My Body Image Project: Counter Beauty

Beyoncé has been a body-image heroine to many people for nearly a decade. Her refusal to succumb to the societal expectations of beauty is admirable. But what makes Beyoncé so alluring is the fact that she puts actions behind her words. She promotes positivity through her music and she embraces her body. Overall, she is a perfect example of a woman embodying beauty in every aspect of her life.

Beyoncé released a new self-titled visual album this past week. While I never worshiped Beyoncé like most of my friends, I finally understand what all the hype is about. This new album won me over. Beyoncé released a 14-song, 17-video album with zero promotion and publicity. I mean, literally nothing. Nobody had any idea that she was secretly recording and filming music videos to go along with each song. The album is Beyoncé’s most successful debut to date, and is paced to be the biggest-selling album of the year.

Beyoncé proves that you don’t have to be overtly obnoxious to be successful. While other artists like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga are out pulling publicity stunts to promote their work, Beyoncé trumps them all with her impromptu release that captured the No. 1 Billboard spot this week.

R E S P E C T

The song that truly hit home for me is “Pretty Hurts.” Beyoncé sings about the societal epidemic I’ve criticized all semester—the intense scrutiny of our own physicality even though true beauty is internal.  Our self-confidence is dictated by our physical appearance.  We let our selves diminish by disregarding everything about ourselves that truly matters—our hearts, our characters and our souls.

Even if you just listen to the first minute, the message is clear. (This version is sped-up to avoid copyright issues.)

This song is amazing. My favorite part of the lyrics is:
Pretty hurts,
Shine the light on whatever’s worst,
Tryin’ to fix something,
But you can’t fix what you can’t see,
It’s the soul that needs the surgery.”

I’d like to particularly highlight the word soul. A soul is the nonphysical aspect of a person. It is our essence and our feelings. Beyoncé is emphasizing that our problem lies inside. We can’t fix this problem through exercise or plastic surgery. We need to work on developing a relationship with ourselves.  At the end of the day, “when you’re all alone,” it is your “reflection [that] stares right into you.” Beyoncé tells society to “strip away the masquerade,” shed the “illusion” and be “happy with yourself.”  We must work on self-love. Beyoncé has immense influence over women today and hopefully her words will resonate with society.

Beyoncé also places blame on our society: “Perfection is a disease of a nation.” We must break away from the idea that it’s wrong to be imperfect. We are human. Imperfections come with the package.  Even worse, we associate our self-worth with our “flawed” appearance, rather than our character. I’m not saying it’s our fault; it’s just the reality. Society conditioned us to believe that how we look is what ultimately matters. Even body-image campaigns take this approach. Just look at “Dove Real Beauty Sketches.”

This video alone has over 61 million views on YouTube. I understand why. It’s reminding women everywhere that we individually judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty prefaced their video with: “Women are their own worst beauty critics… Dove is committed to building positive self-esteem and inspiring all women and girls to reach their full potential.” While I appreciate the message, I must criticize the approach.

Dove relates that our ability to reach our potential is dictated by recognizing our external beauty. It focuses heavily on appearance (regardless if it is positive or negative) as a sign of self-worth. It reflects the societal discourse that how we look is more important than who we are. As I was reading the comments on the video on Dove’s website, I particularly liked what John Baumgaertner said, “I wish one of the woman would just go up to her portraits and say, ‘I’m a Mom, I’ve got lots of friends, I run marathons, I started my own business and I run a charity on weekends. F*ck either one of those sketches- I’m awesome anyway.’”

This experiment is literally only skin-deep and superficial in every sense of the word. Like Baumgaertner said, “beyond loving the SKIN you’re in, it’s important to love the PERSON in the skin regardless of any external validation of your physical beauty.” We need to stop ranking beauty above personal achievement and character. This intense focus on how we look nullifies all our unique skills and qualities. It’s as if nothing about us matters if we can’t market it to the world under an attractive façade. Never mind the fact that beauty is subjective, or that society markets one body-type, we are told that we must strive to reach that societal ideal even if it may not be natural for us and ultimately compromises our health. Our sense of self-worth is intrinsically tied to our physical appearance. And this is the essence of the problem. We are so focused on our vanity. Whether or not we are admiring beauty, or criticizing the lack-of-beauty, we are always focusing on beauty. It is counter-productive.

