Your Beautiful Isn’t Mine

Journalist Esther Honig released the results of her experiment in Photoshop this week. She asked 25 people around the world to “make me beautiful,” and gave them license to do that with her photo any way they liked.

The results offer a very simple lesson: We all have different ideas about what is beautiful.

Ideal beauty standards have never appealed to me. Probably because I personally do not fit into most of the established ones being short, brown, round with kinky hair. But I’ve always been somewhat sympathetic to those compelled to pursue this rather nebulous idea of beauty.

My sympathy began many years ago when I read Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” The heroine, Pecola Breedlove, is a dark-skinned little black girl obsessed with blue eyes. Pecola thinks if she could just have blue eyes, her hardscrabble, rather loveless life would be better.

The book was written in 1970, before it became easy and popular for people to alter their natural eye color with colored contacts, but the sentiment it conveys is timeless: Many minorities feel inferior because they do not live up to the established — the advertised — standards of beauty.

That is slowly changing, but I’m happy the results of Honig’s experiment went viral, as it may hasten things a bit. She offers a valuable global perspective by driving home the point that there is no universal standard of beauty. Therefore, we must learn to appreciate other visual conceptions of the idea outside the more familiar Westernized ones — not just around beauty but difference in general — and if we can’t appreciate these differences, we must respectfully tolerate them.

Honig said each picture “is a reflection of both the personal and cultural concepts of beauty that pertain to their creator. Photoshop allows us to achieve our unobtainable standards of beauty, but when we compare those standards on a global scale, achieving the ideal remains all the more illusive.”

I agree. External beauty is a rare and specialized thing, not just for specific people in different countries, but for the workplace in general. Ideas around acceptable beauty can impact workers of all types in a variety of careers, not just those in fashion or related industries. By introducing the idea of acceptable difference into this realm — as Honig did, since she passed no judgment on the renderings she received of her own image — with the right education we can promote inclusion on a level that could significantly impact how people feel at work.

These are the same people who take time each day to dress for success, for the jobs they want now and in the future — people who do not shop at the same stores, use the same products or have the same methods to do their hair, nails and color coordinate their ties.

Whether it should or it shouldn’t, how people feel about how they look matters. One leader’s perception of beauty — or an organizations acceptance of an individual’s outward appearance — could affect engagement, confidence, discretionary effort, even retention.

We all could stand to diversify our ideas about what beauty is and what it does, and not just physical beauty, clothes and such. Those things have value, but by being more inclusive of what we see on the outside, we can be more accepting of the ideas and solutions those same people produce on the inside.