We have firmly entered the age of pastel pink empowerment posters, the feminism infographics and pop art-style books packed with easily digestible academic language for consumption.
Women of all ages have been force-fed a diet of myths that tell us beauty is both attainable and accessible, no matter your race, class, or access to wealth. That we can all become the Instagram influencer who has it all, with the girl boss career, the man and now the perfectly prepped infants who match their flawlessly trim mothers.
So is this supposedly new discussion on shifting beauty standards really proof that we are finally accepting ourselves no matter where we fall on the beauty barometer? Or are the impossible, capitalism-driven and harmfully reductive standards of beauty still present? Have we once again just shifted the goal posts a little and given a new colour scheme to an old foe? Is beauty still a worthy investment?
If you spend any time online at all you will quickly notice being ‘beautiful’ is a vital component to the apparent success of so many on social media platforms. Whether it is the influencer girls selling you a veneer of wealth, luxury and picture-perfect partnerships with hashtag AD underneath the post, or the Twitter user getting shouted down by men for being ‘ugly, anyways’ when they disagree with her opinion; validity be damned. Perhaps it’s the sudden propelling to stardom of kids on TikTok whose only claim to talent is channelling conventional attractiveness with a dash of old school YouTube-style ‘relatable white girl’ content.
As a child of the internet, I have had the misfortune of growing up in the years that coveted size 0 models, the magazine-driven fad diets, alongside the madness that was Tumblr thinspo pages that made thigh gaps something that every girl aspired to. Peak ‘does-my-bum-look-big-in-this’ era.
In the few years between high school and my current 20s adulthood, the expectations of beauty standards have shifted drastically…or so it seems. Gone are the days of visible collar bones and thigh gaps From seeing magazines featuring models with protruding ribs, celebrities swearing their drastic weight loss was due to some herbal tea, manuka honey and juice cleanse. Skinny, was in. Now we’re in the season of thicc thighs, round hips and fupas.
But if you look beyond the colour-coordinated insta feeds and the language of ‘self-care’ and ‘self-love’, you begin to realise that the apparent changes of these standards are just different sides of the same patriarchal, capitalist-driven coin. What the beauty industry has successfully been able to do is repackage impossible beauty ideals within the framework of absolute agency, semi-informed autonomy and seemingly ‘feminist’ slogans such as ‘my body my choice’.
In this ever-shifting lens of ‘ideal’ beauty, a few things have remained consistent for me. Firstly, it is what Dr Tressie McMillian Cotton describes in her book ‘Thick: And Other Essays’ regarding the function of beauty not being about ‘what you look like; beauty is the preference that reproduces the existing social order’. Secondly beauty is capital and like all other forms of capital, it comes with a cost.
The standards of beauty are set, not to exult the virtues of the genetically-gifted few, but to create a hierarchy which sustains the current patriarchal white supremacists’ vision of beauty which everyone is coerced into aspiring to, and eventually buying into. All this is done to extract labour and capital from the unfortunate masses who will never fit the impossible ideal, but believe that with just enough work, products and procedures, they too can achieve the ideal beauty standard.
The content we are consuming daily, reinforces an ideal body type which is now bordering on anatomically impossible and our selfies having gone through professional level editing and filters before ever seeing the light of day. The current trend of the ‘Instagram body’ that constitutes possessing wide hips, an extremely small waist and an ample bosom. A look that resembles a cartoonish caricature of woman’s body befitting of a comic book.
“To be human is to have inferiority feelings” said Alfred Adler, and in the age of the internet bleeding into every corner of our lives, this sentiment has never been more relevant. The fastest growing cosmetic surgery being fuelled by social media, specifically Instagram is the BBL – Brazilian Butt Lift. This surgery was pioneered by Dr Ivo Pitanguy, a man who beautified the world’s musicians, actresses and cultural icons, a man who believed beauty was a human right and offered subsided surgeries to the poor masses of Brazil. A country with huge disparities of wealth, class and high racial divide. By offering these cheaper surgeries he was able to trial new surgeries such as BBL.
Similarly, the U.K beauty industry is worth £27 billion alone an industry that has built its business model on creating insecurities in women and girls of all ages then selling them quick fix tools for those same insecurities. When what you desire is in direct conflict with the resources, capital and people you have access to – this is nexus where capitalism thrives.
No one makes a decision in a vacuum, particularly with regards to what we deem beautiful. Many of us become aware of conventional beauty ideals, not through feminist essays or theorists, but in a far more insidious manner, usually in early childhood when someone else points out how we don’t fit the standard. It’s our outlier status that makes us aware of its very existence.
As part of our social introduction, we build ideals and understanding through interpersonal relationships. We witness our mothers, friends and relatives describe what is pretty. We learn through interactions with TV shows, social media and even children’s books where all the characters tend to fit a particular mold. The same way we learn many of our other social norms, we also begin to formulate how to value ourselves comparative to those around us and how we should subsequently present ourselves to the world.
However, choosing to conform to these ideals does not mean you are a ‘bad’ woman, nor does it mean we should outright admonish those who invest into the system. For centuries, performing to the ideal has been a survival mechanism for women. Learning to adhere to these ever-shifting rules has allowed women to secure jobs, gain a partner , and be protected from harm in certain spaces by becoming part of the ‘in’ group, and gaining a sense of safety, even if it’s fleeting. Whether we like it or not, beauty remains a valuable social currency that has been utilised by women for centuries to elevate their social, economic, and political standing, in a world that has stifled them for gaining opportunity through other means.
Even if you invest in the system of beauty, be it the thinness that still defines you as part of the high fashion girls, or the social media aesthetic of attainable beauty to all; the rewards will always fall short of what was promised.
With so many of us linking not only our self-worth, but also our politics and even our morality to our external image, which is then displayed for the consumption of others, can we truly say that we are finally freed from impossible ideals and making personal, standalone choices when we make decisions around our image?
We often assign personal responsibility to structural failings; it is easy to spout the argument of personal choice when in these discussions regarding the decisions we make in an attempt to improve our lives. But the reality is, no one makes decisions in a vacuum. We are all products of our environment, our families, our communities. Our decisions may be our own, but they were cultivated by the collective.
I understand we all participate in upholding these ideals to varying degrees, none of us are perfect. We buy into every skincare and makeup launch hoping that this time, this new serum will magically elevate us to our true flawless self.
Yet we fall short every time because the trend shifts, we change, we age and we get sick. The system is created to keep the majority of us out, on purpose. The rules of the game are constantly changed to exclude us. That is the harsh reality, and it what makes beauty such a poor investment. Can we truly say we have dismantled the dangerous beauty standards we grew up with for something better? Or have we simply repackaged the old ideals with new ones we can purchase? One that sells its self as attainable?
This is why investing in beauty standards will never be sustainable both immediately and in the long-term and it will cost you a far more valuable possession than your money: the ability to exist and be comfortable in your own skin.
Sometimes book club host, other times podcaster and more often an (incoherent) rambler on politics and social issues. Read more of my thoughts on Twitter: @H_thoughtcrimes and @whytrustme