How to be beautiful

There have been many times in my life when I’ve seen models or actresses and compared my own looks to them and realized I don’t measure up.

I will never measure up.

Yet it’s important to realize that what I don’t measure up to is a myth.

That idea of perfection is not a harmless fairy tale, it’s a monster that preys on us.

It both creates our insecurities and feeds on them.

But then I see Dame Judi Dench, for example. and I realize that while some may not find her conventionally beautiful, I think she is majestic and grand and pretty perfect. Her beauty is born of character and her dedication to her work is something I admire.

Dame Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer in As Time Goes By.

In one episode of As Time Goes By she laughs when her fictional husband Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) tells her she’s prettier than a certain twenty-something girl. He waves off that laugh and explains “It’s what you are. It’s what you mean.

That is true beauty, the beauty your loved ones see simply because they love you and have taken the time to try to understand you.

Vanity, John William Waterhouse

My son and I were having a conversation several months ago about perceptions of beauty and I told him that I saw a girl once that I thought was probably the most physically beautiful person I had ever seen. Yet the more she talked, the more she changed. I watched her transform as ill-informed and racist drivel fell from that perfectly lipsticked mouth.  The depth I thought I had seen behind her eyes was something I had projected onto her and what was left was a vapid, ridiculous person that I had once thought lovely.

Contrast that with someone who may seem plain at first and then you discover their personality is shining and genuine and  you realize you will forever welcome their face and voice as a part of your life, so beautiful they have become.

Beauty unfolds itself as you take the time to discover someone. We are bombarded with photoshopped glossiness everywhere we turn. We live in a world of dramatic TV makeovers and instagram stars and it’s all quite pretty in a superficial way, but it’s an illusion.

Real beauty is excavated by those who are willing to invest in seeing us fully. We have to be bold enough to embrace our true selves and allow our beauty to not only be seen by others, but also by ourselves.

We must be mindful of the fact that we can sometimes cover up our unique qualities, hiding them under society’s notions of what is beautiful. Societal conditioning encourages us to explore beauty by comparing ourselves to others. I choose to condition myself to believe that my beauty exists in the poems on my heart, the kindness I hope to cultivate, and the smiles I will freely share with those I encounter daily.

“It’s what you are. It’s what you mean” 

6 thoughts on “How to be beautiful”

  1. This is lovely, and Dame Judi is such a great example!

    I’ve been wondering how the PRB models felt about how dramatically the painters changed their looks. “Oh look, you replaced my mouth… and made my neck six inches longer…”

    I’m a fairly new reader: I visited a museum in Hamburg last month, saw a Rosetti painting and thought, “huh, why does that
    Helen look so familiar?” I googled it when I got home, fell down the wonderful rabbit hole that is your blog, fell in love with Morris wallpaper, and ordered the “Desperate Romantics” book. Thank you for all your writing and hard work!

  2. I love this! My mother’s oldest friend is a perfect example. We have photographs of them together from their early teenaged years when they met at boarding school, and from my mother’s wedding when her dear friend was one of her bridesmaids. The dear friend was a gawky, awkward, shy young woman, flat-chested and plain by the standards of the 1940s and 1950s. Yet as they aged (they are both in their mid-80s now), the dear friend’s warmth, kindness, humor and character radiated out more and more from her face, and she became a truly beautiful woman in her 50s and 60s. So beautiful and charming that, when I myself got married and she came alone to the wedding, recently widowed, she spent the whole weekend surrounded by a bevy of young men (friends of mine and my husband’s), who couldn’t get enough of her gentle wit and delightful personality. It is true that in your 20s, you have the face you were born with; in your 30s, you have the face you work for, and after 40, you have the face you deserve from the life you have lived.

    • “and after 40, you have the face you deserve from the life you have lived.”

      I love this so much.

  3. I love this! Even though intellectually I know this is all true, sometimes my gut needs reminders. Thank for a lovely piece–I will return to this. And thank you to Old Herbaceous for a lively anecdote as well! ?

  4. Great post and I appreciated the interesting comments as well. It reminds me of something I read about a certain prominent politician: “he judges women by their looks and men by the size of their wallet”. Sad!


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