I just got back from giving four days of talks at Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and UMass Amherst. The students, faculty, staff, and community members I had the honor to meet were absolutely amazing and I had a blast. (I also got to see and walk through snow – it’s possible I was the only one who was happy about that part!)
During one of my talks – The World is Messed Up, You Are Fine – I talked about beauty. In particular I talked about the ways that the diet and beauty industries leverage the idea of beauty for profit, in the process disempowering well, just about everyone.
I also talked about the idea that, rather than the suggestion that “beauty” is limited to certain people, the truth is that perceiving beauty is a skill set – which is to say that everyone has inherent beauty, and the ability to see that beauty is a skill that can be learned and expanded. Some people have never bothered to expand their skill-set beyond the stereotypes that we get spoon-fed. Stereotypes that are too often grounded in privileged identities in our culture like whiteness, thinness, appearing cisgender, heteronormativity, appearing able-bodied, and more.
Now, regardless of how we think of beauty, let’s be clear that nobody owes anybody else beauty or attractiveness by any definition. And there are plenty of other ways to deal with toxic beauty culture, including deciding that beauty just isn’t something that we should care about/talk about/value. I like the idea of perceiving beauty as a skill-set because it acknowledges that people around the world have the ability to appreciate many different types of beauty, and it puts the responsibility where it belongs – on the person who is doing the perceiving, not on the body that is being perceived. So if we can’t see the beauty in someone, that’s on us because there is nothing wrong with the person we’re looking at. And if someone can’t see our beauty – that’s on them because there is nothing wrong with us.
Now, if we don’t have a great skillset for perceiving beauty, that’s not exactly a galloping shock – we live in a society that lies to us early and often about beauty for reasons including profit and power, and media that makes it nearly impossible for us to even see people who fall outside the Hollywood stereotypes of beauty in any kind of positive light.
What we can do is take responsibility for expanding our skill-set. I think a good place to start is to notice when we can’t see the beauty in someone, and ask ourselves why. We can start by asking ourselves if it’s tied to an identity or characteristic that is marginalized in our society – this could be anything from racism/colorism to things like gendered ideas of height, or sizeism and more.
Regardless of where the idea came from, we can actively work to overcome our conditioning and see the beauty in bodies like these. One option is to create a powerpoint or other slideshow and add pictures that represent the types of beauty that we are struggling to see. Then go through the deck each day and work to see the beauty in each person. As you see people in your daily life, work to perceive their beauty (though, of course, please don’t visit your issues on them – this is about your own growth.)
I got an e-mail from one of the students who was at my talk that I wanted to share with you (with their permission.) They wrote:
I wanted to thank you for what you said about perceiving beauty. I’ve never thought about it like this before. I’ve been forcing myself to really be aware of the thoughts I have and I’ve realized that even though I’m committed to social justice, I’ve been couching a lot of bigotry in my ideas of beauty. Like, I am clear that these folks should not be oppressed, and I fight against their oppression, but I still believe that their appearance makes them less…attractive…worthy…something not good. Anyway, it’s already created a big shift for me, and it has the bonus of making me feel much more confident myself since I know that even if someone doesn’t see my beauty, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. You are my shero, your whole talk was amazing and I learned a ton, but this has really stuck out so I wanted to tell you.
So there are lots of reasons to take responsibility for our ability to perceive beauty. When it comes to fat bodies, people who can’t see our beauty have plenty of options, one of them is to accept responsibility for their inability to see our beauty and to work on that. Regardless, we are never under any obligation to buy into sizeist (or any other negative) ideas about our bodies.
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