How to Be Beautiful
When we are very concerned about certain of our physical features — a nose that is stubbornly a bit too large, eyes that are slightly too far apart, hair that is not as lustrous as it should be — we miss an overall point about our relationship to our appearance: how beautiful we feel has nothing to do with the objective structure of our face or body; it isn’t what we look like that counts. It’s how we feel inside. Our self-assessments are in the end solely based on our relative degrees of self-love and self-contempt.
There are people of ideal proportions and exceptional beauty who cannot bear what they see in the mirror and others who can contemplate a less than svelte stomach or a no longer so supple kind of skin with indifference and defiant good humour. And at a tragic extreme, there are heart-breakingly fine-looking people who starve themselves to ill-health and eventually die out of a certainty, immune to every logical argument, of their own unsightliness.
We are surrounded by industries that seek to help us to improve how we look: dieticians who are on hand to reduce our waistlines, aerobic teachers who offer to tone us, beauticians who will equip us with foundation and mascara. But however well meaning their efforts, they fail completely to grasp the sources of a healthy regard for one’s own appearance.
The issue is not whether we look extraordinary today, but whether or not we were once upon a time, when we were small and defenceless before the judgements of those who cared for us, sufficiently loved for our essence. This will decide whether our appearance can later on be a subject of negligible concern to us or not. The truly blessed among us are not those with perfect symmetry; they are those whose past affords them the luxury not to give too much of a damn whatever the mirror happens to say.
The way to help someone feel beautiful is not to compliment them on their looks, it is to take an interest in and delight in their psychological essence. We know that the more comfortable we feel around someone, the less effort we will make about how we appear and conversely, the more anxious we are about the judgement of others, the more our reflection has the power to horrify us. The issue is never that of our appearance, it is about our sense of our vulnerability to humiliation.
When we meet people who are perpetually sick with worry that they are not attractive enough, we should not rush in with physical compliments; this is only to foster and unwittingly reward an aggravating criterion of judgement. We should learn to spot the wound in their early relationships that have made it so hard for them to trust that they could matter to others in their basic state and that therefore perpetually evokes in them an unflattering self-image. They are not ‘ugly’ per se, they were – when it mattered – left painfully unloved and ignored to an extent that they are liable never to have recognised or mourned adequately; their arrival in the world did not delight a few people as it should have done, and they therefore need compassion, sympathy and emotional validation far more than they will ever require the tools of outward beautification.
Feeling ugly stems from a deficit of love, never of beauty.