Living with It: Beauty, the beholder and standards



Dear Reader,

We all have a body. We, truly, are just a myriad of bodily functions — intricate chemical balances and imbalances that make us who we are and allows us to experience the world in the way we do. Our bodies have the potential to cause us a great amount of pain or a great amount of pleasure — but it’ll always remain true that we are all living with our bodies, with its various parts and its various purposes.

Skin, hair, hips, chest, muscles, height, weight, jawlines, teeth, eyes, waist—.

These are all generic body parts, but the reality is they exist on the body with policed expectations.

Clear skin, long hair, wide hips, big chest, toned muscles, tall, slim, sharp jawlines, straight teeth, big eyes, small waist.

And the list goes on and on, different based on age, race, gender… This is beauty culture.

The purpose of beauty has always been about procreation, according to Darwin, your neighbor, and probably even your dog. And while there’s no doubt that beauty has been linked to sex, the physical traits that indicate fertility or good immunity are a far cry from all the things we find beautiful about each other. Furthermore in a more biological sense, with the way that technology has evolved, beauty has become almost irrelevant to survival. According to natural selection, it’s logical to say anyone with an eye impairment or slight allergies should be discounted in the running for offspring — and that’s obviously not the case.

In a more modern point, Jonah Lehrer, of Wired Magazine, brought up a compelling argument (or a “theory,” he calls it) in his article “Why does beauty exist?” saying “Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity. It’s a learning signal urging us to keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth figuring out.”

While Lehrer’s explanation might address why beauty has such an impact on humans and the resultant commodification of beauty, neither procreation or Lehrer’s suggestions would explain how “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or why people find imperfect things beautiful.

I’m not complaining about the existence of beauty; I quite like pretty and unusual things. My opinion lies in the need to define what beauty is and how we can achieve it. And I find that there’s a problem when a weirdly useless-and-mystical idea like beauty is co-opted by expectations.

I’m talking about beauty standards, of course.

They exist in every culture, and evolve in every culture — but a common theme seems to be that nobody believes they fit those standards, and those standards affect their self esteem greatly.

People say that beauty standards come from the models on the covers of fashion magazines, and the people who walk down the runway, but those fashion magazines are also meant to appeal to the people — so honestly I have no idea where beauty standards really come from.

But the point is that there are always a select few that fit these beauty standards, according to society, and a vast majority who don’t. And those select few are often referred to as “perfect,” or, strangely, “good enough” for stardom, but to the rest of us, they’re untouchable.

So it’s odd, seeing these aesthetically perfect people fall to insecurity, sometimes even deeper, just like the rest of us, people.

Cameron Russell spoke at a TEDxMidAtlantic talk about her experience with modeling; she’s been praised for using her platform as a model for positive change. In her talk, she acknowledges the genetic lottery she’s won to be able to be a model, and a striking moment is when she says that being a model isn’t a career path — it’s akin to winning a Powerball.

But the most important takeaway of the talk is this: “If you are ever wondering, ‘If I have thinner thighs and shinier hair, will I be happier?’ you just need to meet a group of models, because they have the thinnest thighs, the shiniest hair, and the coolest clothes, and they’re the most physically insecure women probably on the planet.”

There’s no limit to beauty standards. It’s why even models, who arguably meet beauty standards, are still insecure about their appearances. And why people develop body dysmorphia and eating disorders.

People base happiness on their beauty, but beauty standards can never be fulfilled.

Sounds suspiciously like a Catch-22.

Which also suspiciously benefits the undying beauty industry.

We’re in a crossroads with the way we perceive beauty on social media and in the general public. The body positivity movement and the call for a diverse representation of skin colors and sizes are revolutionarily changing the way historically racial and gender expression-based standards appear is mass media. And at these crossroads, we have two paths ahead of us: one based on self-acceptance and the other on the redefinition existing beauty structures.

Somehow, we’ve traveled down both paths.

Self-acceptance, or self-love, is a new term that’s become a common phrase in the past few years. It’s allowed a lot of previously taboo subjects, that occur naturally on the human body, to make a public statement, such as body hair, cellulite, and fat. But not to get too into linguistics or subconscious word structure, the words suggest that there’s still something to accept or something that still needs loving. And it’s odd to think about people who are secure in the way they look embracing the term.

The second path is much more alarming. I’m referring mainly to the beauty industry, who have seen the change occurring in the way women are approaching beauty, and have focused their advertising towards it. The overall increased representation of diversity in foundation colors, and the subsequent outrage when this diversity isn’t met anymore, is a definite achievement in altering expectations of beauty — but when these companies are claiming to sell confidence, it is curious to think where that confidence will really come from.

I’m not saying that it’s not possible for women to wear makeup for themselves; there are artistic elements to wearing makeup, and wanting to be beautiful is not an obscene desire. But beauty stores are still selling the same beauty products, and it’s inaccurate to say that the culture surrounding makeup has changed very much at all.

So perhaps the root of the problem with beauty standards is that we’re trying to fight beauty with beauty, instead of suggesting that beauty is not the greatest achievement in someone’s life.

Further in Lehrer’s article, he writes, “the hook of beauty, like the hook of curiosity, is a response to incompleteness.” A person is not complete with just the appeal of their beauty. And it shouldn’t be pursued and desired like it is the complete package.

Beauty in itself is not an enemy. And it is natural to want to fit an ideal version of yourself, and that can include the physical aesthetic as well. But when we are so preoccupied with becoming beautiful, we can compromise the multitudes of other things that bring beauty into our lives.

It’ll be interesting to revisit what the real purpose of beauty standards are, and how disproportionately it affects our well-being. The way that beauty culture seeps into everyone’s life is both unmovable and unspecific. But beauty will always exist in people’s lives, mostly bringing curiosity and joy; the changing culture means that it is still a developing phenomenon, in the radical ways people are living with it.

Emphasis on the live.


Elisa Fang