Maybe You Do Know You’re Beautiful

There is a catchy little tune right now called “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful”  which includes the lyrics “You don’t know you’re beautiful.  That’s what makes you beautiful.”  This puts into sharp relief an amorphous and pervasive idea, at least in American culture,  of the girl who is (the cultural stereotype of) beautiful but doesn’t know it.  I think that this is harmful in a lot of ways.

First is the idea that it’s a good thing not to see yourself as beautiful/to never affirm that you believe you are beautiful.  This would seem to suggest that low self-esteem, or at the very least the faking of it, is something to strive for  – and claiming or acknowledging your own beauty is undesirable. (bullshit)

Next is the idea that beauty is about what other people think of you.  That you’re not supposed to know that you are beautiful until someone tells you that you are.  Conversely if you don’t get outside confirmation of your beauty then you have to accept that you aren’t beautiful. (bullshit)

Then there’s the fact that this dynamic is almost always between a woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful and the man who affirms her beauty, reinforcing the notion that women’s beauty is only achievable through the approval of men. (bullshit)

Finally is the issue that this is all based on a completely arbitrary, artificial standard of “beauty” that is unattainable by almost everyone.

The truth is that the only limit on what we see as beautiful are our own limitations of perception.  If you can’t see the beauty in someone and you think that the issue is with them, then you are working on the wrong end of the problem.

It’s not surprising that we get confused about this since the beauty and diet industries make tens of billions of dollars a year by artificially narrowing what we see as beautiful so that we will buy their products to fix our “flaws” and spend time and money chasing an unattainable, photo shop idea of beauty.

Imagine how different the world would be if we took all the time and energy that we currently spending judging people as beautiful or not, talking about what’s beautiful or not, reading articles about the best and worst bikini bodies etc. and re-purposed all of it trying to expand our idea of what’s beautiful.  Looking at sites that have people of all sizes shapes, colors, gender identities.  What if instead of saying that someone is unattractive we asked ourselves “what prejudice to I hold against someone who looks like that and how can I change it?”

Finally, there’s you.  You are the boss of your underpants.  You are the only person who is in charge of how you feel about yourself.  Nobody else can possibly do that. You get to decide if you believe you are beautiful or not,  nobody can take it away from you.  If someone suggests that you aren’t beautiful,  you can consider how sad it is that they have such a limited view of beauty, you can consider how unfortunate it is that they have such an exaggerated sense of self-importance that they think you should care about what they think.  You can also choose to realize that it has nothing at all to do with your beauty and everything to do with their limitations.
I think it’s a good thing to know that we are beautiful if we choose to see ourselves that way and say it out loud if we feel like it  I don’t know about you but I definitely don’t want to spend my time with someone who wants me to be unsure of my beauty and look to them for confirmation.

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22 thoughts on “Maybe You Do Know You’re Beautiful

  1. Interesting. I had a conversation with a client recently about a similar thing – she was worried after she found her little girls posing in front of a mirror (in her high heels lol!) and telling each other “I’ve got such a big bum”, “my legs are too short” etc – they are 5 and 7! She said “I tell them all the time how gorgeous they are but it doesn’t seem to make a difference”. I asked her if she ever told them how gorgeous she is and she looked shocked, no of course she doesn’t. The thing is, her little girls will not listen to what mummy says, they will do what mummy does. And until she gets comfortable telling them they have the most gorgeous mummy in the world they are, like her, only going to look for the flaws. Or wait for someone else to tell them they are beautiful but not really believe it.

  2. One of the strangest things I have ever heard was back when I was in high school. I was really mad at another girl (I think she wore the same dress as me at homecoming— something really stupid…) and all of my friends were comforting me, talking about what a jerk she was, how she had copied me, how she was mean, generally being catty teenage girls. Then, one of them said something that really shocked me, even as angry as I was. “She isn’t really that thin. She works out.”

