The case for lovely

“You’re beautiful too, in your own way.”

“She has an.. inner beauty.”

“You’re not fat, you’re beautiful.”

I think we can all see the problem in the last statement there, but let’s pick it apart. Down to, if you’ll forgive the extended metaphor, its bones. Besides the implicit statement that fatness and beauty are mutually exclusive, it does the same thing wrong as the other two statements: it treats beauty as synonymous with worth.

Let’s take a sharp left turn here: I am not beautiful. I am not “a beautiful person” or “beautiful inside.” My insides are a hot mess of bloody guts. My brain is smart, not beautiful. And my outsides do not conform to societal beauty standards. That’s right. Beauty is (for the most part) a societally-agreed-upon set of visual characteristics. Characteristics that most people find pleasing.

The concept of beauty is not malleable, nor should it be.

Frankly, it doesn’t need to be. Beauty isn’t a measure of intrinsic worth. Acts don’t need to be “beautiful” to be valued. And telling people who – let’s be honest – already know they’re not beautiful that they are? Undermines everything you are trying to do with that compliment.

It’s not beauty’s fault that it’s been overused.

At some point we as a society lost track of all the things we can value about a person. And, you know, let’s not put lipstick on a pig here: I don’t mean “a person” I mean “a woman.” Sure, men have societal standards of beauty that they’re supposed to conform to, but they’re not punished for nonconformity to nearly the extent that women are. They don’t have to insist on their own beauty to be seen as having worth.

But let’s explore a radical thought for a moment: What if instead of listing all the things we find “beautiful” about our friends and family, we listed all the things that we actually value and ascribed value to those things based on their own qualities rather than some imaginary beauty currency exchange? Imagine, for a minute, what that world would look like.

“I’m fat.”

“Ok. Can I get a hand with my sink later today? You’re really good at figuring out stuff like that.”

“She’s so pretty!”

“She really is. And she helped me fix up my bike. Hey, can you show me how to do my hair like yours? I love the way it doesn’t get in your eyes but isn’t just a ponytail.”

What if instead of describing intelligence or interest or intriguing and unusual characteristics as “beautiful” we used words that accurately described those things? Anecdotal evidence: there was a great exchange I witnessed a couple days ago, where a couple friends were joking around about their userpics. “You just like me for this picture – it’s not even me.” You know the style. The conversation took a turn for the real when a friend replied “But I know you’re lovely.”

Lovely.

On the surface, a synonym for beautiful. Yeah? Maybe not. It carries a weight to it, lovely. Worthy of love. It says more about the quality of a person’s thought and actions than it does about their physical characteristics. It sums up the way these friends have interacted, the things they’ve observed about each other without ever seeing a real physical characteristic.

Maybe it’s time for beautiful to go. Maybe it’s time to relegate it to its original meanings, to accurately describe physical beauty. Physical beauty is an incredible thing. It’s a whole lot of fun to look at, for one thing. But there’s no real need to compete with it. Not when it’s only one of many attractive qualities and you probably have other ones that you’re overlooking because you can’t cram them into the framework of the word “beauty.”

Attractive is a synonym for beauty, if you ask the thesaurus. The thesaurus is again only sort of right.

Attraction is the quality of coming together. Sure, physical beauty may create an attraction. But so can a smile, a laugh, a turn of phrase. Attraction can be entirely independent of beauty. And there’s no need to call the qualities that attract you to another person “beautiful” when you mean that they attract you to the person.

“I don’t care – I think she’s beautiful” is a lazy way of saying “I’m attracted to her.” And a defensive one: we’ve built a society where it’s only considered appropriate to be attracted to things that are beautiful, because only beauty has value.

Maybe it’s time to let go of all that.

Maybe it’s time to bring back lovely.

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