That’s what I’m seeing written all over the city. It started as chalk scribbles on sidewalks and has moved onto signs, billboards, large letters attached to fences. I see it on iphone cases and t-shirts. You being “beautiful” has become the new oversized Michael Kors handbag.
And I hate it.
The first time I was aggressively faced with one of these signs was while waiting for a bus by myself one night. I was feeling pretty low for one reason or another and I looked up and saw the words staring down at me. “You are Beautiful.” And my immediate out-loud response was, “Oh shut the hell up, sign.” I hated that this sign assumed I needed that reassurance. I hated that this sign was using the same pick-up line on all the girls, I hated that this sign is really talking about inner-beauty because that’s “what really matters” ugh…my eyes were in so much pain from the eye rolling. That “You Are Beautiful” sign made me so angry and here is why:
I am so totally sick and tired of dealing with the idea of “beautiful.” Inner or outer. And I am so sick and tired of beauty being the highest possible commodity a person has to offer. I’m here tonight to offer a threatening counter point…what if we aren’t beautiful? And that’s ok. What if we shifted the value from beauty to something else more important? What if beauty could exist in the world but not be the ultimate goal? Those are the signs I want to make. “You are not beautiful, and it hasn’t affected your ability to be kind.” Or “Your physical appearance makes no impact on your potential to be a good person,” or “Just be better than Donald Trump.”
I am not beautiful. Just kidding, yes I am and so are you. Or, I don’t know, maybe some days you are and other days, kinda iffy—the point is, who cares? Like, actually CARES in the sense that it actually matters to them how beautiful they or other people are? And inner-beauty—well let’s break that down for a minute. When we talk about inner-beauty we are really talking about a combination of other positive traits, right? Like confidence and kindness and compassion and all that junk so why can’t we just use those words to begin with? I would definitely rather hear someone say that I have a lot of confidence over a lot of “inner beauty.” And let’s not just default “inner beauty” to every single person who walks by a sign on a street. Those things require skill and perseverance and trial and error. It requires effort and work to be inwardly beautiful. Now the sign should say, “You have successfully shown a great deal of compassion, insight and goodness in the past, strive to continue along that path although there will definitely be times when you stumble and that’s all part of it,” right? Maybe shortened a little?
But no. It’s “You are Beautiful.”
Here’s another way to explain why I loathe these signs. A month or so ago a flower bloomed at the Chicago Botanical Gardens that drew in thousands of visitors. It had an official science-y name, but everyone referred to it simply as “The Corpse Flower” because of its aroma, which was said to be similar to that of rotting human flesh. The smell and the unattractive dark color of this large plant are meant to imitate a dead animal in order to attract insects to pollinate. It also attracted my fantastically weird friends to stand in line for two hours just to see it and get a sniff. The corpse flower is not beautiful. Not on the outside and certainly not on the stinky inside. But it sure is interesting, and rare, and cool. It certainly is worth waiting for. Beauty is not at play here, and that’s just fine!
Chicago Corpse flower, you are not beautiful. But you are everything else.
Another approach—my friend and I were recently talking about butterflies. I think they are fascinating because they start as wormy little caterpillars and slowly turn into butterflies. They are fragile and symbolic and brave little creatures. But what my friend and I were laughing about is that we would never go to the butterfly house here in Chicago because, at the end of the day, despite all those nice things I just said about them, I would absolutely 100% smash a butterfly dead if it landed on me. And that goes for you too, ladybugs! People love both of these bugs because they are beautiful. But wake up, people, a butterfly is nothing more than a cockroach in a cocktail dress. I’m confused about why I’m supposed to want to sit on a bench and have these things flop around in my hair or whatever, but it’s perfectly acceptable to slam my heaviest shoe into any centipede who dares scale the walls of my apartment. Do you see? We are even giving BUGS special treatment based on their appearance. You either have to be like the sign and think all bugs are beautiful including those hairy ones that look like dancing unattached eyebrows or you have to be like me and respect bugs for their purpose on earth, think they are cool in their own creepy ways and still be okay with smashing them dead if they touch you or come inside your house. No discriminating! People think it’s good luck to have a ladybug land on them. I think it’s the pits. The last time a ladybug landed on my knee I yelled “gross!” and flicked it off fast. You don’t get a pass for your cuteness, lady. Bug. Your beauty, like everyone else’s, is irrelevant to me.
Beauty might be a part of you, but it is not the defining part of you. When someone says “He is beautiful,” or “She is beautiful,” I hear it the same way I hear “She is blonde,” “He is wearing a plaid shirt,” and I wonder why beauty bears so much weight.
