How mainstream beauty standards are hurting us
Beauty is only skin deep; or so goes the saying, implying as it does that true beauty lies within.
This maxim was the work of Sir Thomas Overbury who waxed lyrical about the manifold charms of his wife in a poem written in 1613. Renaissance man Overbury was writing at a time when women who today would be fat-shamed were favoured. In other words, he believed a woman’s beauty was greater than the sum of her parts. If only.
Body beauty is a moveable feast. Transgender artist Ela Xora notes how in ancient Greece and Rome, despite the archetypes and binarised notions of beauty that were quite literally set in stone through sculpture and literature, a spectrum of anthropomorphic beauty was also recognised. “During noteworthy periods in the Greek and Roman eras intersex bodies were considered divine, ‘marvels’ or objects of delight.” The same cannot be said of the increasingly rigid contemporary notions of physical aesthetics. Like many who are intersex (ie born with primary and/or secondary sex characteristics that are neither strictly male nor female), Ela was physically attacked and verbally mocked at school because she didn’t develop or present along the expected heteronormative male sex and gender trajectory.
Beauty and body image have long been mainstays of traditional women’s magazines, latterly becoming a battleground on social media platforms, ensnaring children of primary school age. Single lesbian mum Kay says her six-year- old tells her daily that she doesn’t like her legs. “She thinks they are fat. They are perfectly healthy, round thighs that come down from a gorgeous curvy bottom. She is black British, physically strong and beautifully healthy, but all around her are ads with white models.”
The advertising, fashion, media and beauty industries all play a role in perpetuating the idealisation of slim, white, normatively-gendered and abled bodies through adverts and supporting editorial content that capitalises on our insecurities. In 2011 psychotherapist Susie Orbach and colleagues launched a global campaign called Endangered Species to challenge the toxic promotion of negative body image. The aim? “To save future generations from the misery that turns people against their own bodies.” Partnering with Orbach, DIVA ran a competition for ad agencies to interpret the campaign’s key message. The winning entry, by Manchester agency Red C, featured a cherubic, white baby on a bed with the strap line, “Is this the happiest she’ll ever be about her appearance?” The ad was an accurate – albeit heart-sinking – observation about the troubled relationship m many women and girls have with their bodies as a result of normative beauty ideals. Six years on, Orbach believes the situation is conside erably worse. “We now have c cosmetic surgery apps for six-year- olds – hundreds of t them – which we are trying to g get Google, Apple and Amazon to remove because it is giving children the notion that body transformation via surgery is their future. The phenomenon of searching for likes and spending one’s day prepping a selfie with fancy lighting and photoshopping is pretty damaging. Display has replaced contribution and the body has become the way of negotiating the world, which is clearly an impossible proposition.” After decades of feminism, how can this be? Queer activist-academic MegJohn Barker explains that body image
HOW ARE UNREALISTIC BEAUTY AND BODY IDEALS HARMING US, ASKS JANE CZYZSELSKA?
is still an issue because “normative beauty ideals are like the air that we breathe, they are so omnipresent and insidious, it would be impossible not to be affected by them, and while they are certainly gendered, they impact on everyone, and have morphed over the years to encompass men and non-binary people as well as women, as well as people who are attracted to all different genders. They play out in different ways in queer spaces but they are still there, for example through femmephobia and/or fatphobia in some lesbian/bi spaces, hierarchies of passing in some trans spaces, or ideals of young, slim, white androgyny in nonbinary spaces.”
Artist and activist Stacy Bias felt adrift in a sea of thin female bodies and says the fact that she never saw bodies like hers represented in the media as objects of affection or desire impacted not only her self- esteem but the fundamental development of her sexual identity. “Imagine having so unquestioningly internalised the improbability of your own desirability that even your fantasy life is one-sided. Even in the safety of my own mind, I couldn’t bear to entertain the possibility of someone wanting me. I had never seen it modelled so it felt like something that just didn’t exist.”
The elevation of white idealised bodies left its mark on academic Sahra Rae Taylor who says the absence of people who look like her in the public arena affected her self- esteem as a child. “Looking in the mirror and seeing a brown face looking back, when all the successful people are white. I wish there had been heroes who looked like me. Not just because I’m trans, but because I’m mixed ethnicity – and I always felt lost and alone. Not a part of any community, not a part of any tribe, just alone and helpless. I think, after a while, a part of me closed off and I just stopped looking. I accepted that white was right. [ That] frustrates me now.”
As well as the policing of bodies in relation to race and size, the heteronormative gendering of idealised bodies has also taken its toll. Printmaker Pea Crabtree, 49, reflects on being a “hardcore tomboy” when she was eight, completely sure of her identity. “All that got skewed when my body changed at puberty, and there was a growing expectation to conform to a rigid, performative, feminine stereotype. The boys I played football with looked at me differently so there was no place for me there anymore. The pressure was everywhere... school, TV, family, magazines, the street. I didn’t have a single adult female role model for another way to look or be. So, I complied; lost the muscles, wore make-up, dresses, heels, shaved my legs, acquired a few boyfriends. I’ve never received such positive affirmation for the way I looked from family and friends as I did when I was faking it. The damage that did to my self-esteem went deep, it was only in later life, in therapy, I saw how badly it affected me.”
This drive to scrutinise our bodies, Meg-john Barker explains, is the product of living in a culture that encourages us all to focus on ourselves and others as a way of distracting us from seeing the bigger picture, from seeing how “wider social structures are the cause of our problems, not some individual flaws that we should be trying to fix”.
