On beauty and perspective

“Wow, you look beautiful!”

Would that statement mean more to you coming from a complete stranger, or from a friend?

I think a lot of people would take this compliment more seriously coming from a stranger. After all, strangers are more objective since they don’t know you, right? I used to be dismissive when friends and family would tell me I looked beautiful because I figured they were just being nice, and that they had to be biased – looking at me with subjective eyes.

I still think our loved ones look at us with subjective eyes, but I no longer think that makes them wrong in their opinion.

We’ve all heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While there might be cultural norms for what is considered attractive, there is no one objective standard for beauty. In addition, your perspective on a person’s attractiveness can change dramatically after you get to know them. I have met people whom I thought were quite good-looking but if they reveal themselves to be cruel to others, selfish, or narcissistic, it’s like a switch has been flipped and I find everything about them repellent, including their appearance.

(I was on a date once with a reasonably good-looking guy and he was charming and sweet to me, but completely rude and insulting to our waitress. Instant turn-off, and we did not go out again!)

On the flip side, I’ve known people in my life whom I wouldn’t have thought physically attractive immediately upon meeting them, but over time, I see more of their true selves: their honesty, their compassion, their intelligence, their lack of artifice, their dedication to making the world a better place for us all to live in. These people have become, in my mind, some of the most beautiful people I have ever met – and my perception of their outside matches my perception of their inside.

Recently, I had an opportunity to be a featured soloist with one of the orchestras I perform with. Photos made it to social media after the concert, and I had a number of friends comment on how beautiful I looked. My first reactions were embarrassment and deflection – I was feeling self-conscious about my weight, wishing there were things I could change about my appearance. I thought that these friends were just being nice and that their bias was showing. But I came to realize that I needed to truly believe these compliments, because they came from dear friends. Friends that have known me for years, friends who have seen the inner me and despite that (or because of it!), think I am a beautiful person. Sure, it’s nice if someone you don’t know says you look lovely, but if someone gets to know you and sees the inner you, and still calls you beautiful? Or even thinks you’ve become more beautiful over time? This means so much more, to be perceived that way by someone whose opinion is informed and colored by more than just your outer shell.

The world can see me however they will, and I know I will never live up to many people’s standard of beauty. But that doesn’t matter. I’m not here on this earth to live up to someone else’s expectations, or to fit someone else’s ideal for how I should be. I will probably always have insecurities (I’m only human, after all), but overall I am content with how I present myself to the world – all I can be is who I am, and I am lucky that I have people in my life that see a more complete version of me and give me affirmation when I need it.

So if you have people in your lives who you feel are beautiful, tell them so. They may not believe you, they may disparage the comment by bringing up their faults, they might call you wrong. But if the people we love could see themselves through our eyes – what a gift that would be!

And to drive the point home in musical form, a classic song that I love so much, I wish I had written it myself: I’ll Be Your Mirror – The Velvet Underground and Nico

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