With that song playing in the background as I write this, I am struck by the sadness that minor chords inspire. It is that feeling of sadness that keeps me drawn to Lana Del Rey’s piece, which I recently learned was written for Baz Lurhmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. I very often have a song in my head that echoes what I’m doing, where I am, or how I’m feeling. There are songs I associate with certain emotions, people, or places and they arise unbidden very much like songs on a film soundtrack. Ask me about it sometime and I’ll happily tell you what’s playing!
The refrain I’ve been hearing lately is linked above. I’m actively listening to it on repeat in an effort to get it out of my head and shut off the demons that come with it. But they’re insistent, which is why I’m writing this.
When I was around fourteen, I walked by a mannequin in a store and sighed aloud that it would be nice to be a mannequin when I grew up. My mum and sister pounced on this and I defended myself by saying that I just wanted someone to pick out my clothes.
Admission: That wasn’t entirely truthful.
As a teenager, around the time I was seriously crushing on a boy or two or three, I was very conscious of how I looked. My eyeliner was too dark when I was finally allowed to wear it and I spent too much time worried about my non-existent hips and how my jeans made my bum look. Finding a bathing suit was torturous and I was never happy with my hair so I straightened it for a few years before finally cutting it all off to start over.
In high school, I would have described myself as “pretty” or “attractive” and maybe even “pretty attractive” on a good day. At the same time, I would have described all of my friends as “beautiful”. Being beautiful meant a lot of different things to me, even then, though it took years to develop the confidence to describe myself that way.
So what does it mean to be beautiful?
It means being creative and inquisitive. There is certainly such a thing as a beautiful mind.
It means being compassionate, kind, and caring. I’m lucky to know more than a few truly beautiful souls (stay with me for the moment, even if you don’t believe in souls).
Being beautiful also means being strong, healthy, and physically fit.
Beauty means happiness. A smile is just about everyone’s best feature, especially when it’s unexpected.
It means being able to listen to others and appreciate what they have to offer.
It means confidence. It means being able to stand in front of others unapologetically and express ideas, especially when people listening will disagree.
But bubbling underneath all of those examples of real beauty is the far more superficial and completely unattainable image of a supermodel. As Lana Del Rey asks, “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” According to that question, what matters? Youth matters. Beauty matters. That’s what yield love. Looking at pop culture, love is what matters.
You want love? You need to be young and beautiful.
Or so I thought.
My conception of beauty underwent a fundamental shift during my first year teaching. I was teaching one section of a psychology elective and my department head and mentor was teaching the other. He suggested I show Jean Kilbourne’s documentary Killing Us Softly 4 (read about it here or purchase it here) during our unit on gender.
Jean Kilbourne discusses the ways in which advertising views women and uses ads that she has collected over the years to explore society’s obsession with physical appearance, thinness, whiteness, and youth. She argues that we have accepted cutting women into parts and displaying only legs or lips or torso, which dehumanizes women and leads to sexual violence. Kilbourne also delves into the role that Photoshop plays in creating an impossible ideal for both women and men.
Had I been exposed to such a stark analysis of the media and its advertisements in high school, I would have been a lot more confident in who I was rather than worrying about what I looked like. That is not an exaggeration.
As part of a follow-up assignment, my students and I started looking at ads. These already confident students at an all-girls secondary school brought in catalogues they received in the mail, constructively criticized the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show that was on that week, and put together a variety of pieces reflecting on their experience with the film. I don’t know for sure whether it changed their outlook on beauty, but I do know that it made them think about who they were and who they were told to be.
It has been a while since I was first allowed to wear eyeliner at 15. My hair is curly and I don’t own a straightening iron, my favorite makeup item is purple mascara, and my jeans are comfortable. End of story.
The unnerving soundtrack in my head, however, still playing the Lana Del Rey song, has made it clear that I am not without insecurities. I am far more adept at seeing beauty of any kind in others than I do in myself. Maybe this is because I’m a lot harder on myself than those around me.
The chorus of the song ends with, “I know you will.” The irony is that she still had to ask, as many of us do.
Seeing myself as beautiful now, though it sometimes requires effort in self-compassion, means accepting myself as I am and for who I want to be. It involves living up to the ideal that I have created for myself as one who is continuously learning and acting to make the world a better place. Considering myself beautiful means placing the greatest value on how I treat those around me and what I do to improve the world.
Are you beautiful? You are, in so many ways. The beauty that actually matters does not diminish with age. If anything, it is likely to grow along with you.