It takes little effort to find one of the thousands of inspirational messages littering Facebook walls, Instagram feeds, and Tumblr pages. For the most part, they’re cheesy but innocuous. However, there is a frustrating recurring message within them: “Everyone is beautiful.” Besides being obviously untrue, this platitude renders the concept of beauty meaningless and perpetuates a harmful criteria for judging human worth.
It is useless to pretend that discrimination based on physical appearance does not occur. As a cis-male, I cannot empathize with women who are often victims of body shaming, but I am aware that there are victims of body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Although these problems exist and affect millions of people every day, when people perpetuate the idea that “everyone is beautiful,” they are ignoring societal beauty standards instead of rectifying their detrimental nature.
Declaring that everyone is beautiful is a valiant, albeit ineffective, effort to combat body shaming and promote self-love. Societal beauty ideals dictate that not everyone is physically attractive. Save minor differences due to personal preferences, there are clear societal standards for physical attractiveness. In fact, according to a study done by the University of Texas at Austin, “data suggests that people are remarkably consistent in their determination of who is attractive and who isn’t, both within and across cultures.”
The concept of universal beauty is a fallacious idea. There are two types of characteristics: those that are common to all people and those that make certain people unique. Traits in the former category are qualities that all people have and are useless and meaningless to point out. It is axiomatic that we all require food to live, we all breathe, we all think, therefore it would be redundant to point them out. Traits in the latter category are used to differentiate between people and evaluate them for a certain role. Certain individuals are outgoing, others make good leaders, and others are excellent playwrights.
To declare that everyone is beautiful puts beauty in the former category. This perpetuates the falsity that beauty is a normal part of being human, and does not distinguish someone from others any more than the ability to feel emotions does. The issue, however, is that both the definition of beauty and the way people use the word frame it as a differentiating characteristic. The absence of beauty also exists. The concept of universal beauty assumes that there can be no absence of beauty because all individuals possess it. This clash between intent and usage creates a contradiction: we cannot all be above average. Even if the phrase “everyone is beautiful” is redefined to mean that all people are above average in at least one field, this only implies that everyone is “good at something,” which is still a stretch.
The stigmas around failing to fit current beauty standards stem from our obsession with physical beauty as a society. Everyone appreciates comments on a successful outfit or a series of flame emojis on a recent Instagram post, but, ultimately, these comments only encourage our superficial love of looking attractive. Telling someone that everyone is beautiful implicitly reinforces the unacceptability of ugliness, then reassures them that fortunately, they don’t fit into that negative category. Instead of combating body-shaming and our obsession with beauty, these comments instead glorify the very beauty standards they seek to push back against.
Pretending that these beauty standards don’t exist is simply naïve and does nothing to dismantle them. Just as not everyone is artistic or athletic, there are people who are beautiful, and people who are not. But here’s what people fail to realize: As with any other trait, this is completely fine.
Rather than describing each other with such an empty, meaningless adjective, let us focus on the qualities that truly matter. It may be impossible to break down societal beauty standards overnight, but staying aware of the effects of the words we say is a crucial first step.