First things first: I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to look beautiful. It's not bad to modify or accessorize your looks — all the power to you, for whatever reason you do it. Beautifying is rather smart, actually. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let me start from the beginning. And I really do mean the beginning: thousands of years ago, in our evolutionary past, a time when our current psychology was starting to take shape. Our perception of certain behaviors, personality traits, skills and, yes, looks as attractive is often attributed to natural selection that happened back then. Certain facial and body features implied health, reproductive fitness, or just general good genes, and therefore were considered valuable in mates and friends. Fast forward to modern times, and academic literature supports the idea that beautiful people are still perceived more positively in pretty much every way — not just in desirability, but also in intelligence, kindness, humor. Put simply, beauty is a social advantage.
Before globalization, the definition of visual attractiveness was shaped on a regional basis, varying across geographic and cultural landscapes. People enjoyed the benefits of attractiveness as defined wherever they lived. But with the internet and its easy spread of ideas, concepts of beauty have somewhat homogenized. This has unfortunate consequences. Due to the effects of colonialism, the predominating ideal of beauty is largely Eurocentric. Which leaves many of different ethnicities and backgrounds at a social disadvantage right out of the gate.
Even in an age where we rarely left home, we became more conscious of our looks than ever.
And that's not all. We now have innovative cosmetic procedures and technologies which distort our idea of realistic bodies further. Modern social media increasingly emphasizes our looks. Gone are the days of getting clout from blog posts; now you've got to post photos, Instagram Reels, TikToks … and let's not forget Zoom, which in itself during the pandemic increased demand for plastic surgery (the "Zoom Boom"). I suppose staring at our own faces for hours at a time on unflattering webcams lead us to realize that we are, in fact, uglier than we realized. I say this facetiously, but the point still stands: Even in an age where we rarely left home, we became more conscious of our looks than ever.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
This doesn't go unnoticed by the beauty industry, which has fanned the flames of our own insecurity since time immemorial. There are many examples of companies creating problems they then solve, from the marketing of cosmetics to the origin of women's razors to how shampooing more frequently came about. Their goal has always been to convince us that not only will we be ugly if we don't buy their products, but we'll suffer the social consequences of ugliness — we'll fail personally and professionally, and become pariahs. Essentially, we'll be losers. $19.99 seems a small price to pay to avoid that, doesn't it? Let the beauty industry "empower" you! But let's be real — if we find ourselves refusing to have photos taken when makeup-free, declining pool invitations because we haven't waxed, or otherwise suffering or missing out on things because we haven't "empowered" ourselves that day, then maybe we have to acknowledge it's not really our choice. That we do this out of fear. Out of shame. And that's the opposite of empowering.
How can we make ourselves feel beautiful in a world that constantly tells us we aren't?
From my perspective, the only way to dismantle this is to acknowledge it. Our personal preferences are shaped by historical social prejudices and the desire to exploit our insecurities for profit. If only we could cultivate our own individual senses of beauty again, rather than the current one-size-fits-all yawn-fest . . . but admittedly, that kind of paradigm shift is likely a lifelong task. So what to do in the meantime? How can we make ourselves feel beautiful in a world that constantly tells us we aren't?
For myself, the answer has been, we probably can't. By our own warped definitions, we are all ugly. So perhaps another solution for a healthy long-term relationship with our bodies is to embrace ugliness. Forget glow-up culture; enjoy the glow-down. Bodies aren't beautiful, they're just meat sacks with organs in them. They're weird and do gross things sometimes. At the end of the day, your body is just a home for you. It doesn't have to be anything more than that.
This is something I learned myself while writing my book, "TJ Powar Has Something to Prove," a story which centers body image — specifically, body hair stigma. Recognizing where the thoughts to modify my body come from has allowed me to make an informed decision each time on whether to do that thing, rather than automatically feeling like I have to. For example, I've let go of strict hair removal routines (my legs have been gloriously hairy since 2019). But the glow-down will mean something different for everyone. Take a hard look at the beauty routines that feel obligatory, but don't bring joy. I hope you resist the urge to apologize for "looking like trash" without them. You don't owe anyone a beauty standard.
Don't get me wrong — there are still times I accessorize my body for fun, like matching my eyeshadow to my dress, and times I accessorize simply to leverage a social advantage. But separating those things in my mind has been helpful. And most of the time, I'm comfortable being ugly. Although it means in many situations I might lose out, it's a conscious decision I make because the benefit of mental freedom is greater. I get to just be who I am. And that's what this is all about.
By the way, you know the funny thing about my hairy legs? Even though I initially did it to embrace ugliness, I no longer see it as ugly. It makes my skin feel alive. I like the way the breeze stirs the hair on my skin (yes, it's that long). I like the texture brushing against my fingertips. I … like it. Now, I'm just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
More essays on body image and beauty standards: