I have to confess I struggled a bit – maybe a lot – with my body image when gyms closed and lockdown was implemented a few months ago. I don’t want to dwell on things too negatively in this blog space. Let’s just say disruption to routine, which for me would have included a fitness regimen, was upsetting, to say the least.
I’m all about the idea of being kind to myself. But I also felt pretty bad – at one point, I didn’t even want to go out for my daily quarantine walk, because I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and the idea of going out in public (even a deserted public environment) seemed like the worst thing I could do.
Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s fine because “everyone is beautiful”. Hear me out. Beauty is a standard, an ideal; so it’s impossible for everybody to be beautiful. If nobody deviated from the ideal beauty, beauty wouldn’t be of interest to anyone. It would certainly not be the subject of desire or envy. It is the fact that each of us have an awareness of the elusiveness, rarity, and transience of beauty, and its high aesthetic value, that we can talk about – and care about – beauty at all.
And I’m not going to tell you that “everyone is beautiful on the inside“, either, because that is also plainly false. It’s certainly possible for somebody to not meet the outward conventions of beauty and also be a bad person! It’s not like deviating from standards of visible beauty would suddenly make you a saint. So saying people are beautiful “on the inside” should not be used as some kind of replacement for “everyone is beautiful” either. It seems to me talking about beauty on the “inside” is a type of consolation, rather than a concept which captures and fully recognises the complexity and diversity of people’s inner qualities.
I think what we are really getting at when we try to reconcile the concept of beauty with universal possibility is something rather more serious. What these longings of beauty capture is, I think, some kind of inherent desire we have as human beings to value positively and be valued positively. It seems bad or cruel to not positively value someone for something, which is why we all seem to be in the habit of trying to find redeeming qualities in people that we can pick out as the thing which determines their positive value. And we could be valued positively for all kinds of things – the quality of our work, how kind we are to others, how well we play an instrument, and so on and so forth. For some reason, it seems being beautiful is one way of being valued that seems to matter quite a lot in our world (especially for women).
Now being valued positively may seem like a good thing in general, but there are negative aspects to it that are unavoidable. If I specially designate “productivity” as the ability I value positively in a person, then it already imposes on that person an expectation that they be productive in order to be valued positively by me. Doesn’t seem so bad if they are productive without exception, but if they are human like everybody else, chances are they will not always be productive. When they are not being productive, they obviously cannot be valued positively in terms of their productivity. If you know your boss values you positively for being productive, it’s probably hard to localise the feeling of failure you might get if you had an unproductive day. Suddenly you are in a bad mood and you feel like a failure, full stop. You think it’s a character flaw that you need to change about yourself to be worth something to the world again. To be able to “show your face” again. It becomes a big deal.
I think this is how adherence to beauty works too. There’s beauty, the thing that is valued positively, which seems fine to the extent that it’s just one of many ways to be valued at all. But, like the other things, it can suddenly become a big deal because we want to maintain that positive valuation, yet, like many other qualities we possess, it’s not the type of quality everybody can have all of the time without exception. And so beauty becomes this thing you want to fix in yourself all of the time because you want to keep the way you are valued positively stable, even though your embodied existence is by nature unstable.
And beauty is a loaded concept. Innocuous comments like “That person is in good shape” or “They look like they take care of themselves” are all compliments of someone’s beauty, but it has implications to do with not only how they look in terms of their physical fitness, but also their fitness in terms of their character and spirit. When we appraise someone’s beauty, we are often combining the image we appreciate visually about them with some assumption about an excellence of their character – that they work hard, they aren’t lazy, they groom themselves well, they have the ability to follow conventions of society, they care about making a good impression, etc. This is probably also part of why it can feel devastating to fall short – not only do I not look the part of society’s standards, the fact that I don’t is like a mistake I made – or so it seems.
Now being valued in any direction, positive or negative, is inevitable and unavoidable. And it’s clear that while being valued positively seems desirable, falling short means that we can fall into heavy doubt about our value. But if the claim that “everybody” is beautiful is false, how do we make it feel ok to not be perfect? How do we accept the human fact that we are all prone to fall short of some impossible ideal like Beauty?
There are a couple of things I can think of, and feel free to let me know if you have any other ideas.
