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Who told you that you are not beautiful?

Written by Olamikanra Oluwakemi

True beauty is self-acceptance [iStock]

The Oxford Dictionary defines beauty as "a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight" — a definition I find to be lacking greatly, simply based on the fact that it renders beauty to be ambiguous.

Because, if the standard of what’s beautiful depends on the aesthetic gauge of the viewer, the concept of beauty in itself is ambiguous by definition. Does this then mean that being beautiful is just as objective and fluid in definition? Or is this definition false? Do people care too much about something that doesn’t actually matter?

In today’s age of aesthetic feeds — filled with perfect fit-fam figures, and unique physical quirks and features — there is a thinly veiled thirst, heavily fuelled by media, to present perfection; physically and otherwise.

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People generally, and women in particular, want to tick all the boxes from career trailblazing, to sublime homekeeping skills. The ability to keep every single hair in place, while maintaining a spotless home, creating an undeniable impact in the workplace, and somehow never getting wrinkles is something many wish to have today. It is to the point where perceived identity matters more than actual identity and it’s a quandary of choices for the individual who finds that the latter is more important to them.

According to a Harmony Healthcare IT article, statistics show that 80% of women have called themselves fat, 79% have dealt with a negative body image, 45% have compared the way they look to a Barbie doll and 53% think Barbie represents the ideal body type. Many questions come to mind at these figures, but the most hypocritical one to ask might be why a Barbie doll is the beauty standard that a majority of women hold themselves to.

This is because I have also, at some point, held myself and my beauty or perceived lack thereof to the same standard. After seeing the Barbie movie, it was ironic and somewhat therapeutic to watch the stereotypical Barbie doll discover how fatuous these beauty standards are. I practically screamed my support at the motion that our feet are not shaped for heels, as it is one of my many feminine struggles to date.

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Having grown up in a very traditional Nigerian home, with well-meaning relatives passing off-hand remarks about my tomboyish fashion sense, stocky body structure, and general plain mien at every turn, I grew up stuck in a perpetual mire of doubt regarding my appearance and whether or not I would ever meet the standards for beauty.

Even now, as an adult with a positive body image, my initial reaction to compliments about my appearance is always a pleasant surprise, humorous deprecating remarks, reluctant acceptance, and then gratitude — in that exact order. The last two usually only happen when the person giving compliments repeats their comments.

Somewhere in my tumultuous journey towards adulthood, I had embraced the idea that I would never be a beautiful girl and I was incapable of achieving the level of appeal that made other girls get called pretty so easily. I decided I wasn’t going to struggle to reach the beauty standards because I didn’t have the features to qualify anyway.

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I wore baggy clothes to hide my wide hips and wore a jacket all the time because my arms were on the flabby side. I favoured big hair that covered half of my face because if my features weren’t seen, no one could really decide if I was pretty or not. This dedication to covering up with layers earned me the nickname "homeless person" in university and I humorously ran with it, deciding it was better to make jokes about it than talk about not feeling pretty enough to wear less.

A turning point came when a friend randomly called me "hot" while I changed clothes as we chatted in the hostel. I froze, stumped, wondering if I was being mocked. I laughed and asked her to stop and she repeated the statement, describing what she found attractive about my features. She then went on to talk about her body insecurities and I listened, my entire state of mind in equal parts shock and confusion as she described what I thought was the perfect body with derision.

She was slim, tall, and dark and I thought she looked like a perfect Nubian goddess. I spent the rest of the conversation assuring her that she looked great, but just as I couldn’t understand why she thought I looked good, she couldn’t understand why I thought she was beautiful.

Intentional conversations after this experience would teach me that most women walk around feeling insecure and incapable of meeting the generally accepted standards of beauty. Every woman I have discussed this topic with feels that they are lacking in many areas where beauty is concerned. From fat upper arms to love handles, skinny or thick legs, hairiness, android hips, and inverted body shapes, almost every woman is insecure about their looks in one way or the other.

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So is true beauty slimmer thighs and a buxom bosom? Or is it a barely existing waist and 4D hips tapering down to slim, well-rounded calves? I guess there's no one answer. I think that the question isn’t even about what’s beautiful or not. Rather, it’s whether you see beauty when you look at your body.

For every woman, big or small, light or dark-skinned, and tall or short, there is a need to first intentionally build a positive body image. Achieving this will be the first in many steps toward seeing and accepting the inherent beauty I’ve come to learn everyone has. And this can only be done when we decide on what the standard for beauty is — nonexistent.

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the only beholder that matters is you. In my journey to developing a positive view of myself, thick calves, stretch marks, and all, I spent a lot of time just looking in the mirror and observing my features. After a few uncomfortable weeks of only seeing things I hated or needed to change, I became more comfortable and started to notice features I didn’t know I had.

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Features like the tiny cute birthmarks peppered all over my torso and parts of my arms, how my legs, although thick, tapered down quite nicely, or the shape of my eyes, the natural lining of my lips, and my smile. I realised I was slowly falling in love with the person I saw in the mirror and she was pretty cute. She also had dimples! Imagine being unaware of your features well into your adulthood.

The point here is to really take a look at yourself, without the voices, without the standards from media or other people. You may find yourself squirming with discomfort and looking away at first, but after a while, you will start to see the things that make you unique — your own pretty features. Because true acceptance starts from you. If you haven’t accepted yourself, others will simply follow suit and do the same thing.

If you asked me now, what is the definition of true beauty, I still wouldn’t know the answer. The closest description that I can think of, however, is that true beauty is self-acceptance. A validation and acknowledgement of who you are, what you look like, as good. Because no matter how many changes are made on the outside, the person inside never changes; and every time you take a look in the mirror, the reflection there is decided by the person inside.

This may mean that true beauty starts from looking at you; buck teeth, flabby arms and all, and smiling in pure love and joy, because you like who you see. And if or when you change features you don’t like, either organically or with medical help, the one factor that must remain is the acceptance of who you see when you look in the mirror. You can also spread this beauty by helping other women look at themselves with the same joy.

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This may be wishful thinking, but this way, it just might be possible to create a world where most women feel beautiful. To imitate the statistics cited earlier, a world where more than 80% of women have a positive body image is definitely a world worth living in.

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Oluwakemi (Kemmie Ola) is a serial content curator, music addict, and storyteller because words make worlds.

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