I arrived in the United States at the age of 11, and my family moved to an extremely homogenous neighbourhood on the outskirts of Houston, Texas. Not only was the culture quite foreign to me, at the junior high school where I was enrolled, I looked and sounded different from everyone around me. I managed the best way I could, and in general, I did okay. But the truth is that eleven is such an incredibly awkward age: it's the age when hormones begin to rage, our faces and hair become oily or greasy, and our bodies begin to plump out in shocking ways (or, as in my case, become unforgivingly angular). And cruelly, this is also the time when we start to really become aware of what our society deems "beautiful" -- we watch with wonder on television, in magazines, in movies and on stage the teenagers and adults who are anointed Beautiful, who become the standards for which we are encouraged to aim. These are the Beautiful Ones, we are overtly or covertly told. You should be just like them. Don't, and you fail.
It is a wonder, then, that any of us grow up to have any self-esteem at all.
The problem of course, is that at age 11, few of us, if any, have much experience with being loved by anyone other than the people who are connected to us by family, or otherwise feel an obligation to take care of us. Eventually of course, we fall in love, and we meet people who love us, but then we also fall out of love -- and when we do (or if romantic love comes later to us in life), we can't help but wonder, is the ability to sustain love -- the kind of love we see in movies or on telvision -- directly related to how beautiful we are?
And this, my friends, is a heavy question to deal with when you're eleven, or twelve, or even older. At least, this definitely was the case with me. And honestly, I was well into adulthood before I was comfortable with the truth that I would never, ever, achieve the standard I had somehow decided, based on the media, as being technically "beautiful."
But then one day -- surprisingly recently, in fact, within the last 5 years or so -- I had a moment of enlightenment: I realized that this standard of beauty, the one that had been fed to me all my life, was completely bogus. My epiphany went something like this:
1. First of all, I was never, ever, ever going to stop feeling different from everyone else. This is actually a good thing. It dawned on me that we are individuals for a reason.
2. It is therefore also extremely likely that everyone else -- including those anointed as one of the Beautiful Ones -- also will never, ever, ever stop feeling different from everyone else as well.
3. I realized that some of the most beautiful people I have ever known -- people who were able to stir my soul just by walking into the room -- were people who others might not have found, on first glance, particularly attractive. Similarly, there are many people I've encountered in my life who others have been unable to stop themselves from gushing about their beauty, while I, frankly, just didn't see it. There must be something to this individual perception of beauty.
4. Given the above, it finally became very clear to me -- like a bolt of lightning, actually -- that we go through life confusing what is Deemed Commercially Desirable for the Purpose of Selling and Marketing a Product (including, of course, those products shown to us by television, movies and music) with True Beauty. And the difference between the two is this:
While something or someone who has been declared commercially, aesthetically desirable might have the power to incite lust or longing, only true beauty has the power to stir someone's soul.
Given this fact -- given the fact that at some point we will all experience love (romantic or otherwise) and that we have experienced our own souls being moved by the mere presence of another person (a romantic interest or otherwise), it therefore cannot be too big a leap of logic to realize that, regardless of some arbitrary societal standard of whether we possess a commercial-aesthetic-capable-of-marketing-or-selling-a-product, we all, every single one of us, without exception, have the capacity for incredible, indescribable beauty. And this beauty, this ability to truly stir someone's soul, is communicated in a combination of a myriad of different, uniquely-you ways:
- the way your eyes flash when you talk about something that you're passionate about;
- the quickness and suddenness of your smile;
- the intense expression on your face when you listen to a particularly lovely piece of music;
- your wit, your intelligence, your unique view of the world;
- the extraordinary way you laugh.
All of these things -- your "youness" -- are what make you stunningly beautiful. And furthermore, since you are so stunningly beautiful, all those flaws that you think you have? They're a myth. There are no flaws. They are simply characteristics that make up parts of your beautiful whole.
Think about that for a second.
It's mindblowing, isn't it? But it's so true. Ask someone who knows you, if you don't believe me.
In fact, if you don't believe me, perhaps you'll believe my dear friend, Katherine Center. Katherine is an author of several novels, including one of my favourites, Everyone is Beautiful. I had the opportunity to sit with Katherine a few months ago, and we discussed the concepts of beauty, imperfections, and perceptions. And here's what she had to say:
She's beautiful, isn't she?
And so, to convince yourself of your own beauty (if you're not already convinced by now), the first thing you must do is to let go of that commercial definition of "beauty" -- and this is required even if you fit this aesthetic. Because the commercial definition is, ultimately, far too superficial a definition.
Especially for someone as beautiful as you.
So this month, let's reflect on our perceptions of ourselves, and start really seeing how beautiful you really are. For the next four weeks, I'll invite you to start a self-portrait project: take a self-portrait every single day. (Don't worry: like every exercise we'll do here on Own Your Beauty, this can be for your eyes only.) You can do it with your fancy camera, or you can do it with your camera phone, or even your webcam on your computer. You can do it at different times of the day. And you can do photographs of your face, your feet, your hands, whatever you'd like, as long as you (or some part of you) appear in the photograph. If you can, try to do the self-portrait in a moment of happiness or contentment or peace: while you're having a night out with friends, in the morning before the start of an exciting day, with an afternoon cup of tea, or even at night when you're feeling relieved that you're about to fall into bed. If it's been a crap day, take a few moments to silently breathe, slowly and deeply, and get centred in mindfulness before you take the picture.
As you amass these photographs, take note of what it feels like to have this collection of these photographs for 28 days -- what surprisingly attractive thing do you notice about yourself that you never noticed before? What do you like? What are you proud of?
What makes you different?
If you're open to sharing your photographs (again, you don't have to), I invite you to share them in the "Own Your Beauty" Flickr group, and declare what your beautiful different is. If you have a Flickr account, you're invited to join and share your beautiful different.
Of course, if you do a blog post on any of your photos, please share them in the widget below. We'd love to see what you capture.
And remember: you are different. And you're beautiful.
For more information on Katherine Center and her work, please visit her site at www.katherinecenter.com. This post is written as part of BlogHer.com's Own Your Beauty initiative. To see more, click here.