Am I pretty? Or am I beautiful?

I’ve talked before about how teenage girls fall into unhealthy friendships and fish for compliments. I’ve speculated that this horribly unhealthy behavior comes from a desire to recieve validation—when teenage girls spend endless hours and endless money on our appearances, it’s only natural to want to be told we’re pretty.

But what about being told we’re beautiful?

Pretty is a word that gets thrown around fairly casually. It means attractive, cute, and, above all, feminine. It’s a compliment that many teen girls love to hear, and why wouldn’t we? We want to know our efforts are being acknowledged, of course. And beyond that, it’s always nice to be told something nice. It’s nice to be told that we’re being noticed. It’s nice to be told that on the outside, we’re presenting the image we intend to.

But beautiful is something else, something deeper. When I get told I’m beautiful, it creates this warmth inside me that’s unique from anything else I feel. To me, beautiful is a sacred word. When I tell someone they are beautiful, I really and truly mean it. To me, beautiful doesn’t just mean you are perfect on the outside, perfect in your own skin and your own body. Beautiful means you are perfect inside and out.

To me, the word beautiful transcends race and class and weight—it transcends all the imaginary lines that seek to divide us. It goes beyond the idea of traditional femininity, beyond the idea of any femininity. Instead, to me, beauty is the true essence of a person.

When everything else is stripped away and you get down to the core of a person, it’s hard to see anything but the beauty in them. But it is so rare that we see people in their vulnerable moments, see them for who they truly are, that I consider beautiful a word to be treasured.

I don’t get called beautiful incredibly often, and I think I prefer it that way. To me, it helps to preserve a word which is sacred in my mind.

I remember the first time I was ever called beautiful by a friend. It was the Summer before eighth grade and Asha and I were texting pictures back and forth of our possible outfits for the first day of school. I was also sort of experimenting with hairstyles, which at the time I really hated to do. In one of my pictures, I had my hair tucked behind my ear. It wasn’t a style I was particularly fond of—I was fairly insecure and didn’t really want to do anything “risky” with my hair. And she said to me:

“You look beautiful.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. The only person who had ever called me beautiful before was my mom, and I knew it was because it’s the sort of thing a mom is supposed to say. I must have started typing out a thousand different responses to her, but nothing felt right. I was so shocked—what was I supposed to say to something like that?

No one had ever called me beautiful before. Pretty, sure. Even gorgeous a couple of times. But it was as though I had never heard the word before.

So eventually I settled for changing the subject, and never ended up thanking her. And to her, it probably didn’t mean a whole lot. She was just trying to be kind. But to me (and I’ve thought about it a lot since) I think of it as the turning point where I really changed my outlook on life.

With beauty comes a sort of power. It’s not something that someone on the outside would notice, at least not right away. It’s the kind of power that you carry with you for a long time.

To me, the word beautiful is an expression of love. I try to tell my friends, especially the insecure ones, that they’re beautiful as often as I can, but not so often that it reduces the validity of the word. I save it for when they really need to hear it—for when I know they need to believe it.

In this age of shallow emotions and fake affection and electronic communication, there are plenty of times that we need to be told we are pretty, maybe even desperately need it. We need to know that in this world of seven billion faces, that ours is still worth looking at.

But the word beautiful? I don’t know if I can express my love for a person more deeply than by letting her know she’s beautiful. And I don’t mean love on a romantic level, or even necessarily love between friends. I mean the love of a person for everything are. Not despite their faults, but because of them.

And, yes, sometimes the word beautiful is thrown around casually just like pretty or hot or sexy. In the end, all words are just words—they only have the power that we give to them. I get called beautiful casually every now and then, and in cases like that I don’t give the word a whole lot of power. But sometimes, I give the word beautiful all the power in the world. When I say it, I really mean it.

So when I say this, please take it to heart.

Whoever is reading this,

you are beautiful.

Please never forget it.

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