Why you don't need to become Beautiful
When I was around eight years old, I was obsessed with the movie Legally Blonde. I watched it a record 79 times over two years, and could proudly recall every detail at the drop of a hat. The main reason I loved it so much was because Elle Woods was exactly how I wanted to look.
I was a normal eight-year-old girl - dark brown hair, a huge smattering of freckles across my milky white skin. But all I wanted to be was the bronzed, blonde and skinny Elle Woods. Heck, one time I convinced my dad to let me buy blonde hair dye so I could magically transform into Elle Woods overnight - just in time for a movie day we were having at school. But unbeknown to both him and I, you can’t go from deep chocolate hair to California blonde in one night. So, I woke up with bright orange hair the next morning and quickly improvised to become Drew Barrymore from Charlie’s Angels (another childhood favourite of mine).
Still, I yearned to achieve that ‘level of beauty’. Without ever truly questioning where the belief that I was somehow inferior, ugly, or wrong the way I was, had come from.
Now looking back I can see just how much the media, adults, and other kids shaped the way I viewed myself. For me, growing up in Zimbabwe and New Zealand, tanned skin was a ‘must’. So little me, listening to the advice of those around me would attempt to sunbathe. Did I tan? Nope. I just freckled. “Can’t you just tan more until they all blend into one?” is a comment I have been given by more than one ill-informed friend. And believe me - I have tried! One time I lay out on the beach for over an hour with no sunscreen on in the hopes this tactic would work. But instead, I got the most severe sunburn of my entire life. Blisters and all.
I knew then that real tanning wasn’t for me. Keep in mind, the New Zealand sun is ridiculously harsh. During our winter, the UV levels are roughly the same as the UK and US UV levels during summer! So our summer sun is practically double the strength. Who knows what that one hour of dangerous sunbaking will result in when I am older. At the time, 15 year old me didn’t care that I could be exposing myself to cancer. All I wanted was to have a suntan in the hopes that a darker shade would somehow make me more worthy, and less of a target of relentless bullying, because I seemed to be criticised for how I looked a lot.
But even before then, there were adults (even teachers) who made comments about my skin colour and freckles. Not to mention there was one male teacher who was always complimenting the blonde tanned girls in my class, which at the time didn’t raise any red flags because we didn’t know any different. Like most obedient children, I just took on what others were saying about me as fact. I never stopped to consider that even though I didn’t tick all the boxes of what they considered beautiful, my unique traits didn’t make me any less beautiful or any less worthy. Before we go any further, I do want to make it very clear that I am in no way sharing my story as a way of preaching how hard it is being a white girl that doesn’t fit into the western style of beauty. I am not oblivious to the fact that even though at times I felt my look wasn’t represented or appreciated, it is NOTHING compared to the under-representation and discrimination that people of colour have had to live with for centuries. My race has never been under-represented, smothered and completely stereo-typed to the same degree as POC. I do hope though, that by sharing this, we can all analyse our definitions and beliefs about beauty a little more critically, and realise that beauty ideals are fabricated by people and organisations that benefit from our insecurities. Like vultures, they feed on your self-doubt and the gruelling processes and sacrifices you endure just to look kinda like everyone else.
This shit is systemic, and it won’t be removed overnight. Like dying your hair from dark brown to blonde, breaking down the negative beliefs you have about yourself (and others) is a process. And then, once you’re there, you need to maintain it.
So where do we begin? How do we unstitch the negative beliefs that have maybe been governing ourselves all our lives? How do we differentiate what we truly want to do to elevate our appearance, from what has been force-fed to us and feels like an obligation?
I suggest starting with a clean slate. And by that I mean a blank piece of paper. This little technique is a version from self-love guru Louise Hay, and it is perfect at understanding what beliefs are actually governing us. Often, we have no clue what we believe about ourselves, our lives, or our worth. We have no idea what messages we’ve retained from family, friends or the media. And so, these thoughts are constantly chosen by us over and over again, producing the same feelings of worthlessness and therefore seem to produce the same situations. So, with four pieces of paper, title each page with the following:
Messages from my parents
Messages from my friends and siblings
Messages from my lovers
Messages from authority figures including the media
Now, take your time in asking what messages you heard or learnt from each of these groups, regarding standards of beauty, your looks and your worth. This isn’t a process to rush, and you may want to do it over several days/piece of paper. You’ll realise that once you start asking “what do I actually believe about myself and where did that come from?” you open many doors to memories that have been hidden within you.
