Ways of Seeing by Leeya Tudek: Time in Africa helps redefine beauty

How do you measure a woman’s beauty? Is it in how many compliments she receives? How many people are attracted to her? How many likes she gets on Instagram posts?
As a girl, “beautiful” can feel like a state you are expected to reach in order to fulfill your existence, and to matter.
Growing up, I became aware of this message from society incrementally. I noticed it while trying to find clothes that were nice looking and functional, and discovering that only boys get real pockets in their pants.
In listening to objectifying music on the radio, in reading fashion magazines, in the castings of movies, and even in casual conversations, I began to wonder — if beauty is so important, where is the definition?
Because there isn’t, there is just a beauty standard constructed by our society. You can see it in TV representations and advertisements, plastered with the bodies and faces of women who fit into a category deemed attractive.
It isn’t news that there is an immense pressure on girls to subscribe to these beauty standards and to be pretty. My generation is certainly not the first to encounter it, but we are the first to experience its escalation caused by social media.
Platforms like Instagram and VSCO, which are mainly for photographs, create a space in which we see photographs of faces and bodies often, with minimal words. Scrolling through Instagram is essentially the same as flipping through a magazine, looking at billboards, or watching TV. Parallel to whatever one might be reading or thinking is the subconscious absorption of those standards. This is beauty. This is what it looks like. This is what a beautiful woman is.
This two-dimensional illusion is burned into the minds of unsuspecting girls like me, and remains there until we learn to see around it.
This autumn, I attended an all-girls semester school in Southern Africa with thirteen other students and four teachers. Toting our textbooks, we traveled through Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, sleeping in tents and hostels or under the stars.
We left all of our technology at home except for cameras, and wrote our assignments by hand. In times when at home we might have been scrolling through Instagram, we were exploring cities, hiking mountains or talking to people. There were days without mirrors when we forgot our own appearances, clothes dirtied from the day’s adventure, hair matted, and skin greasy with sunscreen. We spent nights in tents poorly lit by headlamps, but it was in those moments of near darkness that I saw with the most clarity.
Curled in our sleeping bags or sitting on hostel beds, we talked about anything from conservation to privilege to racism to photography, and in those moments I realized I was surrounded by beautiful women. Not in the impersonal, physical way that I see beauty passed off each day. It was a much deeper kind of seeing, because the 2D illusion of beauty was brought down by the dirt and the sweat, and I saw much deeper into the women around me.
I could see the way they cared for nature, the way they processed the day’s events and how they functioned in new cultures. I saw the way they supported me and each other, how they listened, how open their hearts were. I saw how they were good friends to one another, how they worked hard in class, and how they would undoubtedly change the world someday with their compassion and intelligence.
This is how I measure beauty. Not by how similar she looks to an airbrushed, photo-shopped prototype on Instagram or in a magazine, but by asking, how open is her heart? Does she empathize and does she listen to people? Is she a good friend? Is she determined? Is she curious about other cultures and eager for new perspectives?
In the three and a half months I spent with my group, I began to see beyond the untrue, superficial idea of beauty I had accidentally let myself believe. I realized that when we spend too much time paying attention to our looks and the looks of others, we do not really see each other.
And its a shame, because we’re beautiful.
Leeya Tudek is a seventeen-year-old student from South Lincoln. She enjoys painting, being outdoors, good conversations, and writing.

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