The Real Truth About Beauty
“What is beauty really?” This is the question a friend recently posed to me, instigating a search for women’s general perceptions of beauty.
The Oxford Dictionary defines beauty as “a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight", whilst the philosopher and teacher Confucius added "everything has beauty but not everyone sees it”.
“Combination” is especially important in the above definition, suggesting variation and that beauty is subjective. Yet, there are social perceptions portraying certain physical traits as being ‘ideal’ which people evaluate themselves against. Comparisons to celebrities in the media and influencers on Instagram have created an epidemic where far more weight is given to outer appearance than the personality traits making someone beautiful.
Even amongst physical appearance, there is vast differentiation in defining beauty based upon cultural perceptions. Long necks are considered attractive for women of the Kayan tribes of Myanmar, where young girls are encouraged from the age of five to wear heavy brass rings to obtain this desired attribute.
Women of Masai tribes in Africa are considered to have higher status the greater their earlobes are stretched. Maori women of New Zealand may tattoo their lips and chins in order to be more attractive to a potential partner. Of course these are based upon cultural practices so may seem shocking to those not accustomed to them, but still it starkly highlights the subjectivity of beauty.
On a personal level, many females I have spoken to admit to not considering themselves beautiful and that compliments make them feel awkward, myself included. So why is this the case? Perhaps it is a lack of confidence, perhaps a culmination of life experiences, memories and societal pressures clouding judgement of our own beauty.
We are not alone in this sentiment. In 2004, Dove undertook the first global survey attempting to ascertain female’s perception of beauty. The Real Truth About Beauty discovered that a mere 2% of the 3200 women aged 18 to 64 surveyed considered themselves to be beautiful. 2%!
The most telling results concluded 60% thought “society expects women to enhance their physical attractiveness”, 75% wished the media portrayed greater diversity in physical appearance, whilst 76% wished the media focused attention away from beauty solely being related to physical appearance. Clearly, it is the imagery shown through various media platforms that is negatively impacting women’s perceptions of beauty.
When the study was revisited in 2011, 80% of women agreed that “every woman has something about her that is beautiful, but do not see their own beauty”. This is a key point of focus, given that women judge themselves predominantly on outer beauty, yet are more positive towards others by also considering the inner beauty of their character.
This is confirmed by 63% agreeing that “physical attractiveness is about how a person looks, whereas beauty includes much more of who a person is.” When personality attributes were considered, these were actually given greater value of beauty than physical appearance.
Therefore, perhaps we do need to challenge the perceptions, or rather misconceptions, of beauty being solely based upon physical attractiveness, and value our own worth in terms of our amazing sense of humour, intellectual prowess and kindness towards others.
Each of us is unique, we have personality traits that appeal to some and not to others, we have physical ‘imperfections’ that people embrace as being points of interest rather than detracting from attractiveness. There will never be anyone else like you, so why try to be somebody else. You can’t wear someone else’s custom-made shoes – they just won’t fit.
Real beauty should be acceptance of yourself, including perceived flaws, and acknowledging that they are what make you unique. It is about the collective character and spirit you share with others, the strength you have to overcome misconceptions that certain things do not make you beautiful and the self-confidence to be unapologetically you.
“Butterflies can't see their wings. They can't see how truly beautiful they are, but everyone else can. People are like that as well.” – Naya Rivera
So to the people who tell us we are beautiful, thank you. But the person you need to listen to most is yourself – whisper it to your reflection, shout it from the rooftops – “I am me and I am beautiful”.
Written by Hannah Bird, who can be found as @thehbird on Instagram.