For Women, On Vanity and Criticism by Elizabeth Gilbert

(From a Facebook post on Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s page, January 2015)

Dear Ones –

Can we talk about something?

For the last few months, I’ve been growing uneasy about a phenomenon I’ve seen playing out in the media over women’s bodies and women’s appearances. And no, this is not about the USUAL thing that makes me uneasy in the media (the exploitation and hyper-sexualization of women’s bodies, etc. etc…) That hasn’t changed, and I’m not tackling that today.

This is about something new.

This is about prominent women publicly criticizing other prominent women about body image questions, and about each other’s private beauty decisions.

I don’t want to see this anymore.

The history of women’s bodies and women’s beauty is a battlefield of epic (and sometimes violent) proportions. The last thing any of us need to be doing is judging each other and turning on each other.
What really frustrates me is the patronizing tone that is sometimes adopted, when a woman who has made a certain set of decisions about her own face and her own body criticizes another woman who has made an entirely different set of decisions about HER own face and HER own body.

You know the tone. It goes like this: “I just think it’s so sad that she felt she needed to do that…”

This is a tone of voice that fills me with ire, because: REALLY? Does it make you feel “sad”? Are sure you’re using the word “sad” correctly? Does your neighbor’s boob job really make you feel “sad”? Does that movie star’s plastic surgery genuinely make you feel “sad”? Are you honestly crying into your pillow at night about somebody’s Brazilian butt lift — the way you would cry about a death in the family? Honestly?

Or are you just judging a sister, and hiding your judgment behind a screen of moral appropriation?
Check yourself.

No decision that any of us make about our appearance makes us morally better or morally worse than any other woman.

The scale of beauty in our world is vast and complicated and often politically, socially, and culturally confounding. At one extreme, you have the “all-natural” obsessives, who judge anybody who artificially alters her appearance in any manner whatsoever as vain and shallow. At the other of the scale are the extreme beauty junkies, who will do anything for an enhanced sense of beauty, and who judge everyone else as slovenly and drab.

We all have to figure out where we land on that scale. Lipstick, but no hair dye? Legs shaved, but not arms? Hair processing, but no Brazilian wax? Short skirts but no bikini tops? Two-inch heels, but not five-inch heels?

It all sends a message, and it all comes with complications. None of it is easy to figure out. And this is not even taking into account larger questions about religion, history, and cultural ethics. What looks like modesty on a woman in Rio de Janeiro looks like flagrancy in Salt Lake City. What looks like modesty in Salt Lake City is flagrancy in Cairo. What looks like modesty in Cairo is flagrancy in Riyadh. What looks like flagrancy to your grandmother looks like frumpiness to your teenager. What looks beautiful to me might look grotesque or even offensive to you.


My experience is this: once we have decided where we land on that scale of beauty, we tend to judge all the other women who have made different decisions in either direction around us: This woman is too vain; that one is too plain…it never ends.

It also bothers me that women who define themselves as liberal, left-wing feminists (like myself) will stand on a picket line to defend the right of another woman to do whatever she wants with her reproductive system — but then attack that woman for what she decided to do to her face.

Let me break it down for you: It’s none of your business.
Every single molecule of woman’s body belongs to HER.
Yes, even her lips.
Yes, even her butt.

To judge a fellow woman for her choices about her own appearance is not only cruel, it also speaks to a fundamental insecurity that says, “I am so uncomfortable with myself that I have now become deeply uncomfortable with YOU, lady — and I don’t even know you.”

So have some compassion for the fact that it is difficult for any woman to figure out where to place herself on that vast and emotionally-loaded scale of female aesthetic. And check your own vanity before you criticize someone else’s vanity. (And do not kid yourself that you are not vain because you do not partake in certain beauty rituals that other women partake in — because you are also making decisions about your body, your face, and your clothing every single day. With every one of those decisions you are also telegraphing to the world your own politics, your own opinions, your own needs and fears, and yes, often your own arrogance.)

No matter what you’re wearing, you are dressing up, too.

As the great drag queen RuPaul has said: “We are all born naked. Everything else is just drag.”

So be sympathetic. Everyone is facing her own battlefield in her own manner. And the only way you can express empathy about another woman’s vanity IS TO BE HONEST ABOUT YOUR OWN.

Once you have reached that place of authentic honesty about your own struggle, you will only ever show kindness toward your sisters.
So here’s what I do.

When I see a woman who has lost weight, I say, “You look terrific.”

When I see a woman who has quit dieting and embraced her curves, I say, “You look terrific.”

When I see a woman who has obviously just had plastic surgery, I say, “You look terrific.”

When I see a woman who has let her hair go grey and is hanging out at grocery store in her husband’s sweatpants, I say, “You look terrific.”

Because you know what? If you are woman and you managed to get up today and go outside, then you look terrific.

If you are still here, then you look terrific.

If you are able to go face down a world that has been arguing about your body and your face for centuries, then you look terrific.

If you have figured out what you need to wear, or do, or not do, in order to feel safe in your own skin, then you look terrific.

If you are standing on your own two feet and the stress of being a woman hasn’t killed you yet, then YOU LOOK TERRIFIC.

To say anything less than that to (or about) your fellow woman is to add ammunition to a war that is bad enough already.

So back off, everyone. Be kind.
You’re all stunning.

7 thoughts on “For Women, On Vanity and Criticism by Elizabeth Gilbert”

  1. I have put the exact same text with a photo of YOU (by Chloe C) earlier today on my blog!!! Could not sleep now and dropped by to see is there something new on your blog that could calm my mind only to see this 🙂 #MustLoveSynchronicity

    Love you!

  2. This is a great post, Elena, thanks for sharing this. Elizabeth is correct in pointing out that women are giving too much attention to vanity, often making them criticize other women when it comes to their personal beauty choices. I have been, on certain occasions, the one to give out those critical comments myself, but how did that make me feel? Like I’m some petty teenager who does not know better.

    Women should understand that women have different choices when it comes to appearances. Practice being kind, first to yourself about what you look like, then that will follow through on how you view everyone else.

  3. Thank you for writing this. There is so much truth in this and I also embrace the beauty that every women chooses to expresss. Makeup, no makeup, fashion choices etc. Thank you so much for writing this!

  4. Truly amazing. So true. Thank you for being so real- in a world where everyone brags about telling the truth, we miss out on true wisdom like this. Because like you say, how you feel about something says nothing about its worth.
    In gratitude

  5. Your message is definitely a positive one which I really appreciate. To add my two cents to it however I think that we all need to remember to just choose our words (and the related actions) wisely. You don’t have to tell me that I look terrific if you don’t like my outfit, you’re entitled to your own opinion about style after all, but that also doesn’t mean that you have to tell me that I look ugly. As much as we need to stop judging we also need stop feeling so judged. If we’re truly expressing ourselves for ourselves than someone’s difference of opinion on style should not be taken with offence. We need to embrace our differences without feeling stifled or judged!

  6. Thank you for this. I feel like if someone wants to shoot arrows at someone else to make themselves feel better, they are going to make those arrows out of whatever is at hand. If you are 20# overweight, they will say you have not gotten over XYZ, and if you have lost the 20#, and do yoga and cardio, they will say that you are overly concerned with weight and health. So you have to just let petty criticisms float on past you and be happy. 😉

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