By Rey Duff
Graphic by Vivian Fung and Saif Khan
Editor - Chika Ojukwu
What is beauty?
What do you think is beautiful?
I often ask myself, “Are these different questions?”, I don’t know. What I do know is the way beauty is prescribed. I have seen the standards of ideal beauty change slightly throughout the years and the idea that some people are beautiful, and others are not remaining the same. Today, I still find myself looking in the mirror and thinking about the things to “fix” about what I see. I struggle to remember that my appearance has never been what needs to be fixed or that my body and appearance are in the wrong and that the posts of influencers on Instagram, actors on TV, and diet ads on my feed are.
“Practice makes perfect”, was what was echoed to me throughout my childhood. I doubt aesthetics were what my mother was referring to, in her case I think it was more the music lessons I neglected. Either way, words have a way of sinking in and worming their ways into places they don’t belong. What I took away from her words was that if I did everything right: the right clothes, the right makeup, and the right jewelry, I could be perfect. I could be beautiful. The idea, as I understood it, was that my previous self wasn’t perfect and that being perfect was desirable. And to be desirable was everything.
I’ve told people before that I struggled deeply with body image as a child, but they never really understood it. I remember being eight and deciding I would never like running because an incident occurred one day at school where I’d finished my lap around the track and a boy in my class had said, “Oh I love watching fat people run. Their legs jiggle, it’s so funny.” I remember going home and having my brother mock my weight, mock my health, and ultimately, mock me. Not being the right size was funny. My body was funny but it was not beautiful. I didn’t want to fix it. I always thought that beauty gurus on YouTube looked a little odd, but in choosing not to “fix it” I felt like I was failing at the chance to be right, to be perfect.
Children should never feel the need to have to dress up and wear makeup to the point that they look like small adults. I never looked the way preteens on Instagram look now-wearing clothes that sexualize their too young bodies and makeup that ages them too many years-but part of me wanted too at that age. Even then, I knew there was power in beauty. I am aware of how important it is to be perceived as beautiful. I am not a girl, but I have always been viewed as a girl. As a girl to the world, I am expected to know how to apply eye-shadow, make sure there is no body hair visible anywhere, and make sure my clothing is not too long nor too short. They say, “You want to be attractive, but you don’t want to show too much”. It’s not just the media (even though they are one of the loudest voices), it’s family and friends and strangers on the street that think they have a right to someone they have never seen before. I thought fitting into the expectations of others meant that I could have more, do better, and be better.
Beauty felt like this to me for years: A strain on my skin, pulling and stretching me out to shape me into something new...or not something new. Trying to take the difference out of me and repackaging me into whatever is in style that season. Whether it be the twenty product "no-makeup look" I should have learned somehow, or the perfectly manicured but still messy imperfections. Flaws are not allowed unless they can be mastered. This is the beauty ideal that the media tells the world is the standard.
“Be desirable. Look at yourself and see what you can be for others.” This is the conditioning created so that you want to be looked at and appreciated for being pretty. But you have to put the work in. You have to make yourself up. What for? It is wrong to be desired but also wrong to scorn it. When I pose in the mirror, is it okay if it’s for myself? I have to ask if I am doing it for my confidence or practicing how to fit into other people’s wants. There is nothing wrong with liking beautiful things. There is nothing wrong with admiring things. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be liked. But there is a line. And I am still learning to keep the line in place so I do not confuse wanting to be liked with changing myself into a version of ‘beautiful’ that I have never gotten along with.
Again and again, I look into the mirror and ask who I am looking for. I run my hands along my face, go outside, and realize that beauty is more than people. Beauty has always been more than one look and more than one thing. That’s what I tell myself now. There is nothing more natural than loving beautiful things. The only thing wrong is how the media has twisted the definition of beauty.
I like beauty. I will never like the beauty others see in the prescribed list of things needed from the media. To love others and love myself I have been relearning what I like about beauty. ”Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, they say. It is a phrase with a bit of a bite--you will never be beautiful to everyone. But not everyone is attainable, healthy, or all that attractive. The need to be wanted and loved for my appearance is something I will never fully shake. It is something that has hurt me in the past and made me feel like I could never truly be loved. An important part of learning to like beauty again is learning who I want to be beautiful for. It is realizing that there are people who find me beautiful because I don’t fit into the norms and in the past I thought I needed to. I can invert what I know and what I create for myself into what makes me beautiful. It is where I see the beauty in others.
To love myself and teach myself that there is a way I can be beautiful is to embrace everything I see around me and make it mine.
The idealized beauty standard sold by the media will never sit well with me, mainly because it’s fundamentally empty. It is flawed in all the wrong ways. I find myself disconnected from the images shown to me on my recommended feed and instead sticking to the people I know have cracked the code at being beautiful in trends as well as being beautiful out of them. Beauty has never relied on the appearance gifted to us at birth but rather the warmth and confidence people develop behind it. I think of the sounds of my best friend's laughter and her penchant for Hello Kitty t-shirts when I think of beauty. I think of the person I saw on the subway who dyed streaks into their hair and made every step with purpose in heavy black boots. I think of the blurry faces, ratty pajamas, and bright voices of my friends when we video call each other.
I’m not entirely sure of what I think is beautiful all the time. I’m learning and my definition shifts, but I am curious to see what it’s going to look like at the end. In order to do that, I curate Pinterest boards full of people I never saw growing up and remind myself of what is conventional and what is special. I take apart the word special. I start again. I pin something to a board. I scrub my face. I take a selfie. I call a friend. Beauty. It's a beautiful word.
Beauty is power.
Beauty is weakness.
Beauty is what you make it.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Beauty means what you need it to be. I see it in myself sometimes and I see it in people I love every day. I don’t see a point in leaving it behind when it's all around me. I don't see a point in pretending I don’t like pretty things. I call my friends and I read better words from other people about things they don't fit into. Finding beauty in people and finding beauty in the world is healing if you let it be.