stood out from the others. It simply read, “you are powerful.” That comment meant the world to me. It recognized that my looks had nothing to do with the argument I had made. Instead of trying to convince me that I wasn’t ugly ― as if ugly was the worst thing I could possibly be ― it let me know that this person had seen my original intent. She saw that I was frustrated at having my argument taken seriously simply because of the distraction of my profile picture. I don’t need to be seen as beautiful when I am making an empowered argument ― I need to be listened to.
The experience made me wonder what would happen if we stopped trying to argue that everyone is physically beautiful. When someone is called ugly, and is then reassured by others that they are beautiful, the message is not, “You bring your own form of beauty into this world”; it is a reflexive reaction to the discomfort of seeing someone being called out as not being conventionally attractive. While the standards for being conventionally attractive vary, they still exist, and, like it or not, not everyone is going to measure up to even the bare minimum of those cultural ideals.
I am a huge supporter of challenging these standards, particularly when it comes to the creation of unattainable aesthetics through photo-editing trickery. I think ads should include a diversity of body types, looks, abilities and representations of many kinds of people. Representation is incredibly important, but, even so, that does not mean that everyone needs to be beautiful.
Can you imagine if there were campaigns that claimed “everyone is good at soccer” or “everyone sings beautifully”? Of course neither of those statements is true. Instead we tell ourselves and each other that everyone has their own strengths and talents and we all excel in our own way. So, why isn’t the same logic applied to what our society has come to understand ― rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly — as physical beauty? Why does everyone need to be labeled as or assured they are conventionally beautiful?
Other than the fact that a person’s looks are immediately observable, the reason that “ugly” is so frequently the go-to insult people use to attack others ― even when it is completely incongruous to the situation ― is because we have set the expectation that everyone be beautiful in some way. Even if that physical beauty isn’t immediately apparent, the media and the so-called beauty industry have told us (and taught us) to believe that with the right makeover or products or procedures, our physical beauty can be revealed or coaxed out. Calling someone ugly means they have failed at this undertaking, and that is why it stings so badly ― or at least is meant to. No one would respond to an argument they disagree with by saying, “You’re not inherently talented at painting.”
So, what if we took the power away from “ugly”? If we accept that not everyone is conventionally attractive and that physical appearance is just one (and, I’d argue, certainly not the best) way to measure the worth of a human being, then being called ugly loses its bite. I am comfortable saying I am intelligent, funny and creative. I am also comfortable saying that I am terrible at sports, I am not a good dancer and I do not turn heads with my stunning beauty when I walk into a room. It took me a long time to get there, but those truths all carry equal weight in my eyes. I have my strengths, as do others.
If we accept that not everyone is conventionally attractive and that physical appearance is just one (and, I’d argue, certainly not the best) way to measure the worth of a human being, then being called ugly loses its bite.
While I encourage everyone to concentrate on broadening our culture’s notion of what physically beautiful looks like, I understand that’s an uphill battle. But there’s one thing we could start doing immediately. Instead of rallying around “everyone is beautiful” campaigns, I’d like to see people undertaking and promoting “everyone is valuable” campaigns. We do not all need to be conventionally beautiful, just as we do not all need to be thin or able-bodied. But we do all need to be respected.
Let’s concentrate on complimenting and uplifting people based on their strengths instead of wasting our energy on offering automatic and often disingenuous assurances of physical attractiveness. If we accept conventional beauty as one single area in which someone may excel, but not as something all-encompassing that we must all have or want to achieve, then we take away the power of ugly. Because, at the end of the day ― or in the middle of a debate ― I would rather be told that I am respected and valued for who I am than be told that I am beautiful.
Emphasizing value takes away subjectivity. Who is attractive and who is not is subjective. Who is respected and treated as a whole human being should not be. “You are valued” leaves room for people to be imperfect and to not excel in some areas. Unlike beauty, it can be applied equally to everyone. It means, “I see you and I respect your rights to personhood and dignity, regardless of your personal strengths and weaknesses.”
I don’t want to be beautiful. I want to be valued.
Heather M. Jones is a writer, mom and Torontonian. She writes about parenting, humor and social justice issues. She can be reached via her website at www.hmjoneswriter.com.