Beauty That Doesn’t Exist

The other day I had a conversation with a man who felt women had no one but themselves to blame for their suffering. I don’t mean suffering of the violent and/or sexual kind, I mean the cosmetic kind, the fashionable kind—the type of suffering that is (as my mother would say) “the price of vanity.”

Why do women wear short skirts and then complain that they’re cold? Why do they bemoan their foot pain, but still choose stilettoes? And why does anyone else (men and/or “society”) get blamed for all this? They’re grown-ups. They’re autonomous. They are free to choose differently. That’s my understanding of his viewpoint, at least.

I am a woman who daily tries to divest myself of society’s destructive claims to my appearance. I refuse to believe that fashion should (or must) be painful. I reject the idea that makeup is a staple. And I denounce all those commercials with ulterior motives. You know the ones I mean. They’re the advertisements that make it sound as though your body’s contours need to be camouflaged, aging is a disease, gray hairs are adversaries, and your natural complexion is unworthy of being seen.

How have we allowed ourselves to become convinced that the natural is nefarious? Why do we fight so hard against our bodies—the unaltered presentation of ourselves? We dye our hair to look like someone else or younger versions of ourselves. We cover our faces with powders and creams to obfuscate our unique characteristics, which we’ve collectively relabeled “flaws” instead of “inconsistencies” or “differences.” We squeeze ourselves into corsets and Spanx® until the silhouettes of our bodies are lies. We damage our knees, backs, and feet to wear shoes that someone else first told us we should like.

We suffer to look beautiful because we first created an ideal of beauty that doesn’t exist in nature. We want to look young and/or flawless forever. And there is a whole host of companies happy to oblige our obsession. All those products that profess to improve your appearance are (sometimes subtlety and sometimes not) implying that without them you look worse. That’s a subliminal erosion of your self-confidence. That first hit is free because it’s a hook for dependence.

So whose fault is it? Do you blame commercials or the women who are coerced by what they see? Do you blame the celebrities or the fans that emulate them? Do you blame “the man” or the woman who seeks to attract him? Do you blame the image and the people who created it or the masses who attempt to replicate it?

I blame all of us. Society has a current. We all contribute to its flow. Some of us are in agreement. Others of us are at odds. We, as individuals, come together to create the collective. And that collective, even while being comprised of some dissenters, has a hegemonic aesthetic, priority, and opinion regarding everything. Your personal preferences may differ, but there is a collective idea of what is beautiful. You may make different choices for yourself, but there are societal norms for how one should speak, act, and look. And some of us feel more pressured than others to conform.

The tricky part is that since we’re all collectively responsible, it’s hard to feel personally accountable. We blame society, but rarely include ourselves. We say “they” have done this or that. We rarely think, “I contribute as well.” Unfortunately, no one’s hands are completely clean, even those that are scrupulously well meaning.

Example: I was recently watching a documentary about modeling. It included interviews with models from various decades. One woman, who later worked as an agent, described how often (in the spirit of diversity) someone planning to use dozens of women for a fashion show would call and ask her to send one exceptional black model—one. A perfect example of how better than nothing is not good enough.

What’s the solution? I have no idea. I mean, I believe it starts with us getting mad and taking a stand. To be honest, I’m surprised more women aren’t fed up. Why are we suffering for fashion or beauty when we could decide that our natural (comfortable) selves are good enough?

All I have to do to get angry is think about the money—the literal price of vanity. How much am I going to spend on dye so that the world never knows I’ve got gray hair? Not one penny. Who will become rich off of my guilt-ridden (yet seldom used) gym membership? Nobody. Will I purchase magazines that encourage me to diet and deny myself sustenance to fit into a mold that doesn’t represent the majority? Nope. Am I okay with making anti-