The first thing is to remember is that there aren’t many things which we can or should actually aspire to attain all of the time without exception. You feel bad about having a “bad hair day” – but why? Maybe you had to attend to more important things. It’s not like everyone else is having a perfect hair day! You feel bad about not exercising for an entire week, but it really isn’t the end of the world, either. You feel bad for eating “junk food”; but again, eating itself is supposed to be good for you, it’s just that you feel guilty that you didn’t have the most nutritionally complete meal. The good news is that none of us are “special” in not being perfect. It is a perfectly common fact that human beings are fallible – none of us are alone in that.
To give you a more personal example: I have been having issues with dermatitis for a while, which has largely just been a cosmetic bother for me. When I’m around others, particularly those I perceive to have “better” skin than me, I notice that I’ll literally apologise to people for “having terrible skin”. How bad is that? We seem to each care about lots and lots of “flaws” like these. It’s understandable to an extent – as I’ve mentioned, we are after all striving for a ‘positive value’ (and often we enforce and police our own standards!). We want to try and improve and become better in whatever way.
Striving to improve is not necessarily problematic. It’s the attitude we take on when we fall short of improvement which is often the detrimental thing to us. The big deal about falling short of some ideal is not about falling short, but rather the accompanying perception that we are each irrevocably and uniquely flawed. It’s the getting down on ourselves in a way that is disproportionate to the “flaw” we’ve committed – me apologising to other people for an involuntary skin condition being a case in point.
We may not be in control of whatever we think our flaws to be, but we can certainly have better attitudes towards ourselves about those flaws.
The next thing to remember, I think, is to treat our value and worth as not being contingent on any one standard or quality – including things like beauty. Instead of claiming everyone is beautiful, which already perpetuates an overemphasis on the importance of beauty, we need to remember that the qualities the world appears to value us for, such as beauty, is simply not all that we are worth. So it’s not that we should pretend everyone is beautiful – it’s that we need to recognise that everyone has a value besides the value that is conferred on them based on their success in fulfilling some socially inherited ideal.
Our general value and worth is also independent of any one valuer. This means my worth is not fully determined by either you, nor me, nor anything or anyone else. We all have a worth and a value just by being the kinds of creatures that we are. Sure, there are differences between people – like how some people are bigots, and others are not. This is fine – all this means is that we have practical norms and conventions of value against which we may, for whatever purpose, subject people to different judgments and evaluations. So I’m not saying everyone should be judged in the same way, or that we don’t have legitimate reasons to differentially judge people sometimes. And we should certainly be permitted to hold one another accountable for a great many things. But this is a slightly different point. All I am trying to say is this: the fact that we just are the kinds of beings that have worth and value means that our worth on the whole cannot just get outright subtracted or erased in accordance with how much we screw up or fall short of some ideal.
So what exactly is that worth and value? Well, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing anyone can even begin to describe in simple terms.
But I suspect that worth and value is the thing that makes us talk about universal human rights (like access to clean water, shelter, and so on) like it should apply to everyone. It’s the thing that makes it difficult for people to defend the idea criminals deserve to be sentenced to imprisonment (or even death…) without a due process and fair trial. It’s the thing that makes our heart ache when we see other people – including strangers – suffering. It’s the thing that makes deaths a tragedy. It’s the thing that gives us an interest in the welfare of people with whom we have no contact or relation whatsoever. It’s the thing that makes our caring emotions and empathetic faculties make any sense.
This means we can have bad days or make mistakes and still be worth something; everything.
This means others can bully us or put us down and we’d still be worth something; everything.
This means others can treat us as invisible and we’d still be worth something; everything.
And this means, most of all, that no matter how much I decide to hate myself, I’d still be worth something; everything.
Our value and worth is not something anyone – not even yourself – can change. You can’t help but be the kind of being that has this value. So perhaps part of changing our attitude about our flaws is to positively acknowledge that we all have value in a way that isn’t up to us, and in a way that is independent of any one of our individual qualities or characteristics.
Being dissatisfied with how we fulfil particular domains of social expectation and abstract ideals is one way to respond to our personal anxieties about our value. But let the value you have, which persists regardless (though thick and thin, for better or worse), become a source of awe, strength, and humility.