Humans want to look good. Through our 5,000 years of recorded history and before that, we have chased beauty. The corners of history are filled with recipes for beauty creams and makeup tips from every civilization. The covers of textbooks feature a bust of Queen Nefertiti or a tapestry of the beautiful young Medici brothers.
It’s OK to want to be pretty. It’s human.
But apparently it’s also human to make things as complicated as possible.
We shame ourselves for not being pretty enough, while shaming ourselves for wanting to be pretty in the first place.
That’s just messed up.
Choosing beauty doesn’t make you any less smart or capable. A low self-esteem is not the opposite of vanity. Deciding to be beautiful is no different than deciding to have a lovely rose bush next to your front door or a great painting hanging above your desk.
Pretty has very little to do with how closely you align with society’s beauty standards. It has everything to do with how you treat yourself. Gorgeous women comfortably walk the fine line of enhancing their looks with just the right beauty routine and wardrobe. They don’t need a truck bed full of makeup and hairspray to leave the house. They don’t walk out the door in a wrinkled blouse and ratty hair. They practice self-care, rather than self-indulgence.
My journey to beauty got off to a rocky start as a pudgy, awkward kid, adding on braces, acne and a short bushy haircut in the 7th grade. I was raised by great parents who wanted me to value creativity and intelligence over beauty, which I do. But as a child, that often translated into ill-fitting clothes handed down from my cousin Danny and complete bewilderment at my own desire to be pretty. I spent hours in my bedroom, drawing dresses, imagining what my beautiful, grown–up self would look like, and studying the end-all, be-all authority on style, Princess Diana.
I grew up and out of that most-awkward stage, but the uncomfortable 7th grader had lodged herself in my psyche. Throughout my teens and 20s I didn’t like my hair, my face, the shape of the line between my hair and face. My earlobes were weird. I hated the way my cheeks looked when I smiled. I was still me, and grumbling about it.
My first experience with a woman who chose to be beautiful was Lisa. Freshman year in college she came rolling into the costume shop where we worked. She wore cute, form fitting clothes with confidence. She wore just the right amount of makeup. I thought, “If only I had a body like hers. Then I would wear great clothes and walk around with that confidence.” After two years of working on and off stage with Lisa, sharing classes and heartbreaks and endless cups of coffee, I took the opportunity to steal a glimpse of her measurements card in the costume shop. Our body stats were nearly identical.
Her body, by this empirical evidence, wasn’t significantly different from mine.
The conclusion was obvious. Lisa had some crazy magic that I didn’t have access to. She was hot and I wasn’t, and that would be that.
As time moved on I met more and more women like Lisa; women who weren’t waiting to lose 5 pounds or for their hair to grow another 2 inches before they decided to be beautiful. These women were rocking what they had.
They wore nice clothing, took a minute to put on lotion, ate well, expected to have time to themselves, not because they were vain of self-centered, but because they valued themselves. They enjoyed looking good.
It’s taken about 20 years of observation, but I finally feel able to harness a piece of that magic. Here is a path that can get you there.
Appreciate the beauty of others
Being beautiful is never about being more beautiful than other people. That would be like saying one tree is more beautiful than another. Trees are just beautiful. One tree’s beauty does not diminish another’s.
Appreciating beauty in others, rather than dreading it, helps us open our eyes to our own beauty. Take a walk through a crowded public area and keep an eye out for gorgeous. You will find it everywhere, in the old, the toddling, the in-between.
If you are feeling dwarfed by a friend’s beauty, look at her a little more carefully. Chances are she is no closer to society’s standards than you are; she has just chosen to consider herself gorgeous, and grooms herself accordingly.
You do you
Recently a friend of mine was picked up in a private jet and flown to LA for a party. (This never happens to me.) She was naturally apprehensive about dressing for a hip restaurant in downtown LA. She could have bought expensive, all new clothes and tried to pass as a southern Californian, feeling awkward and inadequate every step of the way. Instead, she packed her favorite black dress, and boarded that plane with the gorgeous skin and outdoor fitness of an Oregonian woman.
We don’t need to be, and in fact can’t be, anything other than what we are. How awkward is a 14-year-old dressing like a 25-year-old? A 70-year-old working overtime to pass for a 30-year-old? Both are sad, and neither works.
But a 70-year-old, comfortable in her skin, wearing a great outfit and showing off a fabulous silver mane? That’s beauty.
