Outer Beauty vs. Inner Beauty: We Have it Backwards

If you ask most people what they find beautiful about a person, many of them will probably begin to describe someone's physical characteristics. It usually goes something like this: "I like big eyes, long hair, muscles, and a nice butt...."
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Three generations of women smiling outdoors
Three generations of women smiling outdoors

If you ask most people what they find beautiful about a person, many of them will probably begin to describe someone's physical characteristics. It usually goes something like this: "I like big eyes, long hair, muscles, and a nice butt...." Rarely do you hear someone reply, "What makes someone beautiful to me is their generosity, courage, kindness, and sense of humor."

As a professor, one of the classes I teach is gender communication. And that doesn't just mean how men and women communicate differently - or even just tips for how to get along with the opposite sex. Yes, it does include that. But what I also teach is how our society (especially messages from the media) help create and perpetuate gender ideals. In other words, we all get messages about what it's like to be the "perfect woman" or the "perfect man."

When I ask my students, "What is the gender ideal for a woman," they usually start with physical appearance as well. Some other top non-physical qualities mentioned are: nurturing, emotional, polite, and submissive. As for the male gender ideals, I usually get: strong, athletic, competitive, and unemotional. It's not very common for the physical characteristics (other than strong) to be mentioned for the males, but it's always one of the first for females. That's not to say that males don't have physical ideals to live up to, but society seems to be kinder to men if they don't exactly live up to these ideals. You even see it on TV in shows such as King of Queens or According to Jim. The male leads are average-looking, middle-aged men. In contrast, their wives appear younger and more attractive than they are.

In an era of TV shows such as these, along with the kinds about plastic surgery, it's no wonder that so many people are seeking out ways to "fix" their outer selves. For example, since Keeping Up with the Kardashians debuted, some people are even getting Brazilian butt lifts so they can look like Kim Kardshian. Sure, it might seem like it's a good thing to do if you have the money (well, maybe). But what people don't take into consideration is the risks they are taking just to live up to society's standards of beauty.

It's also important to point out that beauty ideals have changed throughout time. As illustrated in this video, you can see how wildly different every era's gender ideals have been for women. For example, during the Italian Renaissance and Victorian England, the perfect woman was slightly overweight and had very pale skin (kind of makes me wish I lived during those times - ha). So, there are no objective or consistent measures of beauty - even though there is scientific research that has actually tried to objectively define beauty. But in reality, it's all what a culture socially agrees upon as perfect definition of "beauty." There are even many different beauty standards across the world today - even for men.

So that leads me to ask the question: when and why as human beings are we so obsessed with outer beauty? Why do we value it above inner beauty?

Or, in my opinion, why do we have it all backwards?

I am sure the answer goes back to how our DNA is programmed. Humans instinctively look for the best mate in order to pass down their genes to the next generation. But isn't it sad that we are still letting biological programming dictate our conceptualization of beauty? It seems like would should have somehow evolved past that. But clearly we haven't. And it seems like it's worse than ever.

I have known many physically beautiful people who I didn't like, because on the inside they were anything but pretty. And conversely, I've known some not-so-physically beautiful people who were such amazing people on the inside that you didn't even see their "imperfections." I'm sure you have too.

But if you look at what's going on with people - especially young people - many of them would prefer to be in the "in crowd" with the "popular and beautiful people" - if they are allowed in. However, sometimes those people aren't even that nice. You hear stories about how some girls get "let in" to a popular clique, and then they dump their nicer friends who they have known all their lives. Those stories aren't rare, unfortunately. It happens a lot.

Recently, I saw a post on Facebook where someone said that she focuses on someone's inner beauty. Sounds great. But the ironic thing about that post was that the person who wrote it has done some pretty horrible things to her loved ones. And, she happens to be a physically beautiful person. It just got me to realize that she didn't realize that her inner self could use a "face lift." And that it was an important thing to do so. She should take a look in the metaphorical mirror at who she really is and how her negative behavior has hurt so many people. It's sad. But I don't think she's the only one. Many people are unaware of their inner selves, and more aware of their outer selves (physical appearance).

So, my wish for you is for you to stop worrying about your outer beauty so much. I know the saying goes, "Beauty fades." But I think that's a horrible statement. I prefer "Beauty changes." Once beautiful, always beautiful. And once you have inner beauty, that is one thing that will never change. Instead of worrying about the wrinkles on your face or the cellulite on our thighs, think about how you can be kinder and gentler. Think about how you can leave your mark on this world in a positive way.

Because that's what REALLY matters.

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