That’s What Makes You Beautiful?

Beauty is difficult to talk about. It is an abstract concept with concrete manifestations. It is limitless but exists within the bounds of the material world. To be honest, I’m not sure I know what beauty is—but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

I’ve heard a lot of different theories about “what makes women beautiful.” And I agree with many of them. I believe that beauty is both subjective and objective—that at any given moment there are some people who are simply more beautiful than others. I also believe that a person’s beauty is the product of both physical and spiritual elements—that one’s personality, actions, soul, affect how beautiful someone is. Kindness, charity, humility, confidence and a host of other things all serve to enhance physical beauty.

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But there are some characteristics that are widely treated as detriments to or enhancers of feminine beauty that, well, make no sense to me.

Maybe the most pervasive of these is the idea that in order to be truly beautiful, women must be ignorant of their own physical beauty.

(I speak specifically of female beauty only because I am a woman. I suppose I should include male beauty in this discussion, but… I’m not going to.)

We’ve all heard the One Direction song “What Makes You Beautiful.” If you haven’t, the premise of the song is that a beautiful girl exists, and that beautiful girl doesn’t know she’s beautiful—and the fact that she doesn’t know she’s beautiful, in turn, makes her beautiful.

 “You don’t know you’re beautiful,

Oh, oh,
That’s what makes you beautiful”

Now I know I’ll probably get some flak for hating on the untouchable 1D, but let’s get this straight; the implication of this song is that ignorance of one’s physical beauty makes one beautiful—that women who know they are pretty are less pretty than they might otherwise be for their knowledge.

Seriously?

So not only do we demand that women live up to insane standards of physical beauty, but we demand that in order to be truly beautiful, they must also be utterly clueless about their ability to reach those standards.

Just to be clear—this idea is not singular to this song. I’ve heard it casually referenced in conversation, in other songs, in movies my entire life, and I’d be willing to bet that you have too.

How many times have you been on either end of this insufferable conversation?

“You are so beautiful,” says person speaking to beautiful girl.

“No, no, I’m not,” beautiful girl bashfully replies.

Why do women have to respond this way?

If the girl in this scenario isn’t lying, why doesn’t she know she’s beautiful?!

If the girl in this scenario is lying, why is she lying? Why is it such a bad thing to know yourself attractive?

I have to imagine it is very confusing to feel unattractive because you think you look attractive.

In my experience, most people agree there is something unattractive about people who think they are more attractive than they are, people who are unwilling to acknowledge their flaws. While I find it a little disturbing that we’re fine with women thinking themselves uglier than they are, but not with women thinking themselves prettier than they are, I understand the aversion to ignorance of one’s imperfections.

To imagine your nose straight when it is crooked, or your eyes balanced when they are crossed is a sign of delusion—and there is certainly something unattractive about delusion.

But doesn’t not knowing that you are physically beautiful, or thinking yourself less beautiful than you are, smack of a similar delusion, or at least ignorance?

Can we talk about the negative psychological implications of a girl who is so beautiful that she is “turning heads when [she walks] through the door” but is somehow unaware that she’s beautiful. I’m no psychiatrist, but this sounds like the stuff of serious psychological problems.

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Now—I’d wager that the basis for an aversion to a pretty girl’s knowledge of her own beauty is rooted in a respect for humility, and a misguided understanding of what humility is. It is true, in my mind, that both humility and confidence are beautiful qualities.

But humility and confidence are two sides of the same coin, and neither is served by ignorance.

Humility is not served by ignorance of one’s strengths, and confidence is not served by ignorance of one’s flaws.

So can it really be an unattractive quality to be aware of your own good looks—or an attractive quality to be unaware of them?

I can’t argue with anyone’s personal tastes, but I submit that, in an objective sense, it cannot.

Physically beautiful women don’t become less beautiful when they become aware of their own physical beauty, they become less beautiful when they think their physical beauty is everything, when they assign to it more meaning than it deserves, when they obsess over it, when they accept the worldly argument that physical beauty is the summit of female achievement.

There is a significant difference between being ignorant of one’s beauty, and being detached from it.

A woman does not become more beautiful by thinking herself less pretty than she is, she becomes more beautiful by knowing exactly how pretty she is, and acknowledging how incidental that prettiness is.

So can we stop shaming women for their awareness of their own beauty?

Can we stop the glorification of low self esteem?

Ladies, know that you are pretty, know that you are imperfect, know that prettiness is a gift of little true import and not to be obsessed over, but don’t let anyone convince you that awareness of your own beautiful attributes makes you less beautiful. It just doesn’t.

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13 comments

  1. Yes! I had a similar conversation with a blogger a few days about the lack of beautiful characters in literature who both knew they were beautiful and were portrayed as likable. Many times, women who are aware of their own beauty in the media are portrayed as vain or self-involved.

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  2. I wonder if part of the problem is the tendency to focus on the flaws…In my own case, I usually don’t believe that people think I’m pretty. That is partly because I have pretty bad scars on my face from acne as a teenager (ugh, first acne, and then scars left behind when it finally cleared up!) No amount of makeup can hide the scars because they are deep. And that, obviously, makes it hard to imagine that people think I am pretty.

    When we focus on our flaws, it is easy to overlook our good features and ignore the reality of the overall picture. I am actually called “cute” more often than pretty, but I think that is more to do with my personality and the fact that I’m shy by nature than my physical appearance.

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    1. I think it is really common for girls (myself included) to be blinded from their strengths by preoccupation with their flaws. But I think that is something to be overcome! I think we should see ourselves fully, the good and the bad, and avoid obsessing over either.

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  3. My boyfriend and I had a 15 minute conversation the last time this song came on the radio.We even joked that if 1D is so enamored with this insecure girl does she get dumped the moment she picks her head up and walks with confidence?

    It’s such a bad message! Why has it become so popular for people to be ashamed of themselves, to have such low self-esteem? Especially with women. I’m so glad you identified this.
    Why is the pretty girl always the “bad guy” because she knows she’s pretty? I remember asking myself, after watching the umpteenth chick flick, is this what guys want? Awkward, insecure, no self esteem? Don’t misunderstand, everyone has their insecurities so there is certainly a balance to be maintained but it is okay to know you’re attractive.

    “There is a significant difference between being ignorant of one’s beauty, and being detached from it.”

    Couldn’t agree with you more.

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  4. Most guys I know actually complain that they wish girls could just take a compliment when their boyfriend, friend, or date compliments them on their appearance. (I want to note that this is very different from the context of street harassment, where some random shmuck feels the need to chase down a girl telling her she’s hot.) A lot of girls, instead of simply saying “thank you”, usually negate the compliment: “Really? I don’t think so…”

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    1. I know a lot of people who resent feigned ignorance of one’s beauty. I resent it too! I think women feel as though they have to reject such compliments because to accept one is “cocky” or “unattractive.” They shouldn’t feel that way. And we shouldn’t reinforce the notion that they ought to.

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  5. Thank you for an in insightful post. Since I turned 60 a few short months ago, I have truly come to understand and appreciate the phrase “beauty is skin deep.” While it’s a cliche, it’s true. I have a friend who is 80 years old, who is one of the most beautiful women I know. She radiates joy and vitality and makes me feel ten years younger when I’m with her! As I age, I feel beauty from the inside out. It comes from inner peace, happiness, and self-acceptance. And I wouldn’t trade that feeling for all the compliments in the world!

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