A Beautifully Empty Shell?

The first time I experienced trauma in regard to my appearance, I was in the sixth grade. My parents made the decision, despite my hyperactive pleas, that five inches had to be chopped from my hair. I cried for 20 tortuous minutes as the stylist held the scissors in her hand. Once the butchering stopped, I stared at my reflection in the mirror – sobbing and wailing for as long as the salon attendants would allow me to. If I was going to be subjected to “look like a boy,” I was going to make a Hollywood scene about it.

I’d be willing to bet that, at the end of her shift, the stylist reached for the stiffest of cocktails—toasting with a solemn vow to never cut a pubescent girl’s hair ever again.

The saga played out on a Saturday afternoon, and I remember feeling as though Sunday seemed to stretch on for an agonizing eternity –  every moment spent dreading the return to school on Monday. I couldn’t imagine the thought of facing all of the boys who had always told me I was pretty.

I shivered at the notion of being demoted to one of their former most desirable conquests. And, sadly, that event would somewhat set the tone for years of irrational fear-based and obsessive decisions regarding my self-image.

Striving for Perfection in the Name of… Beauty?

Once upon a time, not too terribly long ago, any negative remark spoken in regard to my appearance would have loomed like a dark cloud over my entire day. Now, before you lower your opinion of me (which you are free to do regardless), tuck your judgment back in for a moment and consider this: It is impossible to stand in line at the grocery store and not be met with glossy magazine headlines which promote some aspect of physical enhancement. Try it, and you’ll see. We are force-fed the notion of aesthetic perfection every minute of our lives. From being pitched the fantasy of more flawless skin, fuller eyebrows and perkier bums, we are choking on all of the impossible-to-achieve ideals.

Also, beyond having a diverse collection of girlfriends, I’m also a writer, which means I spend a monumental amount of time in coffee shops in major cities across this country, eavesdropping on your conversations. I’ve overheard you asking your girlfriends if “that girl” on Instagram is better or prettier than you. I’ve listened as you dissected your competition’s appearance with the same level of analysis, precision and detail as that of a renowned plastic surgeon. I may have heard them do it to you as well. I’m not judging you nor her, though. I’ve done it, too.

But something shifted in me about five or so years ago. I was growing tired of being a mental slave to something that society pressured me to be, yet never brought me a sense of contribution and purpose. It was the opposite of a beautiful existence.

So, the other day, when I stood before my vanity and observed my massive collection of bronzers and highlighters, scattered among my 50 shades of lipsticks, I thought about how different it feels now—holding far less significance than it once did. I no longer bronze my cheekbones or coat my lashes with mascara because I feel inadequate or “not enough.” Rather, it comes from a place of knowing I’m valuable and, therefore, choosing to celebrate that value. I already know my worth cannot be increased by having a fitter body or a prettier face. That’s no longer the point.

Why Does Society Fear the Multifaceted?

As women, society has set us up for generations of frustration and insecurity. It communicates that a girl must be beautiful in order to be desired yet, if she does enjoy nurturing her appearance, she is “high-maintenance,” “superficial” or “vain.” And she can’t possibly be intelligent. Beauty is treated as both a weapon and handicap.  I’ve been on both sides of it, and this I know: This mindset creates so many detrimental layers of confusion and shame. We feel shame when we fear that certain aspect of ourselves do not measure up to that of another’s appearance or expectations, and then we experience shame again when we are accused of investing too much time into trying to measure up.

It’s this revolving maze of frustration that can never be navigated through with ease and will never end in anything but defeat. There is never any relief nor reward. The only way out of it is to quit aligning yourself with it.

Who says a woman cannot be nurturing to her appearance while also thinking intelligently and independently, living compassionately and purposefully, while finding fulfillment spiritually? It’s as though each person is allowed to only possess one or two sets of virtues. Where did we come to believe that the universe rations beauty, creativity, ingenuity, wit and other desirable attributes – distributing them in such a way that no one has too much of too many things? Are we not allowed to be nuanced – to be abundant in an interesting range of ways?

