That being said, this essay is about women’s bodies.
In writing an essay about women’s bodies titled Truth About Beauty, I am hoping to address (or at least partially address) a cultural situation that severely lacks honest, straightforward conversation on the subject. Women are largely under the impression that to have a beautiful body one must be thin, toned, tan; one must use one’s clothes, accessories, and physical demeanor to be sexually expressive without coming off as a slut; muscle tone and feminine curves go in and out with the fashion season, depending on the media reaction to some celebrity or other who has recently made a non-underweight public appearance.
Efforts to change cultural perceptions of beauty from its current artificially rigid standard are starting to be made, such as the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty , ads like this, or even music videos like this one by Evanescence. Meanwhile, Killing Us Softly has been watch-dogging the extremely negative role advertising usually plays in cultural perceptions of women and female beauty for years. But until these truths are mainstreamed and the average woman becomes aware both cognitively and instinctively that her body is beautiful, there will still be work to do. The fact that body image is a contributing factor for as many as 10 million American women struggling with eating disorders indicates that we have quite a ways to go.
The second truth that needs saying is that physical beauty is different from physical health. Right? A relatively inactive, naturally slender woman who takes advantage of her quick metabolism to habitually eat high-fat, high-cholesterol foods could still be at risk for heart disease; and there are plenty of very overweight women considered to have beautiful bodies, partially if not wholly because of their size. (If you doubt this, Google the acronym BBW. The sheer number of plus-sized porn sites you find – over 1 million – ought to prove my point, if rather crudely, and there’s almost the same number of hits of a more tasteful nature dedicated to Big Beautiful Women.) It’s time we stopped muddling beauty and health. Being active and eating well are good ideas from the standpoint of health, but for many women they won’t provide the kind of body that our culture seems to call beautiful. And many women, pursuing that specific form of beauty, push themselves – through unsound diets and/or excessive exercise – from one kind of unhealthiness into another, spend their lives bouncing back and forth between the two, and only achieve a body that satisfies them for brief periods of time. Many women also justify their unhealthy pursuit of a specific beauty, ironically, as the pursuit of good health. The truth is that a body can be beautiful but unhealthy, or healthy but unattractive, or any other combination of the two characteristics, and the pursuit of one does not preclude achieving the other. So let’s stop confusing health and beauty – it’s only getting in our way.
The next truths about beauty are elaborations on the first truth, that beauty is subjective. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, than whether or not a body is beautiful depends entirely on who’s looking at it. Broadly speaking, the audience for a body is divided into to categories of people: ‘self’ and ‘others’. ‘Others’ can be further divided into categories like ‘lovers’, ‘family/friends’, and ‘everyone else.’ Here’s the third truth about beauty: achieving universal beauty is impossible. Forget trying to be something that everyone finds equally appealing – you won’t even be able to be something that all people find remotely appealing. You just can’t. No matter what your body looks like, you will never be beautiful to absolutely everyone. Humanity’s aesthetic tastes are too specific, too individual for there to ever have been or ever be a true Helen of Troy.
So, if you want a beautiful body, you should try to begin with satisfying yourself. You know what you yourself find visually and sensually pleasing in a female body; if it’s feasible, you can strive to be that. Many women, however, find that they aren’t capable of being satisfied with their own bodies. This is often because they have been so trained to think of beauty in very specific, mass-media terms, or because they genuinely find a body type other than their own to be more appealing, or general self-criticism, etc. Affirmation from the three categories of ‘others’ – lovers, family/friends, and acquaintances/strangers – plays a huge role in feeling beautiful and in perceiving oneself as beautiful (humanity is, after all, instinctively communal). I shouldn’t need to point out that everyone needs to surround themselves with people who are both affirming and honest; that’s a social truth that applies to beauty as well. Our self-perception affects how others perceive us, just as their perceptions of us affect how we perceive ourselves.
