I remember the first time I realized that beauty was not what a lot of people told me it was.
I was in my twenties on a plane trip. I was sitting by a woman who some people would have called plain. She wasn’t flashy. She didn’t have a lot of make-up on, and her hairstyle and clothes just looked comfortable and natural—they weren’t especially stylish.
We got to talking, and she started telling me about her job and her hobbies. Her face and eyes lit up. I remember thinking, “She is so beautiful.” I enjoyed that flight a great deal, and part of it was because of this gentle, sincere, beautifully simple woman who shared an interesting part of her life with me and listened to me tell about my life.
This conversation was a turning point for me, although I didn’t totally realize it at the time.
Like most young women growing up, I felt constant pressure to be a certain size or to look a certain way. The message I constantly picked from the media was literally “You need to look perfectly beautiful (the way we define beauty), and if you do not, you are a horrible person, and no one will love you.”
These messages caused me at one point (and they cause many other women) to live in a constant state of anxiety, shame, and self-alienation.
But that day, for the first time, I was able to see through those messages a little bit. Here was this woman who did not look like a person in a magazine (which is how I always felt pressured to look), and yet she was so beautiful. And this beauty was a light that emanated from inside of her and lit up her whole face and persona as she spoke.
And I realized that day that beauty is not really about meeting some specific external criteria. Beauty is more about being present and engaged with your life and present and engaged with the people around you. It is about loving deeply and expressing that love sincerely. It is about being clear and authentic emotionally.
I have had this realization at other times in my life, too. I have been drawn to people, not specifically because of some look they have or a size they are (although their looks have sometimes played a part in it) but because they do things like…
Speak about their passions with conviction.
Find the absurd and hilarious in every day situations.
Listen with gentleness and compassion to people who are suffering.
Throw themselves wholeheartedly into a pursuit they love.
Exercise their intellect to gain more wisdom, understanding, and deeper philosophical insight.
Admit their failures, shortcomings, and doubts with a simple and unpretentious sincerity.
Speak out for those being treated unjustly and cruelly.
Are vulnerable about difficult and potentially embarrassing times in their lives with the intent of helping other people in such situations.
Whenever I see people doing things like this, I am struck by their beauty. True beauty is the state of being authentic and sincere in a way that extends love to yourself and others. It feels real, safe, alive, playful, flowing, authentic, life-giving.
And this doesn’t mean that beauty never has anything to do with our clothes or hair or bodies or faces. All of those things are a part of us and connected with our light. So, of course, they are a part of our beauty.
But it is important to note that if beauty is a light that begins internally and illuminates every part of us, anyone and everyone can be beautiful when they allow themselves to be illuminated in this way.
And because of this, true beauty can happen in moments of sadness, happiness, failure, success, laughter, crying, elation, and exhaustion because it is possible to be authentic and sincere and to extend love to yourself and others in all these states.
On the other hand, there have been so many times in my life that I was around people who would be considered classically beautiful, but it was painful to be around them because they were mean, shallow, dishonest, and insincere.
No matter what people look like on the outside, when they act in mean, shallow, dishonest, and insincere ways, it begins to feel like they are infected with a kind of disease that slowly and insidiously sucks the life from the people they are around. Not only is their light dim, but they begin to dim the light of other people, too.
This kind of shallow beauty feels dangerous, destructive, unstable, corrosive, explosive, life-sucking.
And this, I think, reveals the greatest power of true beauty. True beauty not only illuminates our entire being more powerfully, it empowers the light of everyone else around us. True beauty helps other people feel more alive and powerful and real.
Anyone can do this. Anyone can have this kind of beauty.
Dear Friend: right now you may be worrying that you are too fat or too thin or that there is something wrong with your face or teeth or hair or other aspect of your appearance.
You may be worrying that your clothes are all wrong or that you are too poor or not sophisticated enough to be beautiful.
You may be worrying that you will never be beautiful enough to have love and that everything that is wrong in your life is due to you not looking the right way. These are really common thoughts because this is what our culture teaches us.
You may be filled with a great deal of shame or fear or anxiety or self-loathing.
I want you to know that you are perfect and beautiful right now. All you are required to do is to act authentically and sincerely with love to yourself and others. When you do this, your light becomes bright and vivid and shines beautifully. And all of the people whose light are shining brightly, too, will see you. That is a great place to be in.
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Bonus: To explore the ideas of beauty in this post more in depth and through poetry, you might like this piece by my friend, Infinite Living.
 I really hate labels like this, as the rest of this post will hopefully demonstrate, and I only use this adjective here to highlight a flaw in our cultural conceptions of beauty.
 And, by the way, there is nothing wrong with fancy clothes, make-up, and elaborate hairstyles.