Being pretty, attractive, beautiful …

A friend tells me that her grandmother said to her, ‘You may not be pretty, but you are attractive’. I am not sure what I might have felt if someone had said that to me when I was young, but was her grandmother was on to something? Would you, would I, prefer to be considered ‘pretty/good-looking’, or rather be called ‘attractive’ or even ‘beautiful? And do we really care?

According to scientists a face is considered attractive if:

  • it is in similar proportions on each side, not necessarily identical but seen as symmetrical
  • it resembles most other faces in the observer’s population and so can be seen as ‘average’ or ‘familiar’
  • the distance between the centres of a woman’s eyes is just under half of the width of the face
  • the distance between a woman’s eyes and mouth is just over a third of the height of her face.

This suggests a certain universality and these findings do appear to have been observed in different cultures. We also know that there are cultural norms about what is considered beautiful. In some countries and cultures skin colour or particular parts of the body are noted, and in the west, being young and slender is often an aspiration.

A challenge

Whilst concerns about body image at particular times of our lives may be seen as relatively normal, we know that the effects of these concerns, especially if considerable, can have a profound impact on someone’s sense of self and wellbeing.  I don’t remember being concerned about my weight until I was in my second year at college. I was pretty unhappy at the time having been rejected in love. Looking back I think I may have wondered if ‘being thinner’ might have made me more attractive, but I think it more likely that it was my way of trying to take back some control.  I was not objectively over-weight but this gave me a focus and perhaps a distraction.

My teens were many years ago and yet I still go through phases of feeling unattractive and almost always this is related to my weight (much the same as when I was young) and my shape (which has changed considerably over the years). I also recognise that these feelings tend to emerge when my mood is down. I also recognise that certain actions can make me feel better. I feel undressed if I am not wearing perfume or have forgotten to put in my earrings (two in each ear), and the opposite when I remember. And I love my nose stud … I wear very little make-up but do feel better with just a tiny amount of blusher. And before I went back to Pakistan as an adult, I grew out my fringe as I was told that foreheads are considered beautiful. Was this vanity, a lack of self-confidence, being sensitive to cultural norms, or solely a wish to fit in?

A Quaker view

We can of course be over-concerned about the way we look. In the early years of Friends, Margaret Fell (wife of the founder of Quakerism, George Fox) felt increasingly uncomfortable about the way they focused overmuch on the way they dressed. Plain grey clothing reflected Quaker’s testimony to simplicity and also acted as an identifier but she worried that something important was being lost. She offered this challenge:

‘… Christ Jesus saith, that we must take no thought what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on, but bids us consider the lilies how they grow, in more royalty than Solomon. But contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour: this is a silly poor Gospel.’

Margaret Fox, 1700

In my view attractiveness and beauty are broader than prettiness, and can be more than physical appearance. A person can be beautiful in spirit, and beauty can be seen everywhere as a 20th century Quaker suggests:

Perhaps more wonderful still is the way in which beauty breaks through. It breaks through not only at a few highly organised points, it breaks through almost everywhere. Even the minutest things reveal it as well as do the sublimest things, like the stars. Whatever one sees through the microscope, a bit of mould for example, is charged with beauty. Everything from a dewdrop to Mount Shasta is the bearer of beauty. And yet beauty has no function, no utility. Its value is intrinsic, not extrinsic. It is its own excuse for being. It greases no wheels, it bakes no puddings. It is a gift of sheer grace, a gratuitous largesse. It must imply behind things a Spirit that enjoys beauty for its own sake and that floods the world everywhere with it. Wherever it can break through, it does break through, and our joy in it shows that we are in some sense kindred to the giver and revealer of it.

Rufus Jones, 1920

A way forward … and some more questions

Beauty is said to be ‘in the eye of the beholder’. I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t care at all what others think of me, and of course some opinions matter more than others. So to what extent is the sense we have of ourselves a reflection of what has been reflected back to us?  To what extent is what I focus on determined by personal choice or by concern about what others might think, or perhaps by how I think I should look? Would I prefer validation of an external feature such as my appearance or praise for my achievements, or would I like to be seen as attractive or even beautiful in terms of something internal?

I think I know the answers to these questions and so will I will try to:

  • be aware of when I am becoming over-concerned about my appearance, recognising this (mostly) as reflecting a particular state of mind. I need to address this rather than worrying about the way I look
  • appreciate genuine compliments and think about what I like about myself rather than what I dislike
  • recognise that ageing and its effects on the body are normal and not a cause for concern or embarrassment, and aim to remain as healthy as I can
  • focus more on the way I behave than the way I look
  • focus more on others than on myself.

In writing this I began to wonder how I see others and what I focus on in them. I often see something beautiful someone, and enjoy paying sincere compliments. However I am also aware that I occasionally catch myself looking critically and perhaps making inappropriate assumptions about someone’s lifestyle or personality. So this I think should go to the top of my to-do list!