Life is not a beauty contest. But sometimes it sure seems like one. Quite regularly from various sources people receive the message that the most important thing is that they look a certain way, wear a certain style of clothes, and weigh the right amount. These sources can be magazines in the grocery store, unrealistic body images in the media, or even inappropriate comments from political candidates about different women and their desirability. Often the message conveyed is that it is one of the worst things in the world is to fail to meet standards of physical attractiveness or perfection. This can make us feel as though we are walking around under constant scrutiny and judgment—as though we are living in a beauty contest and the people around us are constantly judging and rating us in terms of our attractiveness, body shape, and style. And indeed, I believe the constant pressure to look good is such a great pressure that it often shapes how we view each other. Often we do internalize the pressure to maintain a perfect appearance, and we end up criticizing ourselves and others for failing to meet certain beauty standards.
This feeling of living in a beauty contest is a pressure I have increasingly become concerned about over the years. Part of my concern stems from looking at my own life and realizing how much anxiety and suffering this pressure caused me growing up. But a lot of my concern stems from the way I have seen this pressure negatively affect people around me. I have been a secondary or college instructor for all of my professional life, and so often I see young women filled with anxiety and self-loathing over the most minute perceived weaknesses in their bodies and appearance. I hear young women and older women in groups criticizing their own appearance and the appearance of others. These are beautiful, talented, extraordinary women who do so much and have so much to give to the world. And rather than being able to see what a gift they are to the world, they are consumed by anxiety about gaining weight or having perceived bad skin or bad hair or some other perceived flaw. I have been one of these women in the past (and still struggle sometimes with these same feelings), so I sympathize with, rather than blaming women who struggle with these issues.
In fact, I’ve struggled with these same issues recently. The other day, I was having one of those off days. It was a day in which I was focusing on all of the supposed imperfect things about my appearance. I felt gross. I worried that I wasn’t good enough. I worried what people around me thought. And then suddenly I realized what I was doing–I paused. I thought to myself, “Why do I think I need to look perfect all the time? I look fine, and it is perfectly normal to have off days.” This was a really helpful thought to me because it helped me to realize that a normal life is full of moments of beauty and ugliness, perfection and imperfection, good and bad things. All of those cycles of life are normal and good expressions of what it means to be human. As I allow myself to have those moments, my unique life in all of its complexity is disclosed. In fact, when we cling too much to one aspect of our lives—like physical perfection—that is when things get out of balance.
This reminds me of a passage in book one, chapter two of the DaoDeJing. Laozi writes, “Everyone in the world knows that when the beautiful strives to be beautiful, it is repulsive. Everyone know that when the good strives to be good, it is no good.” Laozi’s quote reminds me that beauty and goodness come, not from getting rid of all of our perceived imperfections. Beauty and goodness come from peace, from rest, from gentleness. It comes from accepting our life in all of its moments: the ugly and the beautiful.
If life isn’t a beauty contest, what is it? Your life is a process disclosing your complex singularity. If we consider Laozi’s quote, what this means is that your unique life is full of these opposite moments of beauty and ugliness and goodness and bad and that together, all of these moments are your beautiful life. The purpose of your life is to accept all of those moments and allow them to unfold. This brings you peace, and it brings peace to the world around you.