Hello again (I know it’s been a while). I haven’t been writing as much as I would have liked recently because I’ve been adjusting to a new job, the loss of a family member, and picking myself up after a few “down” weeks. But here I am – trying to regain some sense of balance in my life and find my footing again, part of which involves me making time for things I enjoy – AKA writing on here.
I’ve been meaning to write a post like this for some time now because I feel like it’s important to challenge yourself to think critically about how we define “beauty” and what it means. I’ve previously written about our cultural fear/obsession with “fat” (and here) but now I want to widen the conversation to consider international beauty ideals over time.
I recently shared a great post talking about how societal pressure and structural oppression contribute to the development of eating disorders and while I, personally, don’t face quite the same marginalization that many others do (and cannot speak for members of these especially-stigmatized these groups) I am a woman in today’s Western society who necessarily feels these social pressures and I can begin to question the status quo and advocate for others like myself.
Opening up this dialogue and questioning our widespread beliefs has been a huge part of my recovery journey so far, and I think I am slowly beginning re-align my life with my true values.
- I don’t think appearances are that important (but I know they are valued).
- I don’t love my family or friends for what they look like but for who they are (and I hope they think the same of me).
- Beyond using fashion as a form of self-expression, I don’t believe that the way someone looks necessarily reflects who they are or their lifestyle (and I think making judgments in this vein is misguided).
- There’s more than one way to be “beautiful” and I have started to see beauty in so many places I never could before.
- I don’t think we owe attractiveness to anyone nor is “beauty” some sort of moral obligation. However, we do owe it to ourselves to learn to accept what is natural for us (and for others).
“Beauty isn’t the price we pay for a occupying a space marked “female”.” – Erin McKean
The nature of the society we live in makes recovery from an eating disorder so inherently counter-cultural that some small part of you has to be ready to rebel. Although, admittedly, being a thin, cis-gendered, white female makes going against the grain a fair bit easier for me. I do not believe that you can recovery from an eating disorder and stay invested in diet culture.
For me this whole process has required me to challenge many of my pre-existing beliefs and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Bear with me for this opinion/research piece didn’t turn out exactly as I had hoped. Not only am I slightly out of my element here broaching this social-political topic, but I also tend to want to say more not less, and I ran with many interesting aspects of this issue than I didn’t plan to address. I might post an updated, more concise version in the future but for now….those of you who are brave… enjoy. I hope it makes you think.
The fact is, in some way everyone one of us has been made to feel inferior, and every one of us has had a moment of feeling like we aren’t good enough (which is human nature of course) but I would argue that this has almost become a pathological in today’s society. It’s frighteningly commonplace to have our insecurities exploited. I’m not trying to turn you all into an angry mob who will rise up and revolt against The Man, but I am urging you to consider who profits off of your insecurities? What would happen tomorrow if everyone woke up and was suddenly completely content with themselves and the way they looked?
Commercial industries convince us of our flaws and then sell us products to “fix” them. They try to eradicate what is otherwise normal human diversity, and they make money doing it. Pretty much everywhere you look (relationships, health, recreation, finances, work, education, wherever) you can feel this omnipresent message of “Do more. Have more. Do better. Be better”. As if somehow who you are is not enough and only by changing will you ever be happy or successful.
Looking at it from an eating disorder perspective its no wonder people take things out on their bodies as its just one of many places we’ve been shown a standard and been led to feel morally obligated to achieve it. As someone who also struggles with anxiety, depression, and perfectionism, I’d say I probably belong to a population particularly vulnerable to enculturation, but its obviously more than just eating disorders and more than just us.
We all experience pain and failure (especially given the pressures and unrealistic standards we face nowadays) and sometimes the “ideals” we see can seem like they offer us a safe place from it all (where we can be happy, successful, or untouchable) but this isn’t the case. In fact, we often feel obligated to embark on this path of self-improvement and end up on the never-ending hunt for satisfaction, pretty much guaranteeing we’ll never find it.
So my questions to you are:
Who gets to decide that what is natural for you isn’t as good as what’s natural for someone else?
Who gets to tell you that you’re not good enough?
Are appearances REALLY something we can (or should) use to draw conclusions about a person?
I’m not going to pretend I have the answers, because I’m asking generally to initiate a conversation.
Importantly, I’d also like to note that this issue can’t be entirely separated from larger societal and feminist issues, but for now I’m going to do my best to highlight the fact that humans have conceived of beauty in so many different ways throughout our history it is therefore 100% possible for you to do so too.
A History of “Beauty”
Looking at art (and more recently media) we can tell that there have been dramatic changes in what is considered an “ideal” female body. Notedly, we can also examine the impact of these standards and their evolution over time to see just how negatively they can influence people’s physical, mental, and social well-being.
