The Gendered Nature of Beauty
I was in my freshman year at Brigham Young University when I first saw this video. Many of my friends spoke with glowing admiration of its message. It was played in Sunday Schools and classes on repeat. However, when I first saw it, I felt a tightness in my chest. I felt condescended, but I wasn't sure why. I left BYU in 2019. It is with distance and further education that I finally realized why I had that singular reaction to the initial video.
To summarize, the video is a speech from an unknown young man giving an inspirational message directed at women. The video is well-written and well-intended. I am not criticizing this particular person, but rather a representative testament to the deeply gendered Anglo-Saxon dictionary that has long since dictated Western beauty standards. Perhaps there was no hope for me to take the speaker too seriously after the opening line. Before an entire audience of women, a man walked onto the stage, and the first thing he did was assure them that they're beautiful. It felt odd to me that that was the first assertion. Being reminded of attractiveness was the most important thing for a woman to hear first. He continued on with other admirable reminders, but the words felt hollow and generic.
I immediately thought about how corny this video, especially its opening line, would be if it had been made for an audience of men. Could you imagine the speaker addressing an audience of men and opening with, “you’re beautiful?” The concept of beauty carries an innately feminine ideation. The word "beautiful" is a gendered term; the hypothetically reversed audience would most likely shift uncomfortably, or even snicker upon being assured of their physical beauty in this way. Secondly, it felt odd to hear this message coming from a man. This is not to suggest that men can't play active roles in supporting women and discussing women's issues. Nor do I mean to suggest that men affirm physical beauty. Nonetheless, definitions of women's roles have been constructed by men; therefore, continued explanation, reassurance, advice, or vague commentary can fail to address the complexities of the women's experience and feel more like yet another sympathetic bandaid over larger issues. He was speaking to women, about women, on behalf of women, but I had no idea who this person was. It felt insincere and completely tone-deaf.
How does the continued reassurance of beauty distract from women's issues? In one way, if a women is in a position of power or has acquired accolades that render her a certain level of professional respect, but fails to be beautiful, this undermines her accomplishments on a cultural level. I realized that the video’s primary message was not just a reassurance of beauty. But therein lies a harsh reality of beauty.
Not everyone is going to think you’re beautiful.
Even this year’s sexiest person alive will have a naysayer. So what happens when we equate self worth with beauty, and you’re a woman who somehow “fails” to achieve that end in someone’s eyes? The word “beautiful” is often only said to women as a reassurance of value. This is of course not every case, but in many cases beauty is characterized as a solely feminine idealization. Is beauty truly the most affirming characteristic?
Again, I do not suggest that being considered beautiful, or even wanting to be considered beautiful is a bad thing by any means. However, when women are taught again and again that their success, their desirability, their accolades, their worth, and their place in this world is dependent on what their physical appearance can offer, it becomes a dangerous detraction of all that is women. Of all else that is human.
Woman is fierce. Woman is insightful. Woman is driven. Woman is resilient. Woman is inquisitive. Woman is creative. Woman is intellectual. Woman is strong. Woman is courageous. Woman is inventive. Woman is passionate. Woman is influential. Woman is phenomenal.
Yes, woman is beautiful.
She is all that, and so much more.