“You really can’t hide when you’re crippled inside.” -John Lennon
“Beauty is not caused, it is.” -Emily Dickenson
I am sitting with a 34-year-old woman who is listing what she does to herself on a regular basis. Botox, fillers, face peels, soaps, plastic surgery, skin treatments, and on it goes. She believes she is not beautiful. She wants to get married and have children. She dreams of marrying her “handsome prince.” She was stuck on what she looked like instead of identifying that it was coming from a profound sense of inner deficiency. The roots of this problem went all the way back to deep feelings of isolation and loneliness early on in her life. She derived from this a feeling of not being good enough. Not beautiful enough, smart enough, and unlovable. Are we capable of defining “good enough” from a broken place?
This idea of trying to fix ourselves with something on the outside like our face, body, and or what other people see, simply can’t be done. Violence toward the self can take many forms such as alcohol abuse, intravenous drugs, tattooing, plastic surgery, cutting, risky behavior, antagonism toward the self, and violence toward others. The act of rejecting your inner self in favor of physical attraction, trappings of wealth, or numbing ourselves is, in the end, an exercise in futility.
There is nothing at all wrong with caring about how you look. Neither should there be shame in having money or beautiful things. However, if you fantasize that having these things will change how you feel about yourself, then think again. It’s the externalization of an internal conflict within the self. Becoming truly happy with our appearance is an inside job.
The need to create an external image that is viewed as attractive is ubiquitous. People spend millions on houses, cars, fashion, and automobiles because they want approval and validation that they are worthwhile. It’s a certain kind of mania that needs to be constantly fed in a continuous necessity to fit in and be admired because it is lacking inside. Wanting those things for their own sake then can be a healthy choice if we know what the limitations are.
A wealthy patient of mine once described with a pain-tinged rapture how he and his exquisite girlfriend would prepare themselves for hours to drive his Aston Martin sports car to a popular restaurant. He relished in everyone eyeing them with envy. The joy he felt in reliving that moment could not be the intended fix for crippling insecurity. These moments for him were like a drug, only to temporarily repair his internal pain. If he spent the same amount of time and energy making a connection with his girlfriend, he may have had a different and more satisfying experience. He was only capable of controlling the optics of the entrance to the restaurant but was unable to bring his authentic self to the table once they sat down.
What then is the answer to this social disease? The quest for beauty is not new. It spans the centuries back to Helen of Troy who had the face that launched a thousand ships or the famed Cleopatra who seduced Julius Caesar. The power of beauty in all its forms is as old as time itself. The quest for beauty, the fountain of youth, and immortality are classic themes in art, fashion, history, and literature.
Now beauty has become especially dangerous because it is such a large part of social media influencers and the abuse that many people heap upon those who are overweight, not beautiful, or old. The pressure for thin, handsome, gorgeous, and young prevails in advertising and is plastered all over the internet. The language we hear from politicians, pundits, and provocateurs is a constant drill in the social stream.
The beauty imperative seems to be everywhere. Many young people are ripe for stimulus to their fragile self-esteem. Every fifteen minutes a new internet influencer comes into fame, looking to make them feel like they belong to something bigger and more cool. But even they are not safe. The internet world is all too happy to slap them down when they stumble or become irrelevant. The norms are not normal when the influencers are negatively influenced by their own followers.
There is a consistent tendency from the proliferation of misinformation and short bites from TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and all social media to move away from education, internal introspection, the acquisition of wisdom, psychology, and spiritual practice. It appears that the lack of knowledge and understanding is greater now than ever.
Where will the violence toward the self end? T.S. Elliot the poet who wrote in his most famous work “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in 1913, “How will the world end, how will the world end, not with a bang but a whimper.” Maybe it will, but it may also go out with a bang if people cannot listen and work together for greater understanding and acceptance. The healing and true beauty comes with accessing the root of who we truly are.
It is understandable how people become hyper-focused on their appearances. After all, we see the world through our own eyes, naturally focusing outwardly on what we see. To learn about what lies deep inside takes some effort with a professional, to sift through the layers and connect to our core experience. Once our inner sense of inadequacy is worked through, it is healthy to asses with kindness and make improvements one may want and even need.
Inner-self work has to come first. There will never be a resolution to the need for approval until your personal wounds are healed. If people exclusively care about what they look like or how much they have and what is good solely for them, without concern for anyone other than themselves, then they are lost. Moreover, the disappointment we might feel in these empty pursuits may lead us to anger, frustration, and even self-harm. If there is hope, it is in the human drive to survive, evolve and thrive. The truth is, we are thrown into the box we are born into. It’s the luck of the draw. What we do with what we have results in a more lived life.
At the heart of human existence is the need to feel loved and accepted. We can be our greatest ally or our own worst enemy in the search to satisfy this primal requisite. Getting to the truth of who we are, who we want to be, and how that is reflected back to us in the mirror is the goal. Perceiving ourselves and the world from a place of acceptance and kind consideration provides hope in the face of the violence of the beauty imperative.
Inscribed in The Temple of Apollo at Delhi, the Delphic written six hundred years before the birth of Christ proclaims, “Know Thy Self.” Part of being who we are is knowing what we need, want, and what we believe in. It does take some time and focus but ultimately, we can become more able to make emotional connections with loved ones, friends and most importantly we are able to view ourselves with the compassion we deserve.