Early Preferences – Full of Life
For example, this statue from Palaeolithic times portrays a woman with a bulging stomach and large breasts, likely representing the beauty of features that signify fertility and the creation of life. Bonafini & Pozzilli (2010) estimate this woman would have a BMI of over 30 – something we would nowadays classify as “Obese” (I won’t get in to the problems with the body mass index right now, but I put a few links down below to introduce you to some areas that have sparked recent controversy).
A full figure and exaggerated feminine features continued to be prominent between the 1400s and 1700s when the ideal women was full-bodied with a round face (and as you can see depicted by Botticelli below).
For some time, non-Westernized, “traditional” settings (including Islanders of the South Pacific, Kenyans, and Ugandans) maintained preferences quite different from the slim-ideal that subsequently began to popularize Westernized cultures. In these nations, until the 20th century, we still see appreciation of fatness and its associated with high-status, fertility, authority, and wealth (Swami, 2013).
The Western Take-Over
The 19th century however, is when we began to see standardization of Western female beauty and perpetuation of unnatural standards with the popularization of corseting and the idea of having to work to manipulate your body into something other than its natural form.
Throughout the 19th century there were two combatting Western ideals (see images below). One of healthy*, full-figured, “voluptuous” women (Renoir) and the other – a frail, slight women with small features (noted to have an unhealthy/sickly appearance) (Calogero et. al 2005).
We saw gradual changes in trends hereafter where these two ideals morphed to create the “Gibson Girl” (Left) – with a slender in waist but full hips and breasts,
followed by the “Flapper Era” after World War I, with new fashions and less emphasis on the female figure.
The shift towards favouring slim bodies, significantly proliferated by the advancement of mass media, modernization, and Westernization, coincides with increased prevalence of eating disorders in the latter half of the 20th century, and by the 1990s the Western “beauty ideal” essentially was the “slim ideal”.
Now, our current perception of an ideal weight for women ranges between a BMI of 18-20 (or less) – numbers that have been associated with increased risk of death and suicide (Bonafini & Pozzilli 2010).
Several independent studies have shown that body dissatisfaction in women is considered the norm in Western cultures. The NORM! Isn’t it just heartbreaking to know that the majority of young children are going to grow up to hate their bodies?! It just feels so ridiculous to me that for someone to be satisfied with their appearance, or to dare-I-say-it, not even worry about it, is the EXCEPTION.
It’s more common to be so dissatisfied with your physical appearance that it actually interferes with you living your life (Calogero et. al. 2007).
While we know there are more factors involved in the development of eating disorders than body image alone, it has been well-documented that body dissatisfaction and sociocultural pressures correlate with increased incidences of disordered eating (Garner et al., 1980).
While I know this sounds like a lot of negatives, but I’m hoping that by highlighting the diversity of what has been considered “beautiful” over human history, you may be able to begin to conceive of beauty where you couldn’t before.
Be a critical consumer. Take it with a grain of salt when someone tells you that looking one way is the best way.
How do we Decide on “Beauty”?
There are several theories that attempt to explain why beauty ideals seem to stick with us so strongly and why we generally pursue them. Some suggest that they represent evolutionarily-desirable features like fertility, others say they reflect the distribution of social power, or even play a part in negotiating gender roles. However, for whatever reason (or combination thereof) society adopts female beauty ideals, they are all based on the assumption that this “beauty” signifies something more than just external physical appearance (Calogero et al). Maybe if we learnt to act as if this weren’t the case (because for the most part its not) we could begin to distance ourselves from the toxic effects of what it means to be constantly striving to measure-up and fighting with others who are doing the same.
Easier said than done of course. It’s human nature to cast judgements – to try and make sense of the world by dissecting it into smaller pieces. Noticing patterns could have once meant the difference between life and death, maybe recognizing rotten meat could have saved you from fatal food poisoning. Beauty ideals may have once reflected evolutionarily-desirable traits but our current standards that promote ill-health are undoubtedly unfavourable. Natural and sexual selection don’t operate as they once might have for us. Nowadays we have a more even playing field. In Western cultures, we don’t often decide to generously reproduce with everyone who looks fertile nor do symmetrical features primarily predict our resilience to disease – access to healthcare does.
What assumptions do you make about physical attractiveness? Do they impose barriers on relationships with others? How can you actively challenge them?
More than just a Pretty Face?
We make assumptions about people all the time. People tend to believe that beauty correlates with “goodness”. We react better to things we consider “attractive” – the definition of which is largely societal.