It’s as though we arrange one another into tidy frames and shapes because it gives us a false sense of comfort and control. When we do so, we then feel that we can wrap our heads around the totality of who that person is, and all that we can expect from them.

“She is the pretty one, or “She is the brainy one,” we may decide. But who says she isn’t all of those things and so incredibly much more – a force incapable of being reduced to one narrow label?

Why are we allergic to women—particularly beautiful women—being multifaceted? Why is it that, when a person surprises us with obscure layers of themselves—revealing gifts and talents we never saw coming, it floods us with feelings of envy, discomfort and resistance? We want to believe that it can’t be real – that’s it’s a fluke, or phony or is a mask for something undesirable. We may say, “Surely there must be flaw in her structure, and I’m determined to find it and shine my flashlight upon it. Universe, please return her to the box from which I had her safely confined.” Rather than new and surprising layers of a person infusing us with delight (as it should), it threatens us.

Is it not possible that one woman can be educated, resourceful, talented, artistically-gifted, insightful, compassionate and spiritual while also – gasp! physically lovely and show-stoppingly sexy? I think so. I believe we are all free to be all of those things and even more.

I don’t think there is a box to which anyone is confined. I believe we’ve got to stop telling people who they are, and also stop allowing others to tell us who we are.

Because, though you may be a loving daughter, a doting wife, a nurturing mother, an advanced reader, a skilled snowboarder, an inventive cook, a karaoke champion and the proprietor of the most enviable waistline within a 50-mile radius, whatever you think you are, your value transcends all of it.

You are more than your physical eyes will ever conceive. So is that person you may currently be shoving inside of a box.

‘Pretty’ or Not; It’s Got Nothing to Do With Your Intelligence, Talent, Nor Value

There are far worse things in this world than a girl who enjoys feeling pretty, yet I believe a danger zone is entered when one subscribes to the belief that their value as a human being lies within that feeling.

If you believe your appearance is correlated with your worth, you will always be functioning on an empty tank. Flattery, catcalls and gawks from strangers may inject you with a momentary spark of confidence, but unless you understand that your worth lies in something far superior —something which defies space and time—your well of worthiness will always run dry. Because then what happens when you grow older and your skin starts to fall, your metabolism slows and your hair turns grey—will your then believe that your value has expired?

It doesn’t matter if you have a face and body more flawless than Leonardo da Vinci could have ever painted, your sense of self will be ripped to shreds and swallowed if you think your worth comes from how masterful you are at garnering attention and praise in response to your appearance. Your value is not in your ability to gain admirers. It has never been determined by anyone else’s ability to see it.

The body is merely a vessel for the soul. It has never been who you are; it is merely something you have. Because, darling, who you are—whether striking or all to often unnoticed, dressed to the nines or dressed down— is beautiful. Irrevocably beautiful. And it has nothing to do with what the societal expectations have to say.

Lacey Johnson

Madam Wonder: Founding Editor

Lacey Johnson is an award-winning editor, essayist and journalist who earned her degree from Belmont University in 2011. She has worked with a broad range of celebrities and entrepreneurs — including the likes of Betsey Johnson, Deepak Chopra, Shark Tank's Daymond John and Olympic Gold Medalist Shawn Johnson. She is editor-in-chief for The Connect magazine, and her work can be read in a variety of print and digital media sources including Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day, Mirabella, PopSugar, and others. With a deep intrigue for human beings, and fiery passion for smacking her readers in the face with the truth, she writes and reports boldly about topics that challenge the status quo — in the realms of love and relationships, popular culture, travel, spirituality, women’s issues and the nuances of a fulfilling life. She is also deep in the process of co-authoring her first book, which is a gutsy exploration of the illusions of fame, power and success, told through narratives involving some of the people the world most idolizes.

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