I think we should all strive to escape this paradigm, and aim to focus on something beyond beauty. While Dove’s experiment reveals our intense sense of dysmorphia, there are underlying issues in the way we judge ourselves based on our beauty. It would be way more empowering for us to realize our beauty WITHIN regardless of what anyone may think. That is how we build true confidence and thick skin. That is how we will gain true empowerment.

I always remind myself: Complain if it is just, but don’t just complain. So I decided to put these thoughts into action. I rallied a few of my friends and asked them to describe what they loved about each other, without using physical characteristics. While I’m an amateur “film-maker,” I was really happy with the resulting video simply because it makes me feel good.

I wanted to focus entirely on inner beauty and I was really touched by everything that was said. This video reminded me just how blessed I am to be surrounded by my sincere, loving and compassionate friends. They don’t care about how I look just as I don’t care about how they look. We love each other because of what’s on the inside. As corny as it sounds, it’s true. Yet, I find myself forgetting this sometimes. I forget how blessed I am. I forget that internal beauty trumps physical beauty. I forget because I get sucked into the societal vortex of physical judgment.

I found myself embracing old habits and criticizing myself again. I realized I had to do something else that would remind me that I’m worth something beyond how I look on a consistent basis. My own sister yelled at me saying, “You can’t make a video talking about self-love and internal beauty, and then do nothing but talk about how ugly and fat you are. You’re such a hypocrite.” And I realized, I am. My sister reminded me that loving myself is a daily battle. I responded to her, “You’re so right. But it’s a journey, you just have to keep reminding me to practice what I preach.” After all, I’m still human. I’m inevitably flawed, but I’m constantly trying to improve. We define our characters by our consistent actions. My sister and I thus made an agreement. If either of us starts to say anything negative, we simply say, “Video.” This simple reference to my video keeps us focused on what really matters—our hearts, characters and relationships. My brother is now in on it too. It turned into a familial affair, which I love.

But I wanted something more tangible to remind me of my commitment to defeat the power that physical appearance has over me. So I made a twitter: @Liveandmuse. I tweet inspiring quotes promoting positivity that you can see on the right column of this blog. The tweets keep me grounded and hold me accountable. They are a daily/weekly dosage of the positivity I tried to convey in my video and on this blog. I aim to focus entirely on our inner beauty and our mentality. The tweets help alleviate the guilt stemming from my prevailing internal negativity. For every negative thought, I force myself to write up a positive tweet. I hope the consistent positivity will trump the negativity. Just as the consistent focus on internal beauty will trump physicality. It’s a quick way to remind myself of everything I write extensively about. It is an exercise for my soul. We must bombard ourselves with positivity, because only dedicated practice will perfect our habits. It uplifts me, and I hope people reading the tweets feel similarly empowered.

My sister’s comments made me realize that by making the video and maintaining Live & Muse, I have a responsibility to anyone who watched the video or reads what I write (even if it’s just a few people). I was shocked just now to see that the video has 99 views. I received lots of messages from friends thanking me for making the video, saying that it pulled them out of a really dark place and helped them get through their day. It was so inspiring to me. It made me realize how powerful positivity can be.

So many women are fighting a similar battle because we construct our self-esteem through beauty. And it hurts us. “Pretty Hurts.” We hurt ourselves by trying to be the “pretty” that society perpetuates. Rather than fight fire with fire, by countering our societal idea of beauty with alternative images of beauty, I instead criticize how our self-worth is dependent on physical beauty. This needs to change. Baby steps.

I only hope that anyone who watches the video, reads this post or reads the tweets is motivated to pursue a higher self-worth, based on internal beauty. The messages of appreciation my friends sent me gave me hope that even if I’m not Beyoncé, I can still make a difference. It gives me hope.

Let’s all work to embody beauty, we can do it together.

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