Today I’d like to talk about a facet of the self-love and body positivity movements that I think is doing more damage than good.
Here’s the situation: We have a society full of women who hate the way they look.
Ninety-eight percent of women think about how they hate their bodies every single day, and most women waste unfathomable quantities of time and mental energy trying to look beautiful, thin, sexy, young, and “perfect.” Most women are locked in a constant battle with themselves, obsessing over the flaws that make them feel unattractive or imperfect, and criticizing themselves constantly for not being good enough.
Women have been taught that the most important thing about them is their appearance, and the standards for having a “good enough” appearance are impossible.
Most women don’t feel beautiful, sexy, thin, or pretty. Most women suffer from crippling and chronic insecurity because of how they look. This is undoubtedly a problem.
So what’s the solution? That’s where I take issue.
A big part of the self-love and body positivity movement is focused on solving this problem by trying to convince these women that they are beautiful.
I’m sure you’ve seen the memes intended to make you feel beautiful and perfect. They’re everywhere, and they say things like “you’re beautiful just the way you are,” and “your flaws are beautiful” and “embrace your curves.”
At a superficial level, this makes sense. If the problem is “women don’t feel beautiful” then a good solution would be “tell women they’re beautiful until they start to feel beautiful!”
Nevermind the fact that this tactic is completely useless. Have you ever walked by a billboard or seen a meme saying something like “you’re beautiful just the way you are” and actually started to feel more beautiful? Lol, of course not. Me neither.
And yet the urge to tell women they’re beautiful is a strong one.
Think about what you say to a friend who says she feels fat, bloated, or ugly. You say “no you’re not, you look great!!” You assure her that she looks thin and beautiful. It hurts to see her feeling unattractive, and you want her to feel beautiful so that she can be happy and confident again!
If you think about it though, the assumption that a woman can only feel happy and confident if she feels attractive is kind of messed up.
I understand the urge to compliment women on how they look, and try to convince them to feel beautiful. I understand this, because I grew up in this culture too. I too was taught that feeling beautiful is the height of female confidence.
But, honestly? Fuck that.
Do men go around feeling handsome, or thinking about how to look more sexy and rugged? Do they try to make each other feel good by pointing out how hot the other guy looks in his casually wrinkled flannel shirt?
No. Because men get to feel confident based on who they are and what they’ve done, while women are expected to only feel confident based on how they look. Women deserve to get their confidence from who they are and what they’ve done, too.
I don’t want to feel beautiful. I don’t want you to feel beautiful, either.
I want to feel funny, and kind, and competent. I want to feel like a good writer, and a good friend, and like the work I’m doing in the world is making a difference.
Ok, so we now know that trying to convince women they’re beautiful is both ineffective and also incredibly patronizing and problematic. But that’s not all– this habit also actually has a tendency to make women feel worse about themselves.
Think about it this way: women in our culture are aware of the fact that her appearance is constantly being evaluated by others, and that how she looks determines her value in the observer’s eyes. This awareness drives her body and beauty insecurities, because it causes her to view herself from a third party perspective, self-objectify, and attempt to present herself as maximally attractive– which often means attempting to eradicate (or else just obsessing over) all unruly “flaws.”
When a woman in our culture comes across a billboard or meme that says “you’re beautiful just the way you are!” she might have been thinking about work, or her relationship, or a creative idea. When you compliment her appearance or outfit, she might have been tuned into her internal sensations.
But the billboard, meme, or compliment all serve to remind her that her appearance is being constantly evaluated; that how she looks is important; that her exterior exists and must be attended to.
Talking about a woman’s beauty or body– even in a positive way!– immediately draws her attention away from other things, and places it back on her external appearance. It reinforces the link between her appearance and her value/worth.
This is highly problematic.
As far as I’m concerned, breaking free from body image issues isn’t about convincing women they are beautiful no matter what, or that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s about convincing them that their worth has absolutely fucking NOTHING to do with how they look.
The goal of self-love and body image work shouldn’t be to make women feel beautiful. It should be to help women stop defining themselves by their appearance, untangle their identity/worth/value from their appearance, and think less in general about how they look.
Instead of encouraging other women to feel beautiful, let’s encourage each other to think less about beauty, body, and appearance.
We can do this by resisting the urge to comment on her body or beauty, and instead complimenting a woman’s character, accomplishments, and internal qualities.
We can lead by example in our own lives, too.
Purposefully focus your attention on your internal self instead of your external self.
Instead of talking about your weight/body/clothes/appearance, talk about your hopes, dreams, achievements, feelings, and what you’re processing. Instead of spending time trying to fix your flaws or become more beautiful, try spending it learning a new hobby or skill, unpacking your stuff in therapy, relaxing, or connecting with friends.
If we focus our time and energy on cultivating a rich and fulfilling inner life, and I promise– the confidence will follow.