Unconventional Beauties

I’ve been seeing the term “unconventional beauty” thrown around a lot lately, in magazines, blogs, and on television. Which has got me thinking, what is it? Who has it? Who doesn’t? Is it a good thing? A bad thing? Why have we been hearing it so much lately? Do men inform the standard, or is it women, or both? Whoa, that’s a lot of questions, so let’s try to figure them out.

When you enter the term into a Google image search you get everyone from Grace Jones to Sandra Bullock. It seems that unless you’re Kate Bosworth you’re considered unconventional, wait scratch that, she has two different colored eyes, so she can’t be conventional either. So then who? Who is the conventional beauty? I’m really not sure.

The definition of unconventional (according to my handy Oxford American Dictionary widget) is as follows:

Unconventional: Not based on or conforming to what is generally done or believed

For me this only brings up another question, does unconventional beauty rest more in how you physically look, or how you present yourself to the world? Can you be unconventionally beautiful if not meeting conventions is something you do by choice rather than something you are born into? I’m thinking the whole thing is just ridiculous, and I think we use “unconventional” as a way of saying flawed, but aren’t flaws what makes things beautiful to begin with? I’m getting very linear here and I can’t explain it.

I honestly have more trouble trying to come up with someone who is generally believed to be conventionally beautiful than people who are not. I’ve been asking people what they think. Is conventional beauty blond hair and blue eyes? Can a person of mixed race be conventionally beautiful, or will they always be unconventional? In the interest of experimentation, I’ve been trying to compile a list of women who might fall in to either of the two categories. Of course, I think every person has their own idea of what is conventional and what is not, based on how they feel about themselves, what they are exposed to, and what preference they have, also how they perceive the opinion of the general public, or what we each view as the “standard” of beauty.

Below is my attempt to come up with women who are conventionally beautiful. I want to point out that this list is made up of women I believe society has deemed as standardly beautiful.

Halle Berry

Catherine Zeta-Jones

Jessica Alba

Scarlett Johansson

Heather Graham

Salma Hayek


And now my list of unconventional beauties. Which is made up of women I think are really pretty, but who would probably be considered unconventional by some.

Dichen Lachman

Tilda Swinton

Chloe Sevigny

Jill Scott

Beth Ditto

Anjelica Huston

So, after doing way too many photo collages I came to the hypothesis that all these women are beautiful, duh, or course! I think it’s wonderful to celebrate women with every combination of features, at every size, every age, and with every shade of skin, so why do we have to break them into categories, can’t we all just be beautiful? Do we have to make a big deal out of it when someone falls outside the mythological standard of what someone else may hold to be conventionally beautiful? And is there any control in this experiment, who is the standard after all? One persons idea of perfection certainly isn’t another’s.

By constantly making the distinction between different kinds of beauty, we manage to insult everyone instead of celebrating them. If someone were to say to me “Justine, you’re so conventionally beautiful”, I’d be insulted, likewise if someone were to say I were “unconventionally beautiful” I’d be insulted again, because making the distinction at all is unnecessary, and it only ever seems to end up a backhanded compliment.

I think the fashion magazines, and everyone else who has been using this term a lot lately, are well-intentioned, but they’re trying too hard. It’s great to feature a wide array of women as representations of beauty, but when we have to go out of our way to say “psst, we know she isn’t the “normal” idea of beauty, but she is still pretty, right?” it just ruins the whole thing. Can’t we all just promise to see ourselves and other women as beautiful without all the labels?

I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this more, and I would love to hear other people’s opinions on what they think of beauty conventions. For now though, let’s imagine a world without labels, where all these gorgeous women exist together in blissful harmony, conventional or not, they’re all knockouts!

(click to enlarge)






Filed under acceptance

15 responses to “Unconventional Beauties

  1. Hi, really interesting piece. The French have a phrase for a woman which is “jolie laide”which basically translates as a “pretty, ugly”. I’ve seen included in this description the likes of Beatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg neither of whom are ugly! I think maybe they are trying to capture a certain spirit, rather than a type of beauty.

    Unconventional beauty is possibly less about bone structure but more about certain women have a stronger individual presence and look, are not afraid to stand apart from the crowd. To me Meryl Streep, SJP, Angelica Huston totally epitomise this.

    • At least the french are straight about it being insulting, we have to make it sound like a compliment! I think you’re right that there are certain women who have, to use another french phrase, “je ne sais quoi”, even if they may not be typically beautiful, they have an appeal in their strong personalities that just makes them even more attractive.

