How to be beautiful

Like every woman ever, 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.

Then I grew wiser and realized that what I didn’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 and I think, the media may not think she is conventionally beautiful, but 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 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 once I saw a girl that I thought was probably the most physically beautiful person I had ever seen. She was, physically, absolutely gorgeous.  Yet the more she talked, the less beautiful she became. I literally watched her transform.  The depth I thought I had seen behind her eyes was something I had projected onto her. What was left was a plain, silly person that I had once thought lovely.  Contrast that with someone who may seem plain at first and then their personality is so shining and so genuine that soon you realize you will forever welcome their face and voice as a part of your life, so beautiful they have become. And that’s what people don’t understand about beauty.  It isn’t just what we see at first glance. It unfolds itself as you take time to discover someone. Photoshopped glossy beauty we see everywhere or dramatic makeovers we see on TV shows or magazines are quite pretty in a superficial way. But that’s an illusion.  It doesn’t count, not really. Not in the long run.  Not when it matters. It’s not the REAL beauty, it’s a poor imitation. Sometimes real beauty has to be excavated. Sometimes it is hidden away.  Sometimes it has gone unnoticed in our own reflection.
It’s there, though…
Start excavating.

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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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