Currently, a tag is going around Facebook in which a friend challenges you to post five pictures of yourself that make you feel beautiful, then tag five more friends to take part. I’ve been watching this make its rounds for the past week or so with the knowledge that it would inevitably, eventually find its way to my timeline.
I glanced over the photos friends had tagged me in to see if I was pretty enough in any of them. I scrolled through the snapshots on my iPhone, from London and Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon.
None of them were quite right. My bangs were sticking to my obnoxiously high forehead in one; my eyeliner had smudged in another. This one showed off my too-big teeth and that one upon closer inspection was nothing but an advertisement about the never-ending invasion of zits across my face.
I dreaded the day someone challenged me, because it was embarrassing. No one wanted to see me post five pictures that made me feel beautiful. I didn’t deserve it. I was trash. No one would like the collage and it would sit awkwardly on my timeline above the photo of my signed book from meeting JK Rowling with its one hundred+ likes (because only the heartless don’t like JK Rowling).
Then, sure enough, yesterday Facebook sent me the notification that a friend had completed the tag and I was next.
I stared at my laptop screen. I wasn’t going to pass up the challenge, because that might be even worse than not completing it—who knew whether it was better to let others know I was aware I was not beautiful or to make them believe I was clinging to some inane hope that I might be.
I ran a hand through my always-knotted hair. I pressed my palm against my greasy forehead.
I decided to complete the challenge as quickly as possible. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, maybe it would be slightly less painful (and awkward) if I put the collage of photos up right away. No thinking too much or second-guessing every zit and misplaced hair.
So I clicked over to the photos I was tagged in and began searching again.
I chose the pictures carefully, in hopes of making a statement about beauty. Maybe not one others would notice, but one I would be aware of: that beauty is not necessarily about the state of your skin or how well you’re smiling, but about how you feel in the moment and the things you do that make you feel empowered, and happy, and alive. Because choosing photos about traditional beauty was definitely out and I had to get through the tag somehow.
I chose a selfie in which three of my friends and I are crowded together on the lawn at a OneRepublic concert this summer. The mud’s seeping through our blankets, staining our shorts, and our cheeks are red from the heat. One friend is sticking her tongue out. We all burst out laughing the moment we put the iPhone down.
The next photo is a group shot from a formal dinner last week here at Oxford. We’re all in the type of nice dresses you wear to cocktail hours and the theatre, holding glasses of champagne (or apple juice for us non-alcohol drinkers) while our heels sink into the lawn. Great white clusters of flowers sway in the breeze behind us and the gorgeous old walls of our college close us in, keep us safe, create in this place and moment our own private world. We are classy and young and eternal. We are the luckiest people in the world.
Another photo is of me looking down at a birthday cake and laughing with one of BD’s Mongolian Grill’s infamous tin foil hats shoving my bangs haphazard across my forehead. My face is lit with the glow from the candles. Not visible in the picture is the way my family’s gathered around me, full from a good meal and healthy and happy and laughing: the best birthday present anyone can ask for.
Another is a selfie of me and my best friend at Panera last summer. My hair’s a mess and it’s overexposed, but my eyes are really blue and said best friend looks adorable. We took the photo because we were happy there. We wanted to remember.
The last is after my final show senior year of high school, Urinetown, in which I played Little Sally. I’m in costume, smudges of brown makeup, mimicking dirt, covering all my exposed skin and a good deal of my clothing, with my hair up in ratted, sweaty pigtails. I was exhausted and sick and had been crying irrationally a few minutes earlier from it being closing night, but I had also just killed it on stage and I was in the midst of signing a program for my dad (because he’s made me sign one after every performance for as long as I can remember) and I was so, so happy. And sad. And happy.
And I realized as I went that these are the photos that make me feel beautiful. They aren’t the shots my brother’s taken with his professional camera—the ones where my hair’s doing what it’s supposed to and the lighting’s just right. They aren’t the shots in which I’m made up to like an old Hollywood star for prom or I’ve smiled on cue in a studio.
They are the photos in which I’m with people I love, because they are beautiful—through and through—and being around them makes me feel beautiful. They are from doing things I love, and seeing the payoff from working hard, and knowing so firmly in a moment that this is what happiness feels like, and this is what you should strive for in life, and it does not get better than this and that is a perfectly acceptable thing.
I am not “beautiful.” My forehead is too high and wide. My eyes are a non-color and too squinty and different shapes—left smaller than the right. My teeth are too big and yellow. My left eyebrow never seems to know what it’s doing and I will never give up war on the cowlick right in the middle of my hairline. I have been in a constant state of breakout for years.
My legs are too short and my feet turn in. I am flat-chested and my neck would make a giraffe jealous.
I could go on and on about all the things I despise about myself, both outwardly and inwardly.
But the challenge did not ask for photos in which I was beautiful, of which there are none. It asked for photos in which I felt beautiful.
And honestly, it was difficult to limit myself to these five.
And maybe I didn’t get as many likes on the collage as my prettier and more outgoing friends. But I did get a few, which is great. And even if I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered, because the challenge didn’t ask for pictures others would find me beautiful in. It only asked about me.
This is the brilliance of the Facebook tag. It seems simple enough at first: share the five photos in which you are prettiest. But this surface meaning falls away when you look closer at the words. Completing the tag is not a statement of confidence in your own beauty, but in your ability to feel worthwhile and happy and kind.
We might not all be beautiful in the traditional sense, but we can all feel beautiful.
And maybe I still want someone to tell me I am beautiful—to compliment my figure and eyes. To tell me they wouldn’t change a single thing about my appearance or personality.
That’s okay. It’s okay to want something it is not yours to have.
But it’s also okay to be happy with what you do have, no matter how flawed. And I am happy with my greasy skin since (supposedly) it’ll keep me looking young. I am happy with my flat chest when I want to go running and I don’t have to change into a sports bra. And I am even happy with my stubby legs, because they make sitting on a cramped airplane, you know, actually bearable.
I am happy. I feel beautiful. I am happy.
I would like a picture of this moment.