Someone tells you, “You’re beautiful.” How do you react?
I usually shrug and half-smile. If I make it to the point of words, I say “Aww, thank you,” halfheartedly or deflect the compliment with some reason for why I look especially good that day: current favorite lines include, “Finally invested in a good mascara!” or “It’s amazing what wearing black can do!” So long as it isn’t coming from a sketchy stranger I’ve encountered on the streets between the hours of 10PM and 2AM — in which case I avert my gaze and pretend I didn’t hear the person — I take the compliment as graciously and appreciatively as I can and move on.
No matter my response, the underlying sentiment is this: I’ll have a hard time believing you if you tell me I’m beautiful.
Apparently, I’m not alone in feeling this way.
In December 2015, this video from Shea Glover, a student at the Chicago High School for the Arts, starting making the rounds on the Internet. It’s reached nearly 9.7 million views on YouTube and has 10+ pages of Google search results of content written about it. The video begins:
“I conducted a social experiment at my high school. I asked students and teachers to allow me to take their picture for a project. Some of them I knew. Most of them I did not. As I recorded them, I told them the purpose of my project: I’m taking pictures of things I find beautiful.”
In the YouTube description of the video, Glover notes: I want to clarify that my intentions were not to get a reaction out of people. I was simply filming beauty and this is the result. Here it is.
Given my “likes” of yoga bloggers, body positivity, and healthy living influencers, from a Facebook analytics perspective it made perfect sense that this video showed up for me on my newsfeed. As soon I as I started watching it, though, I could see why it was showing up for many others. I cold see why, more than showing up for many others, it was being shared bymany others.
My two cents in three thoughts on why it went viral:
1. Because unlike most media (social or otherwise) associated with beauty, the video isn’t trying to sell anything. Years ago, Unilever began the “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty,” a campaign with intentions as good as its execution.
But for all Dove’s merits, there was still a Unilever marketing team behind it trying to get people to buy more soap and shampoo (to say nothing of the face that Unilever’s Axe completely undermine the good done by Dove). Glover, in contrast, isn’t marketing anything. Even at the end of the film, she doesn’t urge the audience to do anything. Her final words are less a call to action than a call to attention to the audience to appreciate the abundance of beauty around them: “There is so much beauty in the world. If you blink, you’ll miss it.”
2. Because it gently challenges — but still challenges — the American standard of beauty. For all the work done and progress made in recent years to diversify the look and meaning beauty in the United States, the question of “What is beautiful?” remains answered by well-photoshopped, highly sexualized advertisements featuring a narrow spectrum of sizes, shapes, and colors. Much of the initial success of American Eagle’s #aerieREAL marketing campaign, lauded for featuring “unretouched” models in its lingerie shoots, was thanks to the involvement of actress Emma Roberts.
Roberts— much as I love watching her on camera — still represents the mostly-white, mostly-blonde, and unequivocally thin standard of beauty for women in America. In Shea’s video, beauty is not conditional on being seen from the right angle or in the right light. It doesn’t demand being waxed, tanned, muscled, or styled. Shea isn’t complimenting the beauty of the people on film — she’s affirming it.
3. Because it’s hard not to see yourself in it. Going back to the idea of “real beauty,” the “real beauty” of the video comes from that of the people filmed in it — a little rough around the edges and unaware of the effect it’s having on others. It’s humble, effortless, approachable, and overwhelmingly human. Even though I wasn’t the same combination of age, color, shape, and size of the people in the frame, I could relate in some way to all the ways they respond to being called beautiful: With laughter. With shyness. With joy. With insecurity. With disbelief. Even with anger. I have to believe that other people who watched, liked, and shared felt similarly as I did, and that they, too, could see what I saw: Themselves.
We are connected by media that celebrates beautiful things, places, and beautiful, but mostly of that beauty is on the outside. Shea Glover’s piece is a too-rare reminder that beauty is not an external goal or thing to aspire to. It is something that simply and inherently is, something that comes with the territory of being alive, and something that you already — and completely — are.
(Originally published on February 13, 2015)