  2. Megan

    A very interesting point. It does seem that both conventional beauty (which seems like code for boring) and unconvential beauty (which seems like code for flawed) are in some way insulting. Having just spent way too much time in museums while on vacation I was also struck by how the definition of conventional beauty has changed over time – the rounded abdomens of Egyptian goddesses, the enormous foreheads of medieval women, the abundant white flesh of Rubenesque queens – our concepts of beauty are not exactly stable.

  3. Beth

    Interesting. I agree that you can’t win by being labeled as conventionally or unconventionally beautiful. But it makes of think of episodes of American Idol where Simon or Kara say someone is “commercial.” I still can’t believe they say that as a compliment. I think that people like Katy Perry (until she opens her mouth. Am I right?) and Zooey Deschanel are conventionally beautiful. As I write this, I cannot think of someone I’d say was unconventionally beautiful. Conventional vs. unconventional good looks are much easier to determine, if you will, in terms of men, I think.

    • Beth, that’s so funny because when I first started thinking of examples I couldn’t think of anyone who was unconventionally beautiful, I mean so many people are beautiful right? it was only when I saw what people are referring to as unconventional that I realized how high the bar is set on conventional beauty according to some people. Then it became really easy to think of examples of unconventional beauty because so few are considered conventional. Jeez, I haven’t seem much of American idol, but using “commercial” as a compliment is just creepy, and I hate the idea that they think we would only respond positively to someone who looks a certain way, it’s an insult to think we can’t appreciate all kinds of people, even if their not “commercial.”

  4. haren

    I think that society views women who are not beautiful as worthless. Therefore “unconventionally beautiful” covers women who are not actually beautiful but have charm, talent, charisma and are attractive despite not being beautiful. We need to accept that women can be worthwhile and compelling without meeting the standards of physical beauty.

  5. In my head, conventional beauty is skinny blonde girls. Sometimes a skinny brunette. I think these tend to be celebrated by the media more often as being beautiful. However, I have no idea why i decided that sort of beauty was ‘conventional’.

    I find that I’m alot more harsh with beautiful skinny blonde women than I am with anyone else. Because they are the complete opposite of me. well not completely, I’m still a woman.

    We really should just embrace all people as being beautiful whatever characteristics they have

    • I think we all see “conventional” as being whatever we’re not, as a brunette I usually think of blonds as more typically beautiful too, maybe one day we will all stop labeling everything and acknowledge that you kind find beauty anywhere!

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  8. Helloo! My name is Jen! This article is really interesting. I love seeing people question these sort of topics.

    You’re right. Why do we have to be put into categories and told if we’re beautiful of not, or of the way we look is wrong? Who actually has the right to tell anyone how we should look? Are we really that desperate, that we want to be told, that we feel we have to be told that the way we are is acceptable or unacceptable just so we can fit into a judgemental society that will cast you away just because you don’t have their chosen qualities? It’s sad that this is world we have to live in. That the way we look can determine who we are straight away before anyone has even got to know you? Yes, the way you dress or present yourself can give hints away to your personality, but that is just the outer shell, a taster, just a tiny fraction to who we are.

    It’s about time we all stand up and start being proud of what and who we are. Society’s rules and laws can only got so far when we all obide by them. So let’s break these cliched rules, and become the individuals we are meant to be.
    Follow me on twitter – zombie_chick94 or on YouTube – jag1594

  9. Lola

    Where is Helena Bonham Carter and Pink?

  10. Helen

    I think unconventional beauty is beauty that doesn’t make you immediately say “they’re so pretty.” but you can’t stop looking and noticing them regardless, their features are striking and interesting and I think it mightn’t be because of their bone structure or features or symmetry it usually is something in the eyes, so maybe that is going beyond the point, but I think unconventional beauty is not the generic beauty of big eyes, perfect cheekbones and blonde hair, it’s more of a variety of features working together somehow, that causes a beautiful gripping captivating and intriguing face. My best example of this I think is Kristen Stewart, she is not conventionally pretty, but she makes you look twice anyway. And she has gotten a lot of crap about being ugly, but to some she is beautiful, so that’s unconventional beauty.
    I think you’re right with the labeling thing as well. I think it’s just that people feel more comfortable if they know where they stand with everything, but nobody is the same, so you can’t pigeon hole all blonds to be conventionally pretty and that someone Has to either be conventionally pretty or unconventionally pretty. It’s a matter of opinion.
    Really good article!

  11. Tom

    +Even though I’m a straight male, and she’s much older than me, I’ve always had a crush on Lily Tomlin.

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