Suddenly, a flying comment that an aunt made about your hips one Christmas will float to the surface and you’ll likely feel the same feelings you felt at the time - shame, unworthiness, anger. But what this exercise really shows is that those emotions have been locked within you from the moment the comment was made, and there they formed the perception you probably hold of yourself. Likely, you didn’t even allow yourself to really feel upset at the comments you heard. When we swallow our feelings, or refuse to speak up for ourselves, the emotions simply lock themselves away and solidify into resentment, self-hate and low self-esteem. So be gentle with yourself during this process. And don’t be surprised if there are also some good messages that come to the surface. Be sure to write these down too. Despite some bullying, there are also plenty of times I was complimented and it’s important to reminisce on those too.
The next step is really about keeping an open mind. It is about reviewing the negative beliefs before you and asking yourself “does this belief hurt me or serve me?”. We don’t need to ask if it is true, if you deserved it, if the person saying it was in a good place. None of that matters. It’s true if we think it is true, and we have the power to choose what we think - every time.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether an ex-boyfriend thought your bum was too big, or your friends mocked you for having smaller boobs. Right now, you have the power to decide whether holding onto that belief is harming your self-esteem and confidence. You’ll begin to notice that all the ‘imperfections’ you think you have are strongly correlated to messages you heard growing up, as well as what you were (and likely still are)l exposed to from the media. This is where your power comes in.
You can choose to let these comments go and start feeding yourself the compliments and praise you wish you had heard growing up. List down exactly how you wish you were spoken to, or how you wish you were praised. Imagine that how you look right now is exactly what’s trending in the beauty industry. Imagine your look is exactly what millions of people the world over are trying to achieve. Then, when you catch yourself criticizing the way you look, switch the thought to something positive. This can take time. For a while it will feel like you’re lying to yourself. But trust me, positive self-talk is really the only way we can heal our self-esteem. Start small, like focusing on features you are neutral about or do actually like, and build from there.
When we imagine ourselves being the ‘standard ideal of beauty’ we realise just how fickle beauty standards and trends are. Hopefully you can understand that most of the beauty standards we are fed are simply concocted by companies looking to make the most profit. It’s why skin bleaching to be paler is more popular in Eastern countries, while tanning is a billion-dollar industry in more Western countries. This exercise is designed to show you that nobody gets to decide whether you’re worthy or unworthy, beautiful or ugly, but you.
Embracing who you are is a unique journey, and even if you love how you look naturally, you might choose to express yourself through appearance altering treatments or looks. AND THAT IS FINE! But if you feel like you are not as pretty, or good enough unless you work tirelessly to try and tick as many boxes as you can, then you might need to re-think why you believe striving to achieve an ideal is so important. There’s a difference between wanting to do something because it feels like an elevation or extension of who you are, versus doing things because you think without doing them you are unworthy, and in doing them you are more worthy. You’ll be able to feel the difference. It might just take a bit of time to really tune out the comments and beliefs you’ve collected and start listening to your own inner guidance.
I am still working on this myself. At times I am inspired to try something, and then I am overcome with guilt that I am denying my own beauty. For example, I have a love-hate relationship with fake tanning. So it takes time. But overall, year by year, I feel more and more comfortable embracing my unique traits and find it helpful to choose beliefs about myself that feel good, while recognising what beliefs or criticisms I have been holding onto and are eroding my self-esteem.
Basically, not one type of person has won the genetic jackpot, because really we ALL have. There is no one standard of beauty because beauty comes in many different forms. Hell, even the beauty industry loves to change their minds. And I personally am all for it, so long as more and more facets of the beauty industry continue to be more inclusive, honest and celebrate people as equals, rather than one look being more superior to others.
We still have a long way to go, and my hope is that we will see more and more movies, magazines, characters, and companies that embrace different races, body shapes, sexual orientations, and the like. I hope that when my kids are eight, they feel they can resonate with what is being played in front of them, and that their peers can also appreciate that beauty comes in many different forms - but every form is worthy of not just positive attention, but celebration. You don’t need to become beautiful, because you already are!
For the record, Legally Blonde is still one of my favourite movies. As I grew up and stopped caring so much about ‘looking the part’, the movie’s message about having faith in ourselves, even if others don’t, has really helped me. The even deeper meaning of the movie is that we all have the desire to fit in, but we can lose ourselves in the process if we don’t stay true to ourselves. At the same time, it teaches us that we don’t belong in just one box dictated by society. Our personalities, appearances, and interests can be as broad as we like. The truth is, parts of me are like Elle Woods, and others are like Dylan from Charlie’s Angels, but every part of me is worthy of love and appreciation.
Love, Amy Claire xx