Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What Makes YOU Beautiful? A Conversation with College Women About Beauty

In  this day and age, beauty has become a social construct. Advertisements and magazine articles constantly bombard women, specifically between the ages of 15 and 22, with rules regarding how we dress, walk, talk, stand, eat and basically live so that we may be perfect, some may say beautiful, and basically unattainable to the opposite gender. 

But there is more to beauty than make up and clothing, or knowing how to giggle or how to look nonchalant at all times. These aspects have nothing to do with beauty. I strongly believe that beauty comes from within. And now, more and more people are beginning to realize that Photoshop is not a mirror. Photoshop does not create the standard for what beautiful is. Real, live, men and women do. And we create that standard of beauty for ourselves. The definition of beauty is being rewritten, and it is being rewritten on our terms. 

Shakanna Inman, a sophomore at Western Washington University recently sat down with a group of young women to discuss their definitions of beauty and feminism. Feminism and beauty are connected in a way that many people don't piece together at first. But in fighting for equal treatment to men as a gender, we are also fighting for our societal norm of beauty to not be dictated by Vogue. The women that Shakanna talked with, myself included, expressed many things about themselves, their concept of what beauty means to them, and whether or not they thought this made them a feminist. The answers varied on many things, but one of the points that came up over and over again was that beauty is the ability to be yourself. 

And as many women know, we aren't always accepted for being who we are. We are told to just be ourselves, but the hidden message is actually to just be ourselves as long as you look flawless 100% of the day. Women have been told for so long that our natural selves are so wrong that we spend hours a day staring at ourselves in a mirror doing our hair, our make-up, our eyebrows. And when men tell us they prefer the "natural look" they don't mean that they like girls who aren't wearing any make-up. No, they prefer girls who wear neutral tones of eyeshadow. And men, if you are reading this and thinking to yourself "that's not true" try to imagine why women as a whole are rarely seen without make up. I once had a teacher tell a girl she shouldn't wear make up because she was so pretty and when she came to school with no make up on, made fun of her for appearing ill. She had to be dismissed from class because she couldn't stop crying. 

But the day when women are not ashamed for going out barefaced is coming. Already women around the globe are embracing their definition of beauty. These women fight to be heard and to be able to say that they are beautiful just the way they are. 

As the following interviews will show, young women are over the whole "let society decide what beautiful is" trend. "What is beauty?" they were asked. Beauty is strength. Beauty is confidence. Beauty is joy. These were all answers that came back. 

Michelle Fields is a 22 year old feminist who believes that the most beautiful thing a woman can do is smile. "It's hard not feel beautiful when everyone around you is sharing your enjoyment". Michelle is very adventurous and has traveled around the country, and has even swam in the Arctic Ocean! She is a lifetime girl scout member along with her mother, whom she bonded with over their responsibility to "take care of the men". 

"Being a feminist to me is feeling like a woman and being comfortable with that".

Fields is a feminist because she believes that power should be equal, along with rights and opportunities being the same for both genders. The example she used was the disrespect she receives from not wanting children, which is becoming more and more common in our generation. "I do not believe this supports equal rights or opportunities," she writes, "men and women should have equal legal rights and be looked at equally as individuals".

Alex Synnodis-Butler agrees. "To me, feminism is being proud of yourself as a woman, no matter what that
entails".  And what makes Alex feel beautiful? Confidence. "I feel most beautiful when I feel confident in myself". 

Alex is a 19 year old sophomore who wants to major in Spanish and travel to Argentina. She considers herself a feminist and says she is happy with the rights she has and "feels good about being a woman". I personally find Alex refreshing.

It is hard for a lot of women to feel confident in their own skin. For someone to so openly embrace everything about themselves is amazing. Confidence goes a lot of way in making yourself feel good about your own brand of beauty. 

If we, as women, can start to feel more confident about how we look, how we feel, and ourselves as a whole, we can start to feel genuinely beautiful about natural selves. 

For Tara Noir, a Junior at Western, that's what beauty is. Being carefree, with no makeup and without all the hair styling. You know, just being natural. 

Tara is conflicted about whether or not she is a feminist but she's pretty positive she is. "To me, feminism means being most like yourself, and you shouldn't have people judging you for doing what you want".

Tara is going to be the first woman in her family to graduate from college is doing things for herself, and not worrying about what other people think. While she was living in Omak, WA she was sexually assaulted. "I want to be okay with it and I’m going to school to empower people to help them be okay with what happened to them".

To me, empowerment and strength are synonymous. And while empowerment is the strengthening of spirit, many women believe that bodily strength is what makes them beautiful. 

"My big brown eyes, my size, and the slow but sure growth I see in myself at the gym (make me feel beautiful). That’s why I wore a sports bra and yoga pants—I feel the most beautiful when I know I am making small accomplishments for the sake of my health and strength, those accomplishments make me happy, and it’s hard not to radiate beauty when you feel happy and strong". 

Monica Griffin is a sophomore at Western studying behind the scenes music production and journalism. She loves music "more than anything else and concerts are my spiritual home - there is no better universal language than music". She works out almost every day, in case you couldn't tell. "I love waking up sore because it means I kicked my ass the day before".

Monica considers herself a feminist, "but not a femi-nazi. I still appreciate a little chivalry. I am not blind to the mistreatment of other genders and do not think feminism is the answer to all societal problems." When asked what feminism meant to her, Monica replied, "feminism is a support network for women. It helps every woman get what she deserves and gives the community of womanhood a voice among the rest of the world". 

Celia Peacock also believes that beauty lies in strength. "I get a secret satisfaction from lifting more than boys". 

Celia enjoys her independence. As far as whether or not she is a feminist, Peacock says no. 

Celia wasn't the only model photographed that wasn't a feminist. Madison Hatch, another Sophomore and a hopeful exercise physiology and nutrition major believes that beauty shouldn't be determined by what you look like, but what you are doing in your surroundings. 

She believes that feminism means respect for females and equal opportunities for both genders. However, she has never considered herself a feminist because she has always felt that she has had equal opportunities in life and never needed to change how she was treated as a woman. "Personally, I have never had to think about woman's issues". 

This poses an important question. Are there people who aren't feminists in the world just because they haven't thought about gender inequality or women's issues? Unfortunately this was a question I never got to ask. 

And then there's me. I believe that a person's best attribute is their ability to shake themselves off and move on with life. Yes, I too believe that there is a certain beauty about strength. 

I am a 20 year old girl living in Omak Washington who frequently blogs about feminism and how hard it is to be a woman in today's world. So yes, I am a feminist. And to me, that means that women as a community band together and fight for equality. 

I applaud Shakanna for putting this project together. It is important to see women being able to feel beautiful in their own terms, instead of adhering to the cookie cutter woman that society would have us be. 

So, reader, after seeing these young women and reading about their brand of beautiful, what makes you feel beautiful? 

"This project is dedicated to women of all kinds. I want women to embrace what makes them feel beautiful. You can be told how pretty you are all day, but if you don't feel beautiful then it doesn't mean anything. I want women to focus on feeling beautiful, instead of what society says beauty is. Most of the women I interviewed said that they feel the best about themselves when they are most natural; not wearing makeup and not worrying about how they look. However, women feel they must conform to society to make themselves "beautiful". When we try to be someone else's misconfigured version of beauty, we are only hurting ourselves". - Shakanna Inman

All photos in this post are by Shakanna Inman, copyright Shakanna Inman, 2014. Except for the photo of Shakanna. That's by me, copyright Alexis Olmstead, 2013. 


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