Maybe it is just me. Maybe something about me makes people think I am in constant suffering. Maybe. But I do find it hard to believe that I am the only person experiencing it. After all, it happens to me all the time. It happens when I go get my hair cut. It happens when I want to get my nails done. Don’t even start me on waxing. It is the Beauty is pain cliché.
Every time I approach any beautician or hairdresser or even a co-shopper in the drug store, sooner or later I hear the dreaded phrase: Beauty is pain. If I was even a little bit paranoid, I’d think that every other woman got invited into a super-secret club and I never received my letter. Beauty is pain is the female secret handshake of choice, it seems to bring us together or at the very least make us relate to each other.
This sounds cultish, yes, but that is just my exaggeration kicking in. Just close your eyes and think about the last time someone uttered these words to you. Or, think about the last time you uttered these words to someone else.
See? For one reason or another, on some level we all think that beauty is pain.
Beauty was definitely pain at some point
If I am to be brutally honest, I think twenty first century Europe has it easy on us, girls. The so-called beauty standards, practices and even the industry itself have run out of excuses to carry on with some of the horrible habits from the past. You should laser your legs? Please, have you tried wearing metal circles to elongate your neck?
The first time I heard about the old Chinese love for tiny feet and the sacrifices required to achieve them, I was first of all way too young to know (although still considerably too old to have my feet tied up), but still I could not get over this fact for days. I felt physically sick at the thought of someone breaking my bones one by one to shape them into, what was and still is for me, the single least comfortable configuration possible. Comparing that to the pain of wearing high heels seems almost ridiculous.
I am sure we, as a society, are doing things that the future will not approve of. That is a given. Judging the past though a modern day lens is a completely pointless exercise in needless rhetoric. This, however, does not change the fact that the majority of complaints under the beauty is pain tagline cannot compare with the practices of the past.
It is all in our heads now
Some would argue that the weight of suffering has shifted from the physical to emotional; that our current time focuses very strongly on forcing women to be something that they do not want to be (this post would be to some extent applicable to men too – but since I lack the male perspective on these matters, I’d rather not speak on their behalf). Bullying them into conforming to certain standards.
The feeling of not being good enough may come from the pressure of society or even from striving to achieve something beautiful. That’s true. We live in a visual world as we always have, just that currently we have far more of an ability to compare than ever before. But is it beauty itself that hurts us? Can we achieve beauty by comparison? Or is it just a by-product of our obsession?
You see, I think that feeling not good enough is nothing new. I think the world has always been full of people who felt they are not good enough. We are surrounded by not good enough mothers, not good enough lawyers, not good enough artists, not good enough children, not good enough saints… Why not good enough beauties should be any different? After all this feeling of longing for something that we cannot quite achieve is a universal human trait.
Not pain but sacrifice
All of the above does not completely negate the value of the Beauty is pain phrase – maybe it just points out that it is a tad overdramatic. There are plenty of women in twenty first century Europe that undergo their own battles – big and small – and this should not be neglected. If one day I broke my arm and at the same a hurricane would take down my friend’s house, my arm wouldn’t be any less broken because I feel sorry for her. That’s not how it works.
There are however some other ways of looking at the Beauty is pain cliché. For better or worse, they open a window for interpretations some of us might have never thought about before. The first one would be sacrifice.
Marcel Proust wrote one of my favourite lines on women in the history of literature (although I am pretty sure he’d be shredded to pieces if he posted it on Twitter nowadays). He said that women sacrifice their eternal beauty and longing for an immortal soul to bring some delicacy into the rough lives of men (paraphrased; I never actually read it in English). And to some extent that can be extrapolated; because there is always an element of sacrifice to anything beautiful, and this sacrifice can bring pain.
Any time I decide to wear ridiculous shoes I sacrifice my personal comfort. Let us leave aside who I sacrifice it for and what is the purpose of this sacrifice – I do believe that most of the decisions we take in our lives are motivated by mainly selfish reasons, but that is not the point. Some will say that the sacrifice is pushed on us by society, some that we sacrifice to make others happy, but the sacrifice can also be something that just makes us happy. It doesn’t matter. What is important is the sacrifice itself.
We trade off.
We trade off small things like five minutes every morning to put our face cream on. We take on small duties we wouldn’t have otherwise and we sacrifice our free time to follow them. We trade off a cup of tea of a glass of water to keep hydrated and healthy. And sometimes our currency is pain.
Pain can be a measure of effort too
There is a tendency for people to dismiss the strive for physical beauty nowadays. Maybe body builders get away with it a bit more, but women and their ridiculous diet regimes (well, they are usually ridiculous to say the least?) At the very best they are considered silly. You know, being little girls and all with their little problems.
But in its very essence there is nothing more or less trivial about striving for physical beauty than striving for any other form of beauty. There is nothing more trivial about it than striving for any perfection, really. It is the same process with the same goal intended: achieving something more.
The next time you feel like saying Beauty is pain, think about the reasons why you have agreed to that pain. Why do we find some things more desirable than others? And sometimes, sometimes your answer may as well be: because they require effort to achieve them and we appreciate good effort.
Shaping your body this way or that doesn’t just happen – it is a slow process that requires patience, dedication, work and sometimes pain. All magic comes with a price, they say, but maybe it is time to embrace that price instead of just tokenising it. Maybe it is time to embrace the fact that putting effort into the things we are doing matters not only in our professional lives but also in our wellbeing.
Maybe Beauty is pain because we are stretching ourselves and reaching for something more.
Beauty is pain will never go away
Our mind sets may not flip today or tomorrow, but there is and there always will be a good measure of people out there who understand that the pain behind beauty is theirs and theirs only – and that they have good reasons to push through it, or give up on it, whichever makes them happier. But you know who will always be out there?
People who like sighing that Beauty is pain.
Because this statement does make us relate to each other. It reminds us of our human fragility – and of the fact that others are equally fragile too. Whether we like it or not, we bond through not only our common views and experiences, but pain too. As much as going to a party together lets us reminiscent on the good old times, going through the same pain means we feel closer to each other. We just get it, you know?
Ok, I am guilty too. We all are. We complain about this phrase and then we pass it on, and I bet you anything that girls a hundred or two hundred years into the future will say it too. Beauty is pain may not be the password into girls’ secret society, but it is something very similar – it packs a specific set of experiences and symbols and associations into three little words that we all know very well.
Beauty is pain is a linguistic door to the land of shared experiences. It makes us part of something. Good or bad, true or untrue – who am I to judge?
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