Girls and women get bombarded with unrealistic standards of beauty in media every day.
These ideals of beauty are highly unrealistic of course, yet girls are still taught that if they look like the woman on the cover of Seventeen, they will be happy. Personally trying to reach these standards when I was twelve years old led me to battle an eating disorder and led to a lot of self-hate when I realized I could never be as skinny or as flawless as the Photoshopped models in the magazines. I recognize and understand firsthand that unreachable beauty standards in our society are destructive.
In order to combat these unrealistic ideals, companies, groups, and people starting taking back beauty promoting ideals that “We are all beautiful”. I do believe that every girl deserves to feel beautiful in her own skin and it is important to emphasize that everyone is beautiful. The issue is that girls are still stuck being taught about outer beauty and just outer beauty. Yes, you are beautiful, on the outside.
Girls hear “great outfit!” and “you look beautiful in that!” or “your hair is great!” as constant compliments from teachers, family, friends, and mentors. Girls are taught to give each other compliments on appearance. Affirmations of beauty are flattering and sweet—I personally do not mind someone telling me that I look great—but the issue lies in making beauty the primary compliment. When beauty becomes the first thing we notice and use in order to raise self-esteem and self-worth, we are still perpetuating the idea that girls are only beautiful.
When I turned 15, I got more involved in my community and my school. I participated in city planning meetings, I planned events, I got involved in leadership in my county, I ran track. Despite my success and hard work, most of the affirmations I received centered around me being beautiful. I did not feel beautiful outwardly yet, so I worked my hardest to get myself to feel beautiful on the outside.
Then one day, someone told me I was a brilliant public speaker and a good writer. I cannot say that I completely forgot about outer beauty, because I didn’t. There were days I worried I was not pretty enough, but that simple and powerful affirmation led me to slowly start to realize that I was not just beautiful. I was smart. I was thoughtful. I was a hard-worker.
As I got older, I found my self-worth was less and less invested in my outer beauty and more invested in my talents, ideas, thoughts and feelings. It was apparent to me, however, that not everyone was invested in my thoughts or talents. While with my younger sister and brother, a man and a woman the three of us knew approached us in the store and started chatting. I was a few weeks away from starting college, and I was proud of my efforts. My sister and my brother had both participated in a regional Science Olympiad competition, where they both won awards.
Both the man and the woman talked about what was going on in their lives and we talked about our lives. When we finished speaking, the couple turned to my little brother and profusely congratulated him on his hard work and his smarts. In the same way, they turned to my sister and I, and without purposely trying to be demeaning, told us that we had grown so tall and were so beautiful and always very, very well-dressed. Was it a nice compliment? Yes. But my sister and I’s achievements did not get mentioned because we were girls, and so it seemed that naturally we would like to be complimented on our beauty first. I remember feeling angry that I was just beautiful. I struggled with how I looked, but it was always more satisfying to get a compliment about being smart than being pretty. It was more satisfying to know that my worth was not solely dependent on my looks.
My freshman year of college, I mentored an 8th grade girl, who was constantly very concerned about her appearance. She expressed that she wished she was more beautiful, and so each week I would honestly compliment her appearance. The second to last week we met, she walked into the cafeteria, and we started talking as usual, then she eagerly slammed down a paper in front of me. She got 100% on her science test. She then started quickly talking about wanting to be a doctor someday. I congratulated her, and about five minutes later, while she was still telling me about working in a hospital someday, she slipped off her jacket.
“Beautiful necklace!” I said, because it was.
She looked at me and smiled. “Thanks. But did you see my test?” She pushed it towards me again and continued to tell me about how she loved science.
Thanks. But did you see my test? I had been trying to build self-worth solely through her outer beauty, but what about her test? She was smart and she wanted to be a doctor and she loved science. She deserved to know she was beautiful outside. But more than that, she and all girls deserve to know that their efforts and ideas and thoughts and words are more important than their looks.