I’m a mom who gets mud on her boots and really loves clothes a lot. I am beautiful when I embrace that fact. When I try to dress like the ladies in the Nordstrom catalog I just look like a poser. And I’m cold.
Refurbish, and maintain
When my husband and I first walked into our home, we could see its potential. Banks of windows and wood everywhere made the home feel like a well-appointed tree house. But it needed a lot of work, a ton of work, fully 2000 pounds of work. We replaced windows, repainted every wall that had paint on it, pulled up some nasty carpeting. We did this because we felt our family deserved an awesome home.
Sometime we need to refurbish ourselves. Get rid of pilled sweaters, find a hairstyle that looks good without a lot of maintenance, sleep for 8 hours, go see an esthetician about your skin. This is an investment. It’s a message to yourself that you matter.
Of course a makeover or a remodel is exhilarating. But then there’s the maintenance…
As you get a handle on your beauty routine, you will find maintaining it takes time. Just like cleaning this big, awesome, refurbished house I live in. I’d love to skip the daily, weekly and monthly cycle of household chores. The same is true of my beauty routines. I am lazy, lazy, lazy when it comes to self-maintenance. But I do it, because I like me. I like feeling pretty.
Harness the Power of Habit
Find every opportunity to engage in positivity about how you look. Thank your friend when she tells you your top is fantastic, rather than trying to dodge the compliment. Give your spouse a kiss when they say you look great, rather than asking, “Really?” Listen to you hairdresser when she tells you you’re gorgeous. Take these compliments as facts, and store them up in your heart.
Watch your words with yourself. I won’t tell you to look in the mirror and blandly yammer on about being beautiful. But when you catch yourself looking hot, acknowledge it. Thank your frontal lobe for deciding to take an extra 30 seconds to put on lip-gloss. Thank your past self for dragging you out of bed to workout, resulting in some sweet looking biceps. Compliment yourself for choosing to wear the bright blue scarf with your camel jacket.
All of this positivity will become a habit. You will begin to scan for the good in yourself, and others.
Go find your favorite picture of yourself. Chances are, it was taken on a day you felt fantastic. If you want to be beautiful, you need to be content with your life and yourself.
You get to shape and control your destiny. If that means reevaluating your job, taking up a particular hobby that’s always spoken to you, working through a difficult relationship in your life, get on it.
My happiness is dependent on regularly spaced chunks of time where I can be alone, doing whatever I want. I guard these chunks fiercely, and it shows in my skin. Occasionally I’ll come across a horrible picture of myself and laugh. The worst pictures are taken when I’m not tending to any of my own needs, but running around like some deranged squirrel trying to take care of every other human on this earth. And looking like a deranged squirrel, too.
It is your decision, and your opinion matters
Several years back, a seventeen year-old student was grinning as she said, in front of the entire AP History class, “I’ve decided my body is fabulous.”
That a student came to declare her body confidence in the classroom is a long story, but suffice it to say, we were impressed.
“How?” someone asked.
“I just decided it was,” she replied. And it was.
Choosing to be beautiful is about making that decision. When you decided your body is fabulous, you begin to treat it as such, feeding yourself good food, exercising and caring for your skin and hair.
There will always be crazy standards and people who think you don’t meet them. The good news is, you make the rules for your life. You can look at your jawline and decide it’s great. I can see my earlobes as unique, rather than weird.
Most people don’t look very closely at anyone, and certainly not closely enough to opine on your earlobes. They just have an overall impression of what you look like. “Pretty.” “Sloppy.” “Elegant.” “Over-done.” You have considerable control over that impression. You’re slouched over, tugging at an ill fitting, worn out coat? “Frumpy.” You’re happy, and wearing an outfit that fits, looks and feels good? “Put together.”
We all know people who don’t conform to traditional beauty standards yet walk around like they’re Cleopatra.* We can too. Choosing beautiful means caring for and appreciating yourself. Look for your beauty, care for it and don’t be afraid to let it surround you. Your inner 7th grader will be thrilled.
*Truth be told, even Cleopatra didn’t conform to the beauty standards of her own age. In all contemporary descriptions of her, no one ever comes out and says she’s particularly good looking. The very few likenesses we have show a fairly ordinary set of facial features. By the time she was enthralling Marc Anthony she’d had a few children and was pretty busy running the wealthiest country on earth. But she was the Queen of the Freakin’ Nile, baby, and that looks good on anybody.