A while back, I stumbled upon a flyer-sized note being handed out by the Markley Community Center. It read, “Warning: objects in mirror may be distorted by socially constructed norms of ‘beauty.’ ” I found this note so amusing that I ran straight back to my apartment and taped my own copy in the upper corner of my bathroom mirror. I then snapped a photo and sent it to my roommates who “lol”ed and said it was “cute.”

In the end, it wasn’t as helpful a note as I’d thought it would be. (I blame the positioning of the note. It’s too high up in the corner to see). During my usual morning routines, I would barely glance at it, and instead see the bags under my eyes, the frazzled hair being uncooperative, the unsightly flabs developing around the waist.

Last weekend, when I went back home, I initiated an awkward conversation with my mother that began with, “I’ve always thought you were prettier than me.” I proceeded to tell her, to my own confusion, how I used to find photos of models and think she was better looking, and that I thought I was the luckiest daughter in the world to have her as my mother. I also shared that when I was younger, part of the reason behind our arguments was due to my envy towards her.

It was embarrassing for the both of us. For me, because I had not anticipated such a confession to ever leave my thoughts. For her, because it was clear I put her in a dilemma in which she, as a mother, was both horrified that her daughter would think so lowly of her own appearances and also flattered that her daughter would suddenly compliment her that highly. My mother had a hard time quelling that high-pitched, girly giddiness in her voice as she hugged me and made the attempt to tell me how everything I just said couldn’t possibly be true.

The point I’m trying to raise is that, like my mother, a lot of us feel this strange double bind when it comes to beauty. We know “beauty is only skin-deep” and yet we still like hearing that maybe our skin isn’t completely hideous.

Personally, I’ve forced myself not to judge people based on their appearances. The closest I’ve ever gotten to admitting that I think my friends are beautiful was when one of them candidly shared her insecurities with her attractiveness and I responded poorly with, “Nah, you’re fine.” My natural reaction to beauty campaign ads by companies like Dove is the eye-roll. I’ve tried really hard to embrace the idea of, “Let’s not tell everybody they’re beautiful and instead work to discredit the role that beauty plays in most women’s lives.”

And yet, in those rare moments when someone I admire or respect pays me a compliment regarding my appearance, it’s hard not to get a little flustered (sometimes for the whole day). Usually in those moments, while I’m reverting my clearly startled expression back to its resting aloof position, I’m internally indicting myself for being so shallow and hypocritical. I think there’s a part of me that fears I’ll start defining myself primarily on how I look, that I’ll spiral into some sort of shame-dependency relationship with what people think of my face and body. And so I overcompensate on to the other side by altogether rejecting beauty as a useful and meaningful trait.

I think it’s strange that we get these mixed messages, and it’s potentially harmful to be stuck between them. I’ve considered tweaking my original idea that beauty shouldn’t matter. It may be idealistically sound, but it falls short in terms of practicality. Yes, beauty is in many ways a social construction, but it still means something. It’s very natural for us to be emotionally affected by the values that surround us. For those of us who regularly demean and objectify our own bodies when we see them in the mirror, a neutral “Nah, you’re fine” or “Beauty is only skin-deep, anyway” doesn’t really fix the toxicity that’s going on inside. I think voicing a genuine (let me emphasize genuine) appreciation for how you put yourself together might do the more beneficial work of shifting our society’s skewed values. The most ideal world we can have is one where we’re able to appreciate our diverse appearances while also understanding its limitations and inability to capture the entirety of a human being. But that’s still a long ways away.

Jenny Wang can be reached at wjenny@umich.edu

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