    Seriously. “She isn’t really that thin, she works out.”

    so basically, even if someone is able to change their weight, it doesn’t really make them “really that thin.” They are just a fatty in disguise, I guess? Ever since then, even before I heard of HAES, I was weirded out by diet talk, because there is this expectation that women should be “beautiful” and “thin,” but there is also this expectation that they should be like that naturally and doing anything to change their appearance is being fake and vain. I think the diet industry and all of those “miracle pills” operate on the same logic– diet and exercise is a lot of work, and working really hard to be pretty is really selfish when you should be working on other things! But taking a pill or getting lipo is not a lot of work, so it means you are one of those natural beauties who doesn’t work for it and just doesn’t know how pretty she is!!! ( end sarcasm )

  3. Love this post! My therapist is helping me deal with self esteem issues right now and everything you said is true!

    Right now, young girls’ reality is shaped by stupid unrealistic movies, songs, articles etc. and what people around them are saying. They’re confusing modesty with low self esteem!

    Besides, we all know that dressing differently and taking off your glasses suddenly turns you into a goddess…wait what? That’s not how it works? Strange indeed.

  4. Yay for loosening up the definition of beauty, but I’d really love it if, as a female, beauty weren’t the first damn thing people thought about.

    I’m a pianist and composer. I love cycling. I’ve written and published a novel. I moved to Europe after 21 years in New York City. I’ve danced a lot: ballet, folk, swing, bellydancing, modern, and had a great time. Yet none of these things about me seems to be quiiiiiite as interesting as whether I’m HAWT. And that’s just annoying.

    But there ya go. I guess if we lived in a less superficial world, the weight thing wouldn’t be an issue either. 😛

    1. this a million times!!!! I volunteer with girls who are freshman in high school and we have talked about beauty A LOT! I keep trying to tell them that shouldn’t be a defining trait (the physical stuff, anyway). One of the other leaders stated that everyone is physically beautiful. I can’t quite buy into that, and that might be my issue, but I do think everyone has the potential to be a beautiful PERSON. and that is what we should learn to pay attention to.

  5. I love my husband dearly, but he has a habit of couching compliments in terms of how much better he thinks I look compared to someone else. While I generally don’t believe in “changing” a partner, this behavior has got to go!

  6. I think that this is harmful in a lot of ways.

    In addition to, though not in conflict with, what you already mentioned, I think it’s harmful that we put so much emphasis on physical beauty in the first place. Not that being beautiful, by any standard, is a bad thing, but too often the societal message is that physical beauty is the highest goal to which a girl or woman can aspire. Which then makes it more culturally charged to label someone beautiful or ugly than it does to label them smart or stupid, kind or cruel, selfish or caring.

    I’ve been labeled both beautiful and ugly by various people. And I wish there was more societal acceptance for, “I don’t care either way,” to be a legitimate response to said label. I have different things that I aspire to be, and I don’t consider my own beauty or lack thereof to be personally important to me.

    And maybe that room for saying “I don’t care” would help remove some of the particular emotional weight from claims of beauty or lack thereof.

    1. Yes — totally agree. And the mixed message is downright cruel. Women get about 8 berzillion messages every day that being beautiful is the MOST IMPORTANT THING, but if we in turn care or worry about being beautiful, then we’re vain and shallow. It reminds me of every dude on that says he’s looking for a woman who’s conventionally attractive, but he doesn’t want a woman who cares about her appearance. Ugh!

  7. I’m a child of the 60s/70s and was completely into the whole diet scene from the get-go. When I finally quit dieting for weight loss and ate food that ‘sang’ to me, my body began responding in great ways and my body weight stabalized (still a fattie, but no longer a yo-yo) and I began to love myself. Then came the day that my daughter started going into the mid-adolescent mighty-morphing-growth-change and her sweet round face and similarly round body started turning into a full-on woman with about a 7 inch growth spurt and transformations. She borrowed my high school pep squad outfit (yea, I saved it) to wear for homecoming and it fit her like a glove… and gorgeous, foxy, hot glove… Her very first comment was .. “wow, Mom, you were skinny!”
    (no… I was a cow… as regularly told to me by my peers, media and diet pill industry and internal dialogue)… I must have been a whopping 190 pounds!!!… I just stood there, mouth agape and thought…. was I that hot and completely clueless?…. sheesh, no wonder high school was such a pain socially.. I was cute and didn’t ‘get it’.

    It is amazing to me how our perspective changes over time. I’ve worked diligently over the last 20 years to affirm my value to myself and in front of my children. Yet, my daughter still makes comments about herself and her body that make me very sad and trigger my old self-hate/fatty-hate mantras from my younger years.

