Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Beauty – who sets the standards?

Human beings have always coveted beautiful objects, but the desire to look good  has spawned trillion Pula industries, inspired scientific researches and redefined race politics.

Who decided that tiny waists, big butts, fake lashes and tinted or drawn eyebrows were the attributes of feminine beauty? Was it a glossy magazine? A deified celebrity? Or was it the beauty industry, which is worth over $128 billion? Many think beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder rather that it may be in the eye of the advertiser.

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “From a very young age, women are raised to live up to unrealistic beauty standards put upon them by society. They are expected to be hairless all over their body, have to be slim with no tummy but big butt, smell like daisies and roses all the time and be an all-around perfect Barbie. It is hard to live up to something so unobtainable especially starting at an age as low as three. Having a normalized yet extraordinary societal implication drilled into you as soon as you are out of the womb is and can be mentally and physically draining. Technology has put the power to define beauty in the hands of the people. Mobile phones allow people greater control of their image, and include apps that come with filters used for fun, appearance, and entertainment.”

Our perception of beauty is guided by cultural influences and ideas of aesthetics determined by fashion dictates of that era. Women, and sometimes men, often go to ridiculous lengths and a lot of pain to achieve that elusive beauty ideal. One may ask if their idea of perfection is worth the price. Women have been experimenting with cosmetics and beauty aids since time immemorial. The goal is to appear sexually attractive in order to perhaps attract the most suitable mate or to just doll themselves up. We take a lot of effort to beautify and alter our appearance in order to appear more affluent and sophisticated. Religion influences beauty as well, for example Hinduism always portrays its Goddesses as beautiful. Therefore being beautiful is considered a godly quality. Ideal beauty has consistently been unattainable, and has led many to suffer through depression, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and even death.

Clinical psychologist, Dr Sophie Moagi says, “The daily lives of women are full of ghosts. Ghosts of their younger selves, whom they can never again become. Ghosts representing how their bodies and faces might age. Ghosts of perceived flaws that have been overcome, and of lost and remembered perfections. And there are ghosts of other women, strangers and acquaintances, serving as models of other ways to look and what to aspire to, what to avoid at all costs. Society needs to re-evaluate its beauty standards –  the acknowledgment that one does not have to choose a side in the false dichotomy that otherwise makes up the conflict against patriarchal standards for our bodies acceptance or change. The new understanding is that we each get to choose whether we change our appearance, with the hope that we make choices that are safe, healthy, and what we truly want.”

Another pattern that is consistent across the Eurocentric beauty timeline is the notion that in order to attain perfection, women have had to work to transform their bodies in some way – whether it was by fitting into a rib-snapping corset, dieting and exercising, or going under the knife. The multi-billion dollar industry counts on women wanting to change themselves to fit into some script, some image of ‘perfection’ that never exists.

Many African countries covet curves, and in Eastern Europe, they hold the philosophy of “more is more” – tons of makeup, fancy clothing, and over-the-top unnatural looks are what is considered beautiful. Ideal beauty has consistently been unattainable, and has led many to suffer through depression, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and even death. Let us fast forward to the present day, where big bums and inch-long eyelashes reign supreme. The 21st century has been defined as an era of choice and freedom of expression. Celebrities are now posting cellulite selfies and reclaiming the “flaws” they have been forced to cover up or Photoshop out of existence. While there have been certain moments in time when a more full body, or a plus size was seen as acceptable even desirable and the norm, for the most part, thinness has been idealized as the preferable body type. 

The fashion industry still needs to catch up. While there are exceptions, and we do see significant movement towards more ‘diverse’ bodies, it is still relevant to question why bigger women still have difficulties finding modern fashions at similar prices and the same stores as their straight-sized women counterparts.

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