While evolutionarily there might have been a correlation between the beauty ideal and health, we know the two hardly coincide anymore. Even though we might still jump to numerous (unfounded) conclusions, beauty constructs actually do reflect more than the way someone looks. As it turns out, it’s just not what we usually think.
No matter how our beauty standards evolve, we also know that what we consider to be the ideal appearance is a reflection of larger societal norms and values – the negative consequences of which are apparent. It appears however, that while this could have come about advantageously, researchers note that the Western Thin-Ideal packages with it consumerism, the idealization of youth, our commendation of beauty for beauty’s sake, and the idea that our physical bodies can and should be changed in the name of morality and health (Swami, 2013).
Bet you didn’t think of that when you picked up a copy of Vogue of the magazine rack…
Regardless of why or how these ideals come about, there is no denying that the extremes we now favour are not only completely unrepresentative of the general population, but also have adverse effects on both women and men (Calogero et. al. 2007).
As we’ve seen, its common for one small idea to snowball faster than evidence can be provided to substantiate it, and likewise the introduction of arbitrary classifications of height and weight for insurance companies and subsequent fear-mongering (sparked in part by the discovery of trans and saturated fats) pushed for thinness to be portrayed as associated with health when in reality, this is actually the opposite (Bonafini & Pozzilli, 2010).
It is now being suggested that it is healthier to be over-weight than underweight and people who fall into the “over-weight” BMI category are more likely to live longer (Afzal et. al. 2016).
On the other hand, I would also like to point out that while we might argue about weight and its correlates, physical health isn’t something we should be morally-obligated to achieve.
So… Who Cares?
If we are encouraging or supporting a body-ideal that was in fact associated with better health, it wouldn’t be the one we currently idolize, and this might have fewer negative consequences. I’m all for promoting good mental and physical health, but it appears our current standards are at odds for both. So yes, it might be safer for people to pursue a more realistic ideal that doesn’t take us as far away from who we truly are or what our body naturally wants to do, but if we leave the decision in someone else’s hands, we will forever be surrendering our own power. Because neither your health (physical or mental) nor your appearance, actually has anything to do with your worth as a person.
So I guess my point is, not only is there little scientific evidence for why our ideal should be what it is, nor can we accurately judge someone’s health by the way they look, but why bother judging someone’s appearance at all?! Doesn’t it all just seem a little futile?!
For people with body-dissatisfaction or body dysmorphia, it can be hard to imagine seeing your body any differently, but I hope this post illustrates that it is possible. What is natural for your body was very likely in fashion at some point in time in some culture. Why put up with people telling you it’s not now?
If our definition of beauty is such a fickle thing, I hope you begin to think twice before letting it in the driver’s seat. Decide for yourself how you want to live.
If we tend to (erroneously) associate beauty with “goodness” (Calogero et. al. 2007) and we have the capacity to see beauty in everything – what does it really mean? Will you open yourself up to welcoming more good into your life? Knowing we have these biases is the first step to attempting to act without them.
Women have largely strived to achieve what was considered “desirable” since ancient Egypt and 4,000 years later, this is still the case, but I think it’s time to adopt a different ideal and maybe start allowing for some healthy variation. After all, the role of women in society has changed a great deal over these 4,000 years. Maybe thats a sign that we stop pouring our energy into becoming something we’re not.
What else could you focus your time and energy one if you weren’t so preoccupied with food or weight?
We have been taught to associate attractiveness with good, but we can learn that there’s much more depth to it than that.
We have been taught to see one form of beauty, so we can be taught to see another.
We need a different teacher.
(in no particular order or citation style sorry… but hopefully with all relevant information you need to continue reading)
1. This book pretty much says everything I wish I could but better – Matt Haig, Notes on a Nervous Planet
2. An excellent introduction to the resistance of capitalism and our society’s toxic ideals- The Nap Ministry
3. Garner, D., Garfinkel, P,, Schwartz, D., Thompson, M. 1980. Cultural expectations of thinness in women. Psychological Reports. 47., 483-491.
4. National Public Radio, – BMI
5. Shoaib Afzal, MD, Anne Tybjærg-Hansen, MD, Gorm B. Jensen, MD. et al. 2016. Changes in body mass index associated with lowest mortality in Denmark. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.4666
6. Science Alert review of above: “The Healthiest Weight Might Actually be “Overweight” Massive Study Finds.”
7. Swami Viren. 2013. Cultural influences on body size ideals. Unpacking the impact of westernization and modernization. DOI: 10.1027/1016-9040/a000150.
8. Bonafinni B., Pollizzi, P. 2011. Body weight and beauty: the changing face of the ideal female body weight. Obesity Reviews. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2010.00754.x