She Walks in Beauty

In the last couple of weeks, a Dove beauty ad has gone viral. By now, I’m sure, many of you have seen it: how a series of young(ish) women are introduced to a sketch artist and asked to describe themselves. The sketch artist proceeds to draw them—and then the ad introduces a twist. The sketch artist also draws these women as they are described by others, and in every instance, the second drawing is much more attractive than the first. The ad concludes that most women are more beautiful than they realize. (A spoof ad concludes that the opposite is true for men.) Compare this to a recent ad for Disney, which, aside from the expected product placement, presents a fairly empowering message to a wide variety of girls.

Although both ads seek to empower women, critics have pointed out that the Dove ad presents a fairly narrow range of beauty (mostly young, mostly thin, mostly white), and the ad rests on the assumption that beauty is the most important criterion of value in women. Similarly, although the Disney ad downplays physical beauty, the concept is still present in this line: “I have heard I am beautiful; I know that I am strong.”

As for me, I have mixed feelings.

While I think it’s absolutely critical that we continue to have conversations about the artificial standards of beauty often imposed in our society, I think it’s also disingenuous to suggest that we exclude beauty from the equation when we talk about women’s (and girls’) self-esteem. Beauty and femininity are so deeply linked in our culture that it will take a seismic shift in our thinking to change this, and such change won’t happen overnight.

In the meantime, what about beauty?

My four (almost five) year old daughter knows she is beautiful. She lights up when she gets compliments. Perhaps this means that I’ve failed her as a parent, that she already buys into the idea that girls should be beautiful. But I prefer to think it’s that she likes the way she looks—she believes that she is beautiful, independent of any outside measure of beauty.

As for me, my relationship with beauty is more complicated. I’ve been told all my life that my body is a temple, and as a church we spend a lot of time and money making sure that our temples are clean and beautiful. In this context, beauty is a partial reflection of the sacred. By this logic, I should feel beautiful; I should be able to see reflections of the divine when I look in the mirror. On particularly good days, I do. On not-so-good days I’m convinced my husband is simply blinded by affection.

The problem is not that women want to feel beautiful—or to be told that they’re beautiful. The problem is that too often beauty is defined too narrowly, and that too much weight is attached to physical appearance.

We may not be able to do much—at the moment—about the social weight of beauty. But we can (and I think should) fight to extend definitions of beauty and tell the women around us that they are beautiful in so many different ways. For all that the Dove ad has come under fire, I think it is true that too many of us find it hard to see our own beauty.

One last story: As an undergraduate, one day I found myself staring at a young woman during my lunch break. She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen—but with her dark hair, skin, and eyes, she was as unlike my red-haired and freckled self as it was possible to be.

As she rose to leave, she stopped by my table. I was mortified. I was sure she’d seen me staring at her, and she was going to call me on it.

Imagine my shock, then, when she said, “I just wanted to tell you how beautiful you are.”

And so I was. And so are we all—if we could just see it.

About Rosalyn

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. She served a mission in the Hungary Budapest mission. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework.

12 thoughts on “She Walks in Beauty

  1. Our bodies are our greatest gift, our greatest asset. We truly couldn’t live without them. And yet, it is the norm in our culture to hate them, to obsess over the shape of them, to be ashamed of them, to strive to change them into an ideal we’re bombarded with every day that doesn’t actually exist.

    I have friends who refuse to post pictures of themselves on facebook and throw a fit whenever someone tries to take a group shot with them in it because they don’t like their face, they’ve put on too much weight, etc. etc. It is heartbreaking to me how hard we are on ourselves and how much we as a culture are disdainful of unattractive or overweight people. Even though my body is vastly different since having my baby, you can bet she thinks I’m beautiful. It’s not about my appearance, but my value.

    Your last line hit the nail on the head–You are beautiful, and “so are we all–if we could just see it.”

  2. Do you have a link to the Disney ad?

    I giggled at this: “too much weight is attached to physical appearance.” Yep, there is too much weight attached to my physique! ;o)

    I am glad to have a body, and one that functions well. It would be lovely if it was thin, but I’m OK that it’s not.

  3. @Lindsay, I agree. I’ve been trying to include more pictures of me (though it’s a hard habit to break) for that very reason.

    @Strollerblader, link added. Thanks for pointing that out! I wish I could claim the pun was intentional (it wasn’t), but it’s funny to me, too.

