What Is Beauty?


By Sarah Allen

Women hear so much about beauty everyday that it’s nearly impossible not to think about it. When we surf the Internet, we see ads for clothes or makeup. We hear commentary on other women’s appearances (and sometimes our own) in class. We receive unwanted catcalls walking down the street. The message from society is clear: women exist primarily to be beautiful objects of desire, and secondarily to be human.

Public figures like Donald Trump prove how many people still hold these notions. The Internet, too, is fixated on women as objects of male desire. Leaked nude photos of famous actresses reveal that many men prioritize their sexual gratification over women’s privacy, and cruel commentary on women’s appearances is equally horrifying. Recently, a Twitter meme posted side-by-side of women with and without makeup. The text of the meme suggested that a man should “take her swimming” on the first date so that the water washed off her makeup and revealed her face without makeup, which apparently fell short of conventional beauty standards.

Clearly, society’s definition of beauty is unacceptable. So then what is beauty, and how can we, as girls and women, find beauty in ourselves and in our lives, if not through our physical appearance?

Google says that beauty is “a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses.” Another definition is more blunt: “denoting something intended to make a woman more attractive.” Under this second conventional definition, men cannot by beautiful, while under the first, an object or person cannot be deemed “beautiful” for non-aesthetic reasons like personality or words.

Based only on our own experiences, we know this definition to be wrong. Though beauty can be aesthetic, like a sunset or painting, beauty also encompasses works of literature, and music. Even when aesthetic, our emotions and experiences shape our understanding of beauty. A painting may seem more beautiful because we identify with its characters, or an aesthetically pleasing person may become ugly to us when they treat us poorly. Other people can become beautiful to us with time, as love and memories begin to shape and alter what our eyes perceive.

That is why I reject those definitions of beauty in favor of my own. Beauty describes anything that brings joy and love to our inner selves. We can find “the beauty within,” in our personalities and love for others, and we can also seek and value the beauty outside of ourselves, in books or songs or nature.

This definition of beauty reveals the truth: that women (and men) are beautiful for reasons that go far beyond their looks. More importantly, however often advertisers try to convince us otherwise, women do not have to be beautiful in any sense of we do not choose to be. We can instead choose to be strong or powerful or thoughtful or intelligent instead. While there is nothing wrong with dressing or applying makeup to become “beautiful,” we also do not need to concern ourselves with becoming attractive in the conventional sense. We owe the world our love and kindness, perhaps, but we will never owe them that.