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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


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

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