Recently I was with one of my friends, and we were talking about working out, and summer, and diets, as many conversations between women go. And then she said it: “I’ve just been feeling so bad about myself recently. I haven’t even wanted to leave the house.” I was pretty shocked to hear those words coming from my beautiful, strong, fun friend’s mouth. “What?” I said. “Why?”

She went on to talk about feeling bad about her weight and body, something I believe 90%+ (if not all) women are familiar with feeling sometimes. Still, as her friend, with eyes outside of her own, I have never not seen beauty in this girl. She is one of those girls where I already feel happy for whatever man she ends up with because she is such a catch. If I’m honest, she’s one of my most favorite people.

And here she was, talking about having avoided going into public. My heart sank, but it also resonated with her.

I remember a time when I was at the end of my year studying abroad in Switzerland. There were only 25 students in the entire school, and we all lived in the same building and did life together pretty much all the time. We had class together, meals together, homework together, watched movies together, went on adventures and vacations with each other. We were, I imagine, about as close-knit as a group of people from all different countries could become.

At the end of my second semester there, it was Christmas time 2009, and we were having a school christmas dinner and talent show. The semester was wrapping up and I had much on my mind and my plate: finishing school assignments, packing my life back into two suitcases, finishing up work for my job there. And I was pushing the envelope on trying to get many of these things done right before the Christmas dinner.

As others had started to get ready I had kept working until it was about 10 minutes till the start. I was about to go down to the dinner when I realized that everyone was dressed very fancy. It was a formal dinner, and I hadn’t realized that before.

My hair was not done (it either needed to be washed and air-dried curly, or needed to be curled with a curling iron… the curse of the in-between wavy/curly hair). My make up was not done. I didn’t really have anything to wear. And on top of it all, I had the stress and emotions of finishing one of the best years of my life, and facing goodbyes I did not want to make.

The realization that it was a formal dinner just pushed me over the edge. Like my friend, I didn’t want to leave my room. I didn’t feel beautiful. With the people who were so close to me, whom I was so comfortable around, and whom I had never once tried to impress before… all of a sudden I didn’t feel beautiful enough, I didn’t feel fit to go. And I was going to let that stop me from spending the last night all together with these people who I had come to care for so deeply.

Because thats what happens when we lose sight of the beauty that’s in us — we begin to withdraw, to isolate, because we don’t feel fit to share in life with others in whom we can see beauty.

It took the prodding and convincing of two of my best friends to make me go. They helped me figure out that I had something that would kind of work to wear. And they convinced me my hair was fine. They waited while I did a very quick makeup job to get some of the shine off my forehead. And it really was a wonderful evening. I still didn’t feel beautiful when I entered, but by the time I left the evening, I had forgotten about what was beautiful and what wasn’t altogether. I was welcome. I was known. I was loved. And that seemed to be all that mattered once I got down there.

I’m convinced that beauty has less to do with looks, and more to do with being loved, being accepted, being welcomed, being known. And about extending those same things to others.

My friend that I mentioned as beautiful before — in looks she truly is. But so are lots and lots and lots of people. What makes her SO beautiful is the way she smiles and laughs. The way she cares so deeply. The way she makes me feel welcome and loved. And the way that she is welcomed and loved by those around her.

The thing about beauty is that we can see it in others much more often than we, as women especially, can see it in ourselves. We need to make sure that we are mirrors that show others their beauty. We need to make sure that we are the friends that draw a beautiful girl out of her room or her house and bring her into places where her beauty both shines freely and simultaneously doesn’t matter anymore in her mind because she is so welcomed and accepted. We need to make sure we surround ourselves with people in our life who will be mirrors to us when we forget our own beauty.

Beauty, when mirrored, is magnified. When you act as a mirror, your own beauty shines brighter too. Because, beyond looks, beauty is that something special within us that is able to both be loved and to love; both to be welcomed and to welcome; both to be known, and to know; both to be accepted and to accept another. Beauty can’t exist fully in isolation. It blossoms in the presence and relationship with others.

It’s no coincidence that the most beautiful people I know are those whose mirrors shine others’ beauty the brightest.

You, you reading this. You are beautiful. You are lovely. May you find the friends who are mirrors to continually show you that. And may you be a mirror to show the beauty of others.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

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