Response

The Problem with “Beautiful”

I am generally all for the overall expansion of our culture’s idea of what is “beautiful.”  It’s fantastic that we are seeing a greater acceptance of various body types and stylistic preferences within our concept of beauty.

That being said, when I saw this on Facebook the other night, a small part of me sighed in exasperation.[1]

Cancer Barbie

Now, I understand where this person is coming from.  Showing girls with cancer bald Barbies and telling them, “look!  Barbie doesn’t have hair either, just like you!  That means that you can be beautiful even without hair!” might yield some positive results in the short term. There’s a good chance that some of them would really enjoy this and would feel better about their situation.

The problem that I have with this is that doing so reinforces for them the idea that beauty is the ultimate goal and a major source of a person’s worth.[2]

Nowadays, it seems like when we as a culture want to convey the idea that something is “good”, we do so by calling it “beautiful.”[3]  Unfortunately, it’s easy to then follow that linguistic trajectory to the understanding that, for something to be good, it must be beautiful.[4]

I do not have a child with cancer, nor do I know any children who are going through cancer treatment.  But, if I did, I believe that I would prefer to take this approach with them while dealing with the issue of self-worth:

You is Kind

I’m of the opinion that believing this about yourself does more for your self-esteem than believing yourself to be beautiful ever could.

I think that, in a situation when you’re dealing with a child who is going through an ordeal that makes them feel different and undesirable, what they really need is honesty and perspective, not a Barbie doll.  No, they do not currently fit the beauty standards of their culture.

You could deny to them that this is the case.  Or, alternately, you can impress upon them the understanding that they are not made worse by that fact.

Disconnecting a child’s sense of self-worth from their physical appearance is probably one of the best things you can do for them.  As cliché as it sounds, beauty is fleeting.  And if that’s where they find their worth as a human being, they’re going to be pretty miserable when they don’t match up to the cultural standard.

Would it not be better for someone who is naturally outside the cultural definition of beauty to spend more time growing and developing as a person and less time counting calories, applying cosmetics, and exercising at the gym?  For that matter, wouldn’t it be better if we all used as least as much time to better ourselves mentally, spiritually, and emotionally as we do focusing on our appearance?

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’d much rather have a coffee with a person who was interesting, or clever, or funny, or imaginative, or intelligent, or insightful than I would with someone who was just beautiful.

Over the years, I have been privileged to know several people whom I honestly could not describe in terms of physical attractiveness.  I haven’t a clue how physically beautiful they are because they have such vibrant, radiant spirits that my mind literally cannot think of them as anything but attractive.  “Attractiveness” is not, after all, synonymous with “beauty.”  An attractive person simply has something about them that makes other people want to be around them.

Feeling beautiful is undeniably nice.  Feeling the opposite is something that we all have experienced and can probably agree is not particularly enjoyable.  But maybe if we stopped using “beautiful” as the highest (and, often times, default) praise for anything and everything, feeling physically unattractive, whether because of chemotherapy or for other reasons, wouldn’t seem like such a big deal.


[1] Small, but vocal and opinionated.

[2] Equating Barbie with beauty in this way can also lead to body image issues down the road, but I digress.

[3] Seriously, keep an ear out for this word.  Everything is “beautiful,” nowadays.  I’ve even heard it used as an interjection in the same way someone might use the word, “great!”

[4] My original title for this post was, “What Else is There?” a la Swan Princess, but I decided that it might be a little too lighthearted for the subject matter.