You are beautiful. Maybe this story is a better example. I was sitting at the front desk at my new job not to long ago and an attractive woman came in and almost immediately said to me, “Ohh, what’s wrong with your face?” (My face was really red that day because I have rosacea). So I answered, “My face is really red today because I have rosacea.” And then I felt terrible. Like my face and I had perpetrated this terrible crime against beauty simply by not wearing make up that day. And then she spent the next ten minutes telling me all her cures for rosacea. She wanted me to write down a new product she swears by that was guaranteed to “really help me,” and “fix me,” and “change my life,” which I suppose she assumed must be awful. Unbearable. I thought of the “You are Beautiful” sign and how it maybe was meant for everyone else except people like me. I thought about how shallow and naïve that “You are Beautiful” sign was, because in reality there was a complete stranger standing in front of me essentially saying “No, not you.” I could feel the tears coming and the hardening feeling I get whenever people make comments like this to me, which they seem to do a lot, these “helpful tips” people have that feel more like reminders that I’m not at their level. I felt the feeling of closing myself off a little bit more. I wanted to laugh it off but I couldn’t shake this feeling of, “Maybe she’s right…why do I even have a job where a lot of people are going to see my face?” I went to the break room to shove all the feelings and the woman into my internal storage space marked “lash out about this at something unrelated later on” when I heard my new co-worker saying to the woman, “You know, that was really inappropriate, she’s at work, she’s not here to talk about her skin with you.” And then the woman apologized and wrote me an apology note (full of spelling errors) suggesting that I forgive her for being out of line but also really consider using the product she recommended so that I can “heal” and “be happier” and it was all very surreal but I remember how strange it was when I finally realized that the whole situation balanced out differently than I expected. I had nothing to feel bad about; I hadn’t done anything besides exist. That woman was out of line; she did owe me an apology. And my strong, confident, loyal co-worker made both her and me realize it.
I am not beautiful. And for a long time I punished myself for it. I mean I’ve had moments of beauty, we all have. These moments tend to be really private where there is not a person or sign around to comment on it. When I’m cooking alone I sometimes feel beautiful, or when I’m sleepy and I’ve just gotten out of the shower and I stand in front of the mirror for a while, these are moments of feeling beautiful I suppose. For a long time, long past my impressionable teen years I tried unsuccessfully to weigh my worth in terms of beauty and could never figure it out, so I gave up. In terms of inner-beauty I never seemed to live up perfectly to those standards either. And in a society where we are focused on either being beautiful or inwardly beautiful, the danger is that if you don’t feel either way, you can get really damaged and start yelling at signs on the street. The damage comes in the form of wanting to make sure the world understands that you understand the rules, you just aren’t playing by them. So you beat them to the punch. You make fat jokes about yourself and you stop putting forth a ton of effort in how you dress and you decide for everyone else that you aren’t beautiful enough to date or really to even be loved and in your infinite wisdom you have beaten everyone to the punch. You have outsmarted them all. You have stayed ahead of the game by simply not playing. But really, you’ve lost. And you do find yourself standing on a street corner yelling at a sign that is trying to tell you that you are still this frightening overwhelming crushing thing that you don’t want to have to be.
But then one night, as I was halfway through writing this very story about the irrelevance of beauty in my life, I started talking about these ideas with a friend. He has heard me go on about this more than once and now, exhausted by my never-ending treatise on the issues with the value of beauty, or perhaps just fueled with confidence from a great deal of tequila he proclaimed, “You’ve now created this idea of yourself being totally not-beautiful, which you aren’t, in order to still be special.” It was a little more slurred than that but I still heard it loud and clear. It stung pretty hard, but in a good way. “If I’m not beautiful, and I’m not hideous, then what am I…just…regular?” I asked him. “I don’t know…” he said while using his mouth to find the straw of his blue whale margarita, “You’re awesome, you’re just you. Wanna get more salsa?”
That’s the thing, isn’t it? We all want to be beautiful, or wild, or talented or kind or maybe even hideous or cruel. We all want to be special in some way and to avoid being the worst thing, “regular.” Maybe that should be the sign, “You are Seen.” “You are Relevant.” “You are YOU.”
So I don’t know. I’m going have to keep working this out. Maybe you are beautiful. It’s most likely, at least sometimes. Maybe you bloomed unexpectedly or worked really hard to get out of a cocoon or defended a co-worker who got mistreated or spit some helpful truth out to a friend one night—those are all beautiful things to do. Maybe you have long flowy hair or an adorable stripe in your fur behind your ear like my cat or really cool clothes or piercing eyes or some other beautiful thing on you—that’s cool too. Maybe you are overweight and have a reddish face and one big weird leg but you secretly know that you also have the most amazing eyelashes in the history of eyelashes so you start wearing really expensive mascara…and I’m talking about myself here because you guys, I do have really beautiful eyelashes.
I read back over this story that I just told and it dawned on me how many separate times I mention my different friends. And how they are always making me laugh or helping me, or standing up for me, and I remember a little card that I have posted on my bedroom wall. It’s a little card my friend mailed me once when I was having a rough time and I’ve completely forgotten about it until right now. It has brought me an enormous amount of comfort and it makes me laugh realizing that I’ve spent this entire piece trying to rewrite a sign I saw on the street when the answer has been there, literally hanging over me all along. Maybe some people do need a sign to remind them of what is truly important. It’s just that mine is very small and simply says, “You are loved.”