The Myth of Inner Beauty

Imagine you have a friend—a good, good friend who means the world to you. He’s devoted to his family and holds down an important job. He works for the betterment of his community, but he always has time for you and has always been there when you needed him. Maybe he’s even your best friend.

Imagine he comes to you one day, discouraged and depressed, and he says something like this to you:

“Some days I wish I had just been born white. My life would have been so much easier. People would give me a chance before they decided against me. They would judge me by my character instead of my appearance. I know I should be proud of who I am, and, usually, I am proud. But I just get so damn tired of the people judging me by the color of my skin over and over again. If I were white, things would be different.”

This man is your friend. He is in pain, and you are in pain for him. What do you say to comfort him? How do you try to make it better for him? Can you picture yourself saying something like this in response?

“Don’t say that, friend. You are such a good person! You are so important to so many people, including me—especially me. You’re always there to lend a helping hand. You’d give the shirt of your back to anyone in need. You, in fact, have inner whiteness. Your whiteness comes shining through to anyone who knows you, even if strangers can’t see it from the outside. In fact, honestly, you are one of the whitest people I’ve ever known. And I’m so proud that you are my friend!”

Wow, right? You were maybe right there with me until that “inner whiteness” phrase cropped up. Suddenly the whole response was tainted with the unmistakable stink of racism, more or less confirming your friend’s fear that skin color is, in fact, always going to be how he will be judged by others—exactly the opposite of what you had intended.

But wait—what if people who offer those “comforting” comments explain that they aren’t using the word “white” in the racial sense? What if they explain that “white” is merely a metaphor for “good.” That they are using the word “white” kind of the way we do in weddings or literature—as a symbol for purity and innocence and goodness and wholesomeness, and that race has nothing at all to do with it (even though the friend had clearly meant “white” in a racial sense in his original complaint).

We do use the word “white” in that way, after all, at least some of the time.

Do you feel better about those comments now? Do you?

Me? Not so much. And even though I could concede that the comments might have sprung from the best possible intentions, I suspect that they would be more likely to end the friendship than provide any comfort.

Now imagine this scene:

Let’s say you have a friend—a good, good friend who means the world to you. She’s devoted to her family and holds down an important job. She works for the betterment of her community, but she always has time for you and has always been there when you needed her. Maybe she’s even your best friend.

Imagine she comes to you one day, discouraged and depressed, and she says something like this to you:

“Some days I wish I had just been born pretty. My life would have been so much easier. People would give me a chance before they decided against me. They would judge me by my character instead of my appearance. I know I should be proud of who I am, and, usually, I am proud. But I just get so damn tired of the people judging me by the way my body looks over and over again. If I were one of those beautiful women, things would be different.”

This woman is your friend. She is in pain, and you are in pain for her. What do you say to comfort her? How do you try to make it better for her? Can you picture yourself saying something like this in response?

“Don’t say that, friend. You are such a good person! You are so important to so many people, including me—especially me. You’re always there to lend a helping hand. You’d give the shirt of your back to anyone in need. You, in fact, have inner beauty. Your beauty comes shining through to anyone who knows you, even if strangers can’t see it from the outside. In fact, honestly, you are one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known. And I’m so proud that you are my friend!”

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In fact, it sounds pretty darn familiar. Because, after all, you’re not using the word “beauty” in the physical-appearance sense. You’re just using “beauty” poetically, as a metaphor for “good.” It’s a symbol for purity and innocence and goodness and wholesomeness, and physical appearance has nothing at all to do with it (even though the friend had clearly meant “pretty” in a physical-appearance sense in her original complaint).

We do use the word “beauty” in that symbolic way, after all, at least some of the time.

Do you feel good about those comments now? Should you?

So, as I’ve been pondering these two scenarios, I’ve been wondering why it’s so radically inappropriate to assure victims of racial discrimination that they are just as white as anyone else, only in a different way, but at the same time it’s okay—encouraged even—to assure women who have been unfairly judged on the basis of their appearance that they are as beautiful as anyone else, only in different ways.

This is part of what I’ve noticed:

When people stand up and say, “I’ve been a victim of racial discrimination,” certain things might happen. We might impose legal penalties on organizations that engage in discrimination. We might put social pressure on people who exhibit racially bigoted tendencies. Some of us, regrettably, might even say, “So what? Deal with it—everyone is some sort of victim, so get over it.” But I’ve never seen anyone rush to assure a person who says they have experienced racial discrimination that they shouldn’t talk about themselves that way—that they have an inner whiteness that makes them just as valuable as any Caucasian person. Never.

Never.

It would be disrespectful. It would be a way of denying that the problem exists at all—at least outside of the victim’s misguided imaginings of their own self-worth.

Yet this is exactly what we women do to each other—and even to ourselves—when we notice that we’ve been judged based entirely our appearance. We are so attached to the notion that a woman’s worth derives from her appearance that we can’t say, “You’re right. It’s not fair. Let’s try to do something about it.” Because that would mean that we accept her premise that her appearance is less than “beautiful.” And we have bought into the idea that by denying she has beauty, we are cruelly denying that she has worth. So instead of addressing the problem head on, we repackage her best qualities as “inner beauty” as if they’re a substitute for physical beauty—with the good intention of not hurting her. Order restored; problem solved.

Whatever progress we’ve made toward racial equality has not been built on the premise that no one is actually black (or Asian, or Indian, or Latina)—that every member of every race is actually white in some way. And I can’t help but feel that no progress will be made in judging women on their true merits while we play silly semantic games, recasting our best strengths and finest qualities, to insist that every woman is “beautiful.”

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