Hashtag Activism: #20BeautifulWomen: What Does it Mean to be Beautiful?

Every woman (and man) should feel beautiful in their skin and feel comfortable enough to say that they are beautiful. There is, in fact, beauty in everyone — in the way we look, the way we act, our character, our strengths, our flaws, our stories: in all the things that make us human.
That is exactly what the #20BeautifulWomen challenge seeks to accomplish: to challenge people, specifically women, to accept and love themselves. On both Instagram and Twitter, the #20BeautifulWomen challenge has become a trending topic, worldwide.
As I scrolled down my Instagram feed, now filled to the brim with this hashtag, I began to think about the different perspectives associated with beauty and how societal perceptions can influence self-perceptions. With this question in mind, I conducted anonymous interviews with ten female students at UC Irvine and asked them for their opinions on beauty. I began the interviews by asking them if they thought they were beautiful. Surprisingly, only three of the ten women replied with a yes.
I asked one of the three women to tell me what makes her beautiful, and she replied, without hesitation, “I think I am beautiful — wow that sounds very conceited now that I say it out loud, but I do. As of right now, I feel content and confident about who I am. What makes me beautiful are the people that surround me, the experiences I’ve gone through and the events in my life prior to this moment that make up who I am. Because of those people, experiences and events, I have learned to see the beauty in things, eventually allowing me to see the beauty in myself.”
Two of the seven other women said that they genuinely did not feel beautiful.
“I was tagged in the #20BeautifulWomen challenge, but I didn’t repost. Honestly, I don’t feel beautiful right now because I know what my body used to be like. I used to be all muscle and 12 pounds lighter. I guess it has a little to do with society’s expectations of beauty which is basically to be skinny and have flawless skin, but it has more to do with how I feel about myself because I know what I used to look like and what I could be,” one of them said.
Our society perceives beauty as a physical trait, like a checklist of things to improve about ourselves until we become flawless and perfect. Yet there is something unnaturally systematic about this. We are told from the get-go that everyone is different and no two people look exactly the same, but then there’s this image of a beautiful women: medium height, big eyes, perfect bone structure, Angelina Jolie lips, silky hair, long lashes, thigh gaps, long legs, big boobs, big butt, slim waist and small feet. What a list.
Fashion magazines are the biggest proponent of this image. Their endless annual lists of the top (insert magical number here) sexiest/most beautiful women make us, the readers, feel as if that is the new norm — that we have to look that way in order to be mentally placed on that list by the people around us. But that is not the case. If we women just wear our skin proudly and stand our ground, no one will dare call us “not beautiful” ever again. It’s about inner beauty, really, more than anything. If we all know we are beautiful, the impact of societal views on beauty will greatly decrease; it will just stop mattering and seize to exist.
And finally, the remaining four women out of the ten I interviewed told me that they didn’t like the question to begin with — that if they had said yes, they would have seemed conceited.
“I feel like this is a trick question. I feel like I’m supposed to say no,” they said.
This brings up another point. Though it is said over and over that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, there remains one great flaw in the subjectivity of beauty — that women should not think themselves beautiful because it takes away from their beauty and they come to be perceived as vain. Here is a huge problem with this perception: if men can enjoy and compliment the image of a woman, it should be equally acceptable for her to appreciate her image for herself.
But the final question remains: if all women should truly feel beautiful in their own skins and be confident with who they are, where does that leave makeup? Makeup is often perceived as a way for women to cover up their blemishes and that women wear makeup because they are either uncomfortable with or ashamed of their own face. This may not necessarily be the case.
Ammie Hsu, makeup artist and founder of My Beauty Creator explains, “To begin with, confidence is what makes a woman beautiful. To have the confidence to love herself — that’s it. It’s a common misconception that women who wear makeup are not confident; these two things don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Make up is not a mask; it’s a form of art. It’s like how we choose to decorate our homes, enhancing the things we like and fixing the things we don’t. It’s about making ourselves feel more comfortable.
When asked why she believes that women choose to wear makeup, she responds, “Makeup is a lifestyle and you can think of it like clothes for your face. How will you use makeup to show your sense of style? How will you use it to define your features? You don’t wear clothes because you feel ugly without it. You wear your clothes because it’s a social norm and you have fun with it; you choose clothes based on fashion, based on what you like, what you feel comfortable in. Makeup is like that. It has become a formality to wear makeup and with all the different styles of makeup to choose from, you have fun with it too. That’s all that matters, really.”
Despite modern society’s external perceptions of beauty, confidence seems to be a recurring theme on the subject. To be confident is to be certain of one’s purpose and identity and to be comfortable with oneself. This confidence has beauty in itself.
These lists of beautiful or sexy women put out by fashion and gossip magazines subvert the meaning of the word “beauty” altogether. Why isn’t Michelle Obama, the woman that worked endlessly to reduce childhood obesity in America on that list of beautiful women? Why isn’t Amal Clooney, a woman who served integral commissions in the United Nations to push forth protection of children from sexual violence or assault on that list?
Women who serve as the epitome of the modern femme, women who are willing to give up their lives for someone else, women who know what they want in life, women who become mothers, women who are confident … The beauty inside these women has far surpassed the influence of any kind of external beauty. They should be the ones on these dreadful lists, either that, or put an end to the lists altogether.

Vanessa Hsia is a first-year French and international studies double major. She can be reached at fanshunh@uci.edu.