I think it’s safe to say that most teenage girls dream of being popular. But as a freckly, pale ginger, this goal seemed for me somewhat harder to attain because, sadly, popularity is often determined by beauty. And, while in my daydreams I was becoming the most popular girl in school, in actual life I was busy earning the titles of chess captain and library assistant. Clearly I’ve always loved a challenge.
Yet are popularity and beauty actually realistic achievements? In my experience, such social constructs are determined at an early age and are usually out of our control. For example, where I grew up, popularity was usually determined by class. The group of girls who were most popular came from privileged backgrounds. And their parents all belonged to the same, privileged circle. There was the odd exception, but if a girl who was middle class rather than wealthy became popular, she usually possessed good looks. And what were good looks to us then? Blond hair and a tan, pretty eyes and a button nose, a glossy mane and slim figure – fairly average Western world ideals that haven’t really changed.
Concepts of beauty and popularity may differ around the world – each culture will have its shared ideals – and girls the world over will be trying to reach them. I think I recognised this relatively early in life. I would sometimes stare at myself in the mirror and marvel at my reflection – in neither a positive nor negative light. I just thought it incredible that I looked a certain way, my way, and that there was only one of me, only one person in the world who looked exactly like me. Of course, there were times when I’d think of myself as ugly. As a girl, there were a few occasions when the thought of it would send me to tears. And I remember how I’d seek my mom for comfort and how she would stroke my hair and console me with the words: “You’re beautiful to me.” Back then, I took it as a compliment and nothing else, words that instantly made me happier. I heard the word ‘beautiful’ from my mother’s lips, and that was good enough for me. Today, after years of dangerously nurturing my pride, it would probably cause offence – ‘Just to you and no one else?!’ I’m glad I was still childishly innocent at that time!
But as we get older, our views usually change. Things that once seemed so important as a child may seem a little silly as an adult. The girls who were popular back then are all on their own journeys and their statuses in school doesn’t much matter to the world today. Our personalities develop and we become our own person whose ideas of what’s fun and what’s funny differs to others, and we prefer choosing friendships based on that person’s interests rather than the amount of time they spend in the limelight.
The outsider back in high school finds others like her, people who can identify with her and appreciate her differences. The quirky girl in the playground becomes seen as funny and strangely endearing. The emo girls and punk rockers may not have been pink enough to fit in with the ‘cool group’ at school but in adulthood, the ‘cool group’ no longer exists and their distinctiveness is no longer cause for mockery. There are, of course, exceptions. Human beings can be cruel creatures and childish immaturity and discrimination sometimes continues into adulthood. But popularity, which in the midst of childhood may seem all-consuming, becomes less important as we mature, change and learn to celebrate differences.
As for beauty – well that’s one cultural construct that tends to stick around. It may lose importance in our lives, it may not cause as much of an emotional response as it once did and it may not be the foundation on which we make choices anymore, but it’s still something people crave and it still informs peoples’ opinions of others. But what is beauty? What makes someone beautiful?
Recently, I read about a woman’s project ‘Before & After’ where she asked people from 25 different countries to Photoshop her face according to what they thought was ‘beautiful’. She says: “With a cost ranging from five to thirty dollars, and the hope that each designer will pull from their personal and cultural constructs of beauty to enhance my unaltered image, all I request is that they ‘make me beautiful’.” (http://www.estherhonig.com/#!before–after-/cvkn)
The results are interesting. In Argentina, she’d be make-up and sparkles. In India, her make up would be marked and her white skin would be shades warmer or she’d be darker in colour. In the US, she’d be a honey blond and petite or have flowing brown hair and sparkling eyes. In Germany, she’d be deathly white with auburn hair. In the UK, she’d be trim and neat with perfectly sculpted eyebrows and soft, pink lips. In Australia, her skin would have more of a glow, her eyes would be bright and her make up would consist of pinks and reds. In Indonesia, she’d have flawless skin and her lips and eyelids would be lightly painted in light pink. In the Philippines, she’d either be femininely professional or have full, brown hair, stark makeup and jewellery. In Bangladesh, she’d be thinner and whiter or wear a flashy dress and jewellery. In Morocco, she’d wear a headscarf with just her face naked. While there are some similarities between the different countries, there are also definite differences, whether it be complexion, hair, make up or clothing.
And I’ve seen this first-hand in my own life. While in South Africa, against a sea of bronzed beach bums, my own friends have teasingly compared me to vampires and ghosts – we have a tendency to say what we’re thinking over there – in the UK, I may be considered an English Rose. In fact, this is the very description my mom used in the past during those weepy times of comfort. Another thing she liked to tell me was that my reddish brown locks were uniquely beautiful. Gingers are ridiculed in school only for people, later in life, to ask if their hair is natural or dyed – because there are adults out there who actually pay to be redheads!
And not only is the idea of what’s beautiful differ in different cultures, but ideas also change over time. Decade-old trends make comebacks – the ‘60s hipster look dominates male models, “mom jeans are here to stay” (says Topshop), baby doll dresses keep coming back and catwalk models go from Twiggy skinny to fuller figured and curvy, and back again. While the idea of beauty continues to plague children and adults alike and it unfortunately remains something people use to judge others, I’d like to think that, like popularity, people begin to realise that beauty is not the be-all and end-all. I’d like to think that differences are appreciated, that, in the Western world for example, the awkwardly tall girl with a long nose and a distinct birth mark is as ‘beautiful’ as the sun-kissed blond with blue eyes and a slender figure. I do believe that there are people today who see beauty this way and who do, in fact, appreciate differences.
Sometimes in media, we see quirky, unusual looks on the front pages of magazines like Vogue or “handpicked” from the mall by Tyra Banks. But unfortunately, this isn’t the norm. Generally, people still have in their minds a clear idea of what they regard as beautiful and what they regard as ugly, and they judge others according to these ideals. The good news for children and teens who are struggling with popularity and beauty is that it does get better. With time, we begin to see how little these things mean in the big picture. We learn that it’s our true friends, not a circle of fake friends, who matter the most to us. And at the end of the day, wrinkles and grey hair will inevitably happen to every single one of us, from the girl next door to FHM’s sexiest woman.
“You’re ugly,” I told myself, staring at my reflection, my pale skin covered with a fresh wave of freckles after too much time in the sun. “You’re beautiful to me,” my mom said. She wasn’t lying. I wasn’t beautiful to the world, but I was beautiful to her. And now I’m beautiful to me too. And so are my colleagues, my friends, my family, the strangers I pass on a daily basis and the people I will never meet on the other side of the world.
I don’t think there is an ‘ugly’, not where physical appearance is concerned. Rather, I think there is different and this, in itself, is beautiful. What an amazing world we have – a world rich in diversity, where every single person has been uniquely created and not one single person is exactly the same. Let’s celebrate this version of beauty.