Every two or three days, I see an article or Tumblr post or forwarded inspirational quote about beauty in my Facebook newsfeed. It's usually something affirming like:
"You are beautiful, whether you know it or not."
"We are all beautiful."
"Everyone is beautiful to somebody."
It's cheerful stuff. It builds the self-esteem, makes people feel valued, and spreads joy and happiness across the Internet.
It's also bullcrap.
And you know it's bullcrap, because you really wanted to laugh at that video.
Everyone is not beautiful. Some of us have tumors the size of a second head growing out of our ears. Some of us have skin like the Michelin man. Some of us lose fingers, legs, or eyes in horrific factory accidents. We have warts and blemishes and hair loss and dead teeth and lazy eyes and cleft palates and third nipples and unibrows.
Yes, the word "beautiful" has many different meanings. But by and large, the primary definition of the word refers to physical attractiveness. So why do we use the word as a catch-all for any sort of positive attribute?
Nobody says, "Everybody has a pleasant laugh." Nobody says, "Everyone is athletic to somebody." Nobody says, "You are an amazing writer, whether you know it or not."
Beauty is the only trait that everyone gets free access to. Why?
Because we have created a culture that values beauty above all other innate traits... for women, at least. Men are more often valued by their success, which is seen as a result of talent and hard work, despite how much it depends on luck and knowing the right people.
But in our culture, women are pretty much a one-note instrument. Society says either you've got it, or you're not it. Looks affect your choice of mate, the friends you have, and even your job. And this factor that affects every part of your life is something you have next to no control over.
This, of course, is a horrible thing to say, and society knows better than to tell this to your face. Because if we acknowledge that physical appearance is your primary scale of value, we have to acknowledge that this is an unfair and unreasonable way to run things. So society reassures you that: Everyone Is Beautiful.
Because if everyone is beautiful or everyone can be beautiful or everyone is beautiful to someone, it's okay to base our civilization around a culture-wide game of Hot or Not.
And we have based a civilization around it. Movies, television, and music thrive on the young and attractive. Fashion and cosmetics industries thrive off lowered self-esteem, selling product after product promising to make you beautiful and valuable to society. Pornography generates billions of dollars a year pretending to sell you a sexual experience with people that are, in terms of looks, permanently out of your league.
And these industries aren't going to do anything to jeopardize that. They'll make a few concessions, sure. American Eagle will promise not to Photoshop their models... by being sure to hire people who are naturally photogenic.
Yes, the real you is sexy... if, you know, you're born that way.
Or Dove will use their Real Beauty campaign to widen the narrow standards of beauty by showcasing models with a diverse range of body types.
Lots of diversity there.
So what can we do to overthrow the system once and for all?
Honestly, nothing. You and I can't take on corporations and multibillion-dollar industries on our own. They've stacked the deck against us in more ways than we can count, and they'll counteract every move we make.
When you're playing a game where the rules are unfair and everything's twisted in someone else's favor, it's time to stop playing.
Let go of "beautiful." Not everyone can be beautiful, just like not everyone can climb Everest or play the saxophone or be a good kisser.
I know what you mean when you say "Everyone is beautiful." You mean that everyone is valuable, everyone has worth, everyone has good qualities that make them interesting and important and someone to be loved. And if we could reclaim the word and make it mean that, I'd say keep at it.
But the fact is, we don't own the word. The world owns the word, and to the world, "beauty" is physical attractiveness and little more. To use "beautiful" in our wider, deeper, more important meaning only confuses the issue. It sends our young women mixed messages, telling them that everyone is beautiful, and sending them into despair when the boys flock after someone with a thinner waistline and a wider bust. It tells us we have value because of our looks, and leaves us to worry where are value goes after those looks fade.
It's semantics. That's all the issue is, down at the roots. But semantics hurt more than we realize. So let's try to step past them.
I want to tell you something, whoever you are. I don't know if you're beautiful, funny, smart, friendly, musical, caring, diligent, athletic, or if you make a mean crème brûlée. But I know this:
You are valuable.
You are interesting.
You are worth loving.
So forget about "beautiful." It's become an ugly word anyway.
Follow Nathan Biberdorf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nathanbiberdorf