The Power of Beauty
by Cristina Sandoval
There’s legend told of a woman who purposefully destroyed her face to gain power. An ancient Chinese Taoist, and a rich wife of a merchant, Sun Pu-erh sought the path to enlightenment. There was one problem, though: she was far too beautiful. Her teacher, Wang Ch’ung-yang warned her:
“You will meet with perils along the way. You will be the target of men who desire your beauty. They will rape you and molest you. And rather than be ashamed, you would take your own life before they touch you. Now, is that not wasting your life to no purpose?”
Sun Pu-erh knew what to do. She left the meditation hall and went to directly to her kitchen, dismissed her servants, and filled a wok with cooking oil until it boiled. She then poured cold water into the wok, and as the oil popped and sizzled, Sun Pu-erh closed her eyes and let the oil hit her face. She was left burned and scarred. Even after healing, her scars left her visage deformed and ugly. She returned to her teacher and proclaimed, “Look at my ugly face. Now will you allow me to travel to Loyang [on the path to enlightenment]?” Wang Ch’ung-yang was very pleased and praised her sacrifice and dedication to enlightenment.
Let’s put this into perspective. Beauty was such a hindrance to Sun Pu-erh that she had to resort to permanently deforming her face in order to find a path to truth. How many modern women, particularly American women, would do such a thing? Who would even consider it a possibility?
The story is an indication that for centuries, women have had a very personal relationship with beauty and all its power, both negative and positive. In the modern western world, beauty is often seen as a source of positive power, not a hindrance that will halt your dreams, as they almost did for Sun Pu-erh. Women are in some ways encouraged to use their beauty to get what they want. Sun Pu-erh used her beauty by deliberately defying it. She took hold of her looks; she became the one in control. Can we, as modern women, say we do the same? Is lifting our skirt a little higher truly a source of power or self defamation? But then there are the women who simply express their strength through a prominent red lip. Is that power, too?
However you put it, beauty is an important aspect for all women’s lives in almost any culture, in one way or another; whether it’s an element of our identity, a piece of what defines us, or how we judge each other and ourselves. This is especially true in our magazine-model-billboard-thin society.
It’s as if it’s ingrained in us since childhood. We learned about the importance of our beauty when our grandmothers pinched our cheeks and told us how cute we were, or from the Disney films we were raised on, where the wicked witches had big noses and warts, and the princesses were blonde, thin, and mild-tempered; or even from the music videos with big bootied women or pop princesses in short skirts. As women, we are being trained to fit a certain beautiful mold and mindset; that we need to fit a certain formula and behavior–mild and sweet, yet sexy and wild–that at times can seem baffling and confusing for us all.
I talked to four different women, with ages ranging from 14 to those in their 30s, to gain some perspective on how women feel about beauty today.
The importance of beauty varied among those I interviewed, as well as their definition of what beauty is exactly. The youngest of the bunch saw beauty as “divine and personal”, as a gift, and saw vanity as vital, expressing that, “I take looking good very seriously because if it’s not worth looking at, why make it seen?” This is a very young way of looking at things. At a young age, we are more susceptible to believing in what we see, focusing our efforts and attention on the visual. I can attest to that.
As a young girl, I was gangly, I had braces, terrible acne, and I felt completely out of place in my own skin. I was a bit of a recluse as a teenager, afraid to show my pimply face in public, because–gasp!–how could I possibly expose someone to my ugly? I avoided mirrors at all costs, yet in a way, I was vainer than the prettier girls who took pride in their makeup and fashion. I focused myself entirely on my looks, constantly telling myself how ugly I was, refusing to allow myself to be “normal” because I simply didn’t feel good enough. Why? Because I wasn’t as pretty as I thought I should be. I thought that the only way to be part of society was if you were beautiful enough. What a misguided, young and naive mindset, no?
The problem persists in the girls of today. The internet is plastered with young girls expressing how they don’t feel beautiful enough, how they don’t feel right in their own skin (look at Tumblr, for example). Of course it extends well beyond the internet into the minds of young girls everywhere. Women everywhere don’t feel good enough. Good enough for what–or who–exactly? Who are we trying to impress?
One of the women I interviewed admitted to being called “fea”, or “ugly” in Spanish, by someone on the street. Are we really here for the approval of people like this? People who decide it’s okay to insult a total stranger? Another woman said that it’s simply human nature to judge on first impressions. Why is it, then, our nature? We decorate ourselves with jewelry and makeup, and we try to impress. We criticize others when they don’t look their best, or we insult even ourselves. I think the answer to that lies in a common metaphor that’s present throughout almost all cultures. That is, that sight is equals knowledge.