The fourth truth, and this is very important, is that the specific, individual criteria for beauty expressed by each person means that a cross-section of humanity reveals an extremely wide range for what is beautiful. The only quasi-constants, when it comes to the female body, seem to be wrapped up in symmetry and proportions. If you want to speak about “what men like,” for example (although I know this is only about 49% of the population of opinions on the subject), all you can assert with confidence is that most men, not all, prefer women whose bodies are symmetrical left to right and whose hips are fuller than their waists. That’s about as specific as you can get. When it comes to types of figure, there seem to be just as many male fans of apples or pears as there are of hourglasses, while men who genuinely prefer model-skinny women are in a definite minority, along with those who are attracted to extremely obese women. Just look at the women we date – we date real women, normal women, and it’s not because men aren’t picky. It’s because what we find beautiful is radically more than the one facet of beauty that advertising and Hollywood consistently shows.
Just so we know exactly what we’re talking about, let’s describe the mainstream media’s “beautiful body.” In the language of Killing Us Softly, models are naturally long-legged, narrow-hipped and broad-shouldered, genetically thin (though many starve themselves anyway), and usually small-breasted – a body type that less than 5% of American women have. On top of this, most models who sport cleavage have been artificially “enhanced”, surgically or otherwise, and their photos and footage are digitally “cleaned up” – lines are altered, features are softened or accentuated, skin is airbrushed. In essence, the media’s portrayal of a beautiful female body is a body that does not exist. Little wonder that beauty products and programs are such a lucrative industry – advertising has women spending money to chase down the ends of rainbows.
That description is important because a fifth truth about beauty is that beauty is non-exclusive. No body type has a special claim to beauty. Women whose bodies are different from the mainstream portrayal are not expressing an “alternative” form of beauty; they are expressing beauty itself.
Having said that, I don’t want anyone to mistake this essay for a false nicety that says every woman has a beautiful body just as she presently is. That may be true; but I doubt it. There is a difference, a line, between attractive and unattractive, and there are bodies on both sides of it. I have a theory as to why.
We already know that there are several different kinds of body types, and that beauty isn’t reserved to any one type or types. However, and this is the sixth truth, beauty is expressed differently from type to type, and many women are struggling to express the wrong kind of beauty for their type. For example: most women desire to be thin, but the reality is that there are relatively few women who are genuinely capable of looking good while slender – it requires a small bone structure of the kind you can’t produce by diet and exercise, and women who have more normal skeletal structures often end up looking bony when they ‘succeed.’ I understand that a lot of women find delicacy beautiful and would like to appear that way but, honestly, there’s a big difference in appeal between looking delicate and looking breakable. There is probably a similarly small percentage of women who are genuinely capable of looking good while extremely fat as looking slender; after a certain point, which varies from person to person, just about everyone stops putting on weight in sensually appealing ways (even to those who find full-figured women attractive). The good news is that the women who won’t look their best skinny or obese – the majority of women – have a natural size range somewhere in the middle which is both generally and personally beautiful.
Seven truths about beauty comprise a lot of good news for the female body, and here’s the seventh and final truth: women can stop obsessing over their weight. They can stop obsessing over their size. They can let go of the need to have a body that is different from the one they actually have. They can let go of unrealistic expectations society has taught them to have for themselves. I may be skeptical about every woman having a beautiful body right now, but I’m not skeptical about this – in fact I firmly believe – that every woman’s body has the potential to be beautiful, that every woman’s body is designed to possess and display a specific beauty all its own. I also believe that society can be changed – indeed, that it is beginning to be changed – to define and acknowledge beauty in all of beauty’s forms. I believe it’s arrogant and presumptuous of anyone to uphold one attractive body over the rest and pretend it has universal appeal; and I believe that by living out these truths we, you and I, can make a difference to the people around us by opening their eyes to a fuller experience of true beauty.
I forget who said “beauty is truth, and truth beauty,” but, whoever it was, he was expressing an idea that is way too abstract for me to buy into. Although – I’ve gotta say that sometimes, like now, the truth really is beautiful.