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What Does the Phrase 'Beauty is Only Skin Deep' Mean?

Rujuta Borkar Jan 23, 2019
Read through this post to understand what the term 'beauty is only skin deep' means, and the varied interpretations of the same.

Did You Know?

It is said that the work 'A Wife' in which the said phrase was first used, became the very reason that led to the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, its writer.
That our society is obsessed with beauty is not really something that needs to be pointed out. It is a fact that is becoming clearer and clearer with every passing day. In fact, the fashion and beauty industries thrive on the fact that much importance is placed on looking beautiful, owning makeup, clothes, and other accessories to look beautiful.
All this, while the adage 'beauty is only skin deep' is staring at us right in the face. This phrase, the one that is starkly opposed in view to the thriving fashion and makeup industry that encourages external beauty, poses a question that is worth looking into―is external beauty really important?
However, before we tackle this very loaded, philosophical question, a better, and more detailed understanding of this phrase needs to be brought into the picture. Which is exactly what we will do in this following post―we will help you understand what this phrase means, what its origin is, what it signifies, and what we are to take from it.

Origin of the Phrase

The earliest usage of this term is said to be recorded in the work titled 'A Wife' (sometimes, 'The Wife') by Sir Thomas Overbury in the year 1614. In this work, Overbury has listed out the virtues that a man should look for in a woman before he marries her.

He uses the term thus―"All the carnall beauty of my wife, Is but skin deep."
While many conclude that this work was a comment on his own wife, experts and scholars opine that the work was brought out to act as a warning to his friend, Robert Carr who was having an affair with a married woman―Frances Howard, the Countess of Essex.
This work was supposed to warn his friend about the kind of woman that the countess was and discourage him from continuing with the affair.

Meaning of the Phrase

While the phrase has several interpretations, the most simple, 'beauty is only skin deep' meaning is that, physical beauty is limited only to that―the external beauty. It has nothing to do with internal beauty, in that meaning, it has no effect on the inherent goodness or qualities of a person.
The term, therefore, also implies that just because a person is physically beautiful or attractive, it does not guarantee that he will be a good person at heart as well, or that his beauty will reflect in the goodness of his personality, his deeds, or his nature―which is wherein lies true beauty.
In fact, the opposite could just as well be true―a physically attractive person could be a rotten person at heart, and a person who is simple-looking could have a heart of gold. In that to say that physical beauty does not determine a person's worth or value and no one should ever be judged based on their physical form alone.
The term also warns us against equating physical beauty with inner beauty and helps us to understand that physical beauty is just that―skin-deep. It starts and ends there.
This phrase can also be interpreted in the way that a person's character and personality is much more important than his physical appearance. Because, as a person ages, his physical beauty fades, but his strength of character and goodness not only lasts, but gets stronger and stronger and lends him true beauty.
Similarities have been drawn between the sentence 'Don't judge a book by its cover' and 'Beauty is only skin deep', the concepts of which are basically the same. The external cover (physical beauty) can never determine what lies inside. A person could be very beautiful, but be very disrespectful, mean, or rotten at heart.
And people would rather be with someone who is good at heart and respectful of them rather than someone who is beautiful. After all, how a person makes the other feel is much more important than how they look.
This phrase is used quite commonly in the daily context of conversations as well, and that is the reason why there are several quotes that have been formulated with this theme in mind. These quotes act as a reminder for people to understand what is more important, physical beauty or internal beauty.
While the need to look pretty or beautiful with the help of makeup or clothes is not a wrong practice, one should, at all times, understand that, that is not what true beauty is made of. True beauty is what a person's personality and nature echoes.
Thus, if one has this philosophy firmly in place, no matter how much the fashion or makeup industry thrives, it can never replace true beauty. Not really.