“Seeing is believing.” “Even a blind man could have seen that.” “Do you see what I’m saying?”
So it seems that our very basic beliefs come from the idea that what we see is an indicator of truth. Maybe it’s true that we believe that the way someone looks on the outside is a reflection of who they are, how they behave, and how they treat others. In some cases, and in some minute ways, this could be true. Maybe you dress well, so that means you are well off and you leave big tips for your waitress. Or maybe you stink of body odor, so you’re dirty and a slob. Or it could be that it was an especially hot day and you forgot to put on your deodorant, rushing out the door, but guess what; you also care for the needy and give a bigger tip at restaurants than the conceited guy in the nice suit.
A couple of the women I spoke to also expressed that they believe beauty to be in health. In this way, if you properly take care of yourself, it will shine through. From a scientific standpoint, this can definitely be true. If you stay healthy, maybe if you consume enough antioxidants, your skin may have a certain glow, or if you eat right and work out, you will stay thin and toned. A-ha, but here is where we have a problem. Is what we consider in our own culture beautiful in others? There are cultures where having more weight is considered beautiful, or having very large plates in their lips, or small feet, or even sharpened teeth!
One woman interviewed said, “I believe there’s beauty in everything and beauty is subjective…if you aren’t society’s idea of attractive, then you’re treated as a lesser person.” What stands out here is that society demands and defines our beauty. As American women, rather, as an American society, we are bombarded by images of perfect women, who are perfectly and impossibly thin, with perfect skin, hair, and nails and we come to expect that perfection in every day women. We come to expect that perfection within ourselves. Not even the women in ads and movies, TV shows, and all forms of media are as beautiful as they are in those images. They are often heavily photoshopped and airbrushed. We expect too much.
The same woman interviewed pointed out, “See Hillary Clinton–brilliant icon, intelligent woman, great role model for girls, and yet, people focus on how pretty she is and usually the first insult thrown her way is ‘ugly.’” She added, “Women should be taught that their strengths are in their intelligence and how they meet their goals and so on; instead, we’re taught our strengths are in our looks and it will determine our value in this world, personal strengths be damned.”
But can beauty be a true strength? The youngest girl I interviewed saw beauty–as in fashion, hair, and makeup–as a definite source of pride and strength, something to uplift her, while the other women saw it as more of a fun distraction; something to play around with. It can even be used as a creative outlet. The problem arises when there is too much focus on beauty and it’s taken so seriously that women end up being insulted on the street, or the opposite, cat called, as though their intrinsic value is based on their looks.
As in all things, there has to be a balance. Beauty could just mean that you take care of yourself, which is a form of self respect. But, if one obsesses over looks and denies their mental and character strengths, that’s a problem.
So, I think back to the gangly kid who avoided mirrors, and I realize that that girl never completely disappeared. That poor girl who thought she wasn’t good enough, who didn’t care about anything as much as she wished to be beautiful, that being beautiful would solve all her problems. I think we all have that inner voice that tells us we’re still not good enough. We still don’t look like Naomi Campbell or Cindy Crawford, or whoever the big named models are today. (Sorry, showing my age.) We still have no semblance to The Little Mermaid–who was, by the way, taught that a girl should be seen, not heard–and we still can’t seem to understand how we got this way. Who taught us these ideas?
The truth is it doesn’t matter who exactly taught women that their value is based on beauty. It’s too late to point fingers now. All that matters is that we realize now, as present adults, that beauty isn’t everything. It’s okay to have a few zits, and it’s okay to not have perfect teeth or hair. It’s even better if we tell our young girls that it’s okay to be imperfect. We have to start educating our children with positive ideas about themselves.
If you want to hear my own personal opinion, beauty is in confidence. You can have the ugliest face, but when you know what you want, with all your being–like say, enlightenment–then, therein lies your true strength; your beauty. Ladies, don’t sell yourselves short. It’s okay to want to look good, but don’t forget about feeling good, and figuring yourself out first; focus on something real and hearty, not just how your mascara looks. And the only person who can take control of your life, your person, your beauty, your being, is yourself. Take Sun Pu-ehr’s example and take hold of your beauty and choose to define it for yourself. You’re the one with the power. Never forget that.