  4. I too had some mixed feelings about the ad. I appreciate the idea that normally we see ourselves through an unflattering lenses. I appreciate, as in understand, not condone or prefer. I want everyone to see themselves more flattering self appreciative manner, we are so hard on ourselves, while saying that I also want to say physical beauty is such a secondary attribute as far as what really matters in the components that make up a person, so yes you are beautiful believe it, but it doesn’t really matter that much. You see the paradox there I’ve recently had a significant unexplained weight gain. I’ve gone to numerous doctors and they’ve got no better idea about it than I do. I have an underlying medical condition that normally trends the other way, the only positive thing about Crohn’s disease is never having to worry about weight gain, until now. It really has been a learning experience. I didn’t realize how it would affect my view of myself. I am self conscious in a way I haven’t been since I was an insecure teen. I weigh more than I did with any of my pregnancies. Carrying the extra weight I’ve had to give up wearing some clothes I love, and buy more that fit but I love less. I am self conscious when I’m not dressed. Physically I find some tasks more difficult than before, I serve in nursery getting up off the floor after playing with the kids is a lot more difficult. All the mobility things I expected laws of physics and all, my body being shaped differently, what what I was really surprised about was the self consciousness, I really have to actively feed myself positive messages about my appearance. I felt like I was and am fairly comfortable about my appearance appreciate my good features trying not to worry about my less favorite things, but I really feel like I need to work some now to stay in the content with myself place. Your experiences may vary, I may not be in correct place in my brain about all of this but it is where I am at. Overall I am healthier and my disease is well controlled when I remember about being very sick and how miserable that was, extra weight but otherwise healthy seems like a good trade, except for that moment I at glance myself in the mirror before the shower. Then I just have to say silly, silly vain Dovie, be happy your insides are working so well it was possible to be this new rounder beautiful you, and then try hard to believe it.

  5. Then right after that I tell myself that physical appearance isn’t that important after all. Then I step out of the shower and catch a glance and say something about accepting myself as I am and that I’m beautiful. See what I mean about a paradox. Beautiful important, not important, are not or are it’s a trap.

  6. I’m not sure I care if I’m beautiful or not; but, I know I’m in the minority of women for feeling that way. I do find it frustrating that so often we want to increase women’s self-esteem and feelings of worth and confidence by just helping them ‘feel beautiful’. I wish we could just help women have experiences that help them feel strong, intelligent, kind, needed, etc. But, you’re right that this idea of beauty is so pervasive in our culture that it is hard to avoid it. I’ve been reading the Harry Potter books with my kids, and while I generally like them, I’m continually struck by how often Rowling buys into the popular tropes that evil people are ugly and off-putting in behavior and appearance. That’s an idea so prevalent in literature and film, especially for kids, and I don’t want my children getting the idea that people who are not conventionally beautiful are evil or dangerous.

  7. @Science Teacher Mommy–I’m grateful for that too!

    @Dovie–I think that’s a big part of the problem. We talk about how beauty shouldn’t matter–or how at least we should define beauty differently–but it *does* matter to most of us. Even if it shouldn’t. And I’m not sure what we can do about that, except support each other and, as FoxyJ says, help them realize all the other strengths they do have.

    @FoxyJ–I wish I didn’t care. (Although, from my minimalist approach to hair and makeup you’d think I didn’t care . . .). I did like the Disney ad because it made an effort to celebrate those other good things that girls are. But yes, it is pervasive.

  8. I have the great pleasure of knowing a good number of people who are visual artists and photographers – not hobbyists, but professionals. I have noticed these people seem to believe that everyone is truly beautiful. They seem to have a great love of what most of us would consider physical flaws–a gap in the teeth, wrinkles, asymmetrical features, etc. It seems that the more people they see/paint/photograph/study, the more they believe that everyone is beautiful. Just an interesting thought.

  9. I don’t know that I think that beauty should be removed from the equation. I agree that our society is certainly skewed in the view of beauty and what is important, but I think being and feeling beautiful is a good thing, part of what God wants for us as women. Difficult, but good.

  10. I love raising my daughters to not be overly concerned with appearance. My 15 year old cares just enough to let me buy her clothes and she puts a little bit of effort into her appearance to be normal, but doesn’t seem overly concerned with it.

  11. Lets not make beauty as the world defines it, synonymous with being feminine. The latter is God’s design for his daughters and should be celebrated, not diluted.

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