    1. Wow! That’s amazing! I hope I can raise my baby girl to be that creative (I’m sure she will be) ;P

      Yeah this song bothers me too. It reminds me of those old 90’s movies where the cool, jock was forced to date to “ugly” girl at school who was actually super pretty when she took her glasses off and put on lipstick. AND of course the girl who wore make-up and was a cheerleader was a huge b*tch (although the stuck up jock could somehow always be changed).

      I think the band who performs it is made up of pretty young kids (late teens, very early twenties is how it appears) but it’s definitely not a solid message.

    2. That’s hilarious.

      I think it’s also incredibly perceptive — especially since men/boys see beauty as a form of power in our society that women “wield against” them — and so accompanying that insidious message is “I want you to be powerless, so I don’t want you to know that you’re beautiful, because men ‘should’ have all the power.”

      So good on her.

  8. Wow, this post and the thoughtful comments really speak to me.
    This song bothers me in precisely the way you have pointed out. When I mentioned it to my teenage daughters, they told me I was overthinking it, it’s just a song. I’ve bookmarked this to read to them.
    “The truth is that the only limit on what we see as beautiful are our own limitations of perception.  If you can’t see the beauty in someone and you think that the issue is with them, then you are working on the wrong end of the problem.”
    This speaks to me as an artist. When I started making art dolls, I got a new view of the world. Because I was focusing so closely on replicating human features, my idea of beautiful really expanded. Now, I tend to find people whose visage or shape vary from what is usually portrayed in the media to be interesting and visually exciting. Looking at everyday people instead of on screen people feeds me information from outside.
    On a spiritual level, I have a deep, loving connection with what I create. I can’t help but feel that, if there is a creative, conscious force that formed reality, how could it feel less strongly about the deep value of it’s creations than I feel for my creations? Surely every atom of our being was loving constructed – we are all amazing. “Beautiful” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

    Tori, your comment reminded me of the poem “Pretty” by Katie Makkai “The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine will be contained in five letters. “You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing. But you, will never be merely ‘pretty’.”

    Susan Mohlman, I remember looking at pictures of my teenaged self with my mother. I said “I wasn’t really that fat.” and Mom replied “None of us were.” That moment was so profound for me. My motherland I were laboring under body dismorphia induced by the media, the diet industry and the clothing industry, reinforced by peer pressure. What if we had redirected all the energy we spent on dieting to any other pursuit?
    So, lots of thoughts and feelings brought up by this. Thank you, Ragen.

    1. Great comment! Pretty creative, pretty crafty, pretty intelligent. I truly feel our world culture is riding a wave of more awareness for women and our potential. This blog and the comments are a part of it. Thanks for this.

  9. Yeah, Stephen Colbert picked up on this song a while ago: “It poses a deep existential conundrum: they are saying that this girl is beautiful because she doesn’t know she’s beautiful. But this will only last until she herself hears the song and acknowledges that she is in fact beautiful, at which point she will cease to be beautiful.”

    Although speaking as a nerd, I think what they meant was to speak to the relief the not-so-tall, not-so-handsome, not-so-skilled-at-the-charm-offensive guy feels when a woman doesn’t act as if she’s TOO beautiful to be seen with HIM. A couple of extra words in that song probably would have been useful. 😛

  10. Here’s a question; why is insecurity more attractive than confidence? Why is it assumed confident people are all jerks under the surface and insecure people have hearts of gold?

  11. The song is actually called “What Makes You Beautiful,” and I performed to it last weekend. I feel like there are way too many people (girls especially) who have low self esteem (regardless of whether they have a few extra pounds or not). We have our society to thank for that. I chose that song specifically because I am well aware that I do not have the “traditional” body for dance. I teach pole dance for everyBODY because I feel like people shouldn’t allow themselves to be stereotyped. So I dedicated my performance to the people who think they can’t dance because I know they can. We get calls at the studio all the time from girls who would like to take pole dance classes but think they are too overweight or won’t be strong enough. I tell them that I am 6 feet tall and 250 pounds. If I can do it, they can do it. So although I understand what you’re saying about this song, I also don’t feel like it was meant to be offensive.

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