Everybodyisbeautifuleverybodyisbeautifuleverybody is not beautiful

The Internet is crowded with memes that work towards the destruction of contemporary ideals of beauty as furnished by the media, the fashion industry, Hollywood, men, and so on. They feature a woman with a full body, posing in an attractive dress or underwear, with a caption that reads something like, “You are beautiful as you are”; “Everybody is beautiful in their own way”; “The perfect body is however she looks”, etc. Do not let anybody tell you how you are supposed to look, what beauty is, what is too fat, what is too slim, and so on and so forth. A Google Image search for “you are beautiful” yields seemingly trillions of “inspirational quotes” with this message, which seems intended to establish or strengthen women’s belief in their own beauty. Beauty, it seems, is the one single characteristic we are all miraculously equipped with.

13830-everybody-is-beautiful-you-just-need-to-take-the-time-to-look A couple of years ago, I might have clicked on the ‘like’ button for these memes. Now, some ten years later, I am exceedingly annoyed by them.

First of all, the only effect of such a “radically democratic” distribution of beauty is the maintenance of beauty’s immense power: if all these memes are working so hard to convince me of my beauty, then beauty is apparently a very important thing to possess.

Secondly, the vast majority of people are not physically attractive. Beyond a certain age, this goes almost without saying. And we all know this very, very well: year on year, even before our skin becomes wrinkled, we spend millions on self-care products, Botox treatments, or plastic surgeries. This is not because we are all out of our minds, but because we understand that physical attractiveness signifies health, power, success, and status, as well as cultural, sexual and financial capital. If you look good, your chances of getting a job will be higher, men will be more interested in you, you will have more self-esteem, earn more money. Your place in this world will be better. Take a close look at those memes that feature a “full woman.” She may have a “full” body, but her face is exceptionally beautiful; she is well proportioned and her clothes mark her out as middle-to-upper-class. She has enough “capital” to make up for her “fullness.” The memes never feature a full woman whose proportions are not “correct,” whose face is not like that of Marilyn Monroe, and whose clothes do not imply money and taste. Never. You can be a bit “full,” but you cannot be full and poor.[1]

The “everybody is beautiful” memes thus contain an insoluble ambivalence. On the one hand, they want me to understand that beauty is not only physical attractiveness in the narrow, fashion-magazine sense, but is interwoven with character traits, by which one may be a lovable, interesting, funny, and special person. It is about being “beautiful” within.[2] But on the other hand, these memes feature women who are physically attractive. Or in other words: the body and face of the woman in the meme undermine its message.

Look, for example, at these H&M ads for its “Plus Size line.” In an attempt to diversify body images (and attract more customers), the ads feature an attractive woman whose weight is possibly slightly above that of a cat-walk model, and explicitly frames her as “plus size.” What, exactly, is a woman who actually is “plus size,” who does not have that kind of face, supposed to take from that?

hmThis ambivalence is symptomatic of the definition of “beauty”, beyond the ads and memes promoting “diversity.” We have a very nice discourse, where “everyone is beautiful,” with “beautiful” signifying “lovable, unique, interesting.” And we have a reality, where “beauty” signifies physical attractiveness, and only physical attractiveness. “Beauty” thus comes to mean both physical attractiveness and lovableness, and with the two things being semantically interchangeable, they are interchangeable: what you are, what you get in life, is defined by what you look like. There is no discrepancy between the outer and inner self – that is, at least, for women there is not.

So if, like most people, one is not physically attractive, then what? What do we do?

We try to come as close as possible to the receiving end of the beauty-scale. BUT: we have to carefully avoid saying the truth: “I am doing this diet because I will have better chances with men then.” If we do that, we make ourselves into victims. We become women who internalize “false assumptions about beauty and now try to manipulate their bodies so as to make them fit standards, which have no validity to begin with.” In order to escape that accusation, we thus have to turn our actions of beauty-wise self-improvement into acts of self-fulfilment: “I am not doing this diet in order to make my body fit societal standards of beauty, or in order to please the men, but for myself. I am doing this diet, even though I am, of course, perfect as I am. It is just a little thing in order for me to feel more comfortable with myself.” The make-up/diet/surgery is simply a means to making your outer appearance as dynamic and sexy as your inner self.[3] Take this ad, for example:

inner strength

Why can’t we admit that not everyone is beautiful? What do we gain by saying that everyone is beautiful? Why can’t we make “beauty” to mean “physical attractiveness given to a few” – and that’s it?

  1. When “everybody is beautiful,” we avoid acknowledging that beauty is something by and large beyond our control, and distributed arbitrarily, capriciously and rarely. It is much more comfortable to imagine beauty to be distributed fairly: if everyone is beautiful, then there is no problem in letting beauty influence everything.
  1. If “everybody is beautiful,” we avoid acknowledging that we “cannot have it all.” We can try to improve our looks, but there is a certain point beyond which we cannot go. You cannot just make yourself physically attractive. So, the arbitrary distribution of beauty does not sit well with consumer capitalism: there is a limit to what you can have.
  1. When “everybody is beautiful,” beauty is made into a natural attribute all of us happen to be blessed with. But beauty in the sense of physical attractiveness is not just there, natural and eternal. It needs to be nurtured and practised. It takes time and money to maintain a perfect body, with perfect clothes, make-up and hair. You have to actively engage in physical attractiveness, to cultivate it. We thus also stick to “everybody is beautiful” because we want “beauty” to remain female nature rather than performance. We do not want to see (let alone value and honour) the work, which the making and cultivating of beauty requires, because all this building, painting, covering and altering would, at the bottom of our consciousness, imply “beauty” to be constructed, embedded in culture – and subject to change.

[1] Some of those memes and media campaigns that officially aim at the propagation of “diversity” actually make the situation worse. One of the most popular German journals catering to a female audience, Brigitte, between 2010 and 2012 used solely “normal women” (i.e., no models) in their fashion shoots. Only, no one could really tell the difference between a professional model and these “normal women”.
[2] “Man sieht nur mit dem Herzen gut”
[3] In line with this, “good make-up” or “successful plastic surgery” is the one, which one does not recognize as make-up or surgery: the one, that looks “natural” and is thus invisible. You always have to make sure you still “look like yourself,” that make-up or plastic surgery merely accentuate that which is there in any case, that it sits on your skin as if it were your skin.

Bibliography (recommended reads)

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