Citing the gay philosopher Michel Foucault, Barker points to two main focuses of this kind of power: normality and bodies. “We have become increasingly concerned with dividing people into ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ on the basis of sex, gender, race, class, mental health, disability, etc. The physical body has become very important as a part of this, with idealised images of every body-part, and a horror of ‘embarrassing bodies’, ageing bodies and sick bodies. There’s also a strong sense of individual responsibility for keeping our bodies young, fit, healthy, beautiful, sexy and functioning. This focus on our own normality and body [distracts us from the] wider structures and systems of oppression, and the cultural messages that are telling us that these things are important.”
Understanding the socio-political structure of our environment is a vital part of making sense of the way we think about our bodies, and our selves, says Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue and Bodies. “We are accustomed to thinking of minds as being influenced and shaped by those who raise us and the same thing occurs with our bodies. What’s problematic today is that the bodies of those who raise us have been under incredible assault from the beauty, fashion, food/diet industries who make huge profits by creating body insecurity. Thus the bodies of parents are themselves destabilised and their preoccupation with food and size can
arc the development of a baby’s body. Many women – not to blame them – find it hard to be easy with themselves around [this issue].”
Much of Orbach’s work has focused on the way we construct our identities. Extending paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s idea of the false self – the overdevelopment, under parental pressure, of certain aspects of the self at the expense of others – she has developed the concept of the false body, producing both a distrust of what emerges spontaneously from the individual, as well as a falsified sense of one’s own body. Orbach sees the female false body, in particular, as being built upon identifications with others, at the cost of an inner sense of authenticity and reliability. Breaking up a monolithic but false body-sense in the process of therapy can help clients to become aware of a range of authentic – even if often painful – body feelings.
Additionally, for those of us who are not cisgender or heterosexual, says queer psychotherapist Amanda Middleton, “having the experience of your sexuality, and consequently gender, being seen as non-normative can create more cracks for normative beauty standards to seep into our thoughts and views of ourselves. We are vulnerable to internalising ideals, like beauty standards, that could have us seen as ‘better’ or more worthy, because heteronormativity constantly sets us up as less than. This can lead to us feeling we need to work harder or be better at a whole range of things, including our bodies and looks”.
Arguably normative ideals have harmed many of us and the scars run deep. Textile artist Lydia Cawson, 31, tells how they developed extreme body dysphoria and anorexia nervosa as a result of pressure from their mother to look pretty and not look like a lesbian. In therapy at rehab where they received intensive in-patient recovery for their eating disorder, no one mentioned their gender dysphoria or anything about their LGBTQ identity. Today, although they have recovered from their eating disorder, Lydia still struggles with their gender identity and how their body fits within that.
All the people I spoke to for this feature have fought personal battles against normative ideologies since childhood. When asked what would have helped them feel more comfortable, their response was unanimous: to have been permitted to simply be themselves. In an image- obsessed and anxious age, it seems an almost impossible ask. There is hope though. Orbach’s Endangered campaign has had some wins, doing lots of work with young people and getting the emoticon “I feel fat” removed from Facebook. Gossip front-woman Beth Ditto has launched her second fashion collection, plus-size models like Felicity Hayward and Kelli Jean Drinkwater are gaining fans worldwide through campaigns, TED Talks and social media platforms. Fat activists such as Charlotte Cooper and Stacy Bias are raising awareness of fatphobia through their inspired art and activism.
Although it is hard to shake off the negative internalised voices, everyone I spoke with had valuable takeaways. “I think we are collectively clever enough these days to be critical of what we see in the media,” says Stacy, “but often we don’t take it that next step further: to ask what it is we’re not seeing, and why. We also rarely take time to stop and question our own likes and dislikes; to run self- critiques when we reflexively wrinkle our noses at particular bodies.
“My advice is to work on developing our critical skills both externally and internally, both as people with privilege and as people without, so that we can actively reject the inferences of our own invisibility and work as allies to engage with and encourage true inclusion in our media representation.”
Fifty- one-year- old PK advises: “Be your own best friend. By doing that, you’ll always have one.”
“Turn off that damn TV,” says Sahra. “Stop comparing yourself to those ultra-worked pictures in magazines and in adverts. You will never look like that – even they don’t look like that!”
Kay tells me that although her sixyear- old daughter has already started to worry about her body, she is lucky to have political people around her to undermine the negative images and give something positive instead. “The women of colour around her are stunning and clever and kind, and so much more than what an ad agency can come up with but [my child’s concerns] may say something about what she will expect from her career and life in the outside world.”
Amanda Middleton suggests we find images, messages, groups and communities that celebrate the body in all it wondrous forms and diversities. “Pay attention to how dominant ideas of beauty are largely based in a white heteropatriarchy and find ways to a dismiss this as a valid source for your ideas about yourself.”
The final word goes to Pea who states: “Authenticity is activism. Every time we leave the house looking like our true selves we could give someone else the courage to do the same. Every time we speak out in our true voices we might help someone else access theirs. Being happy in our own skins can make us all question our prejudices and privileges. It’s imperative we revel in our diversity.”
“Looking like our true selves could give someone else the courage to do the same”
Changing the picture: the advert that won a DIVA competition to challenge the ad industry’s pressure on women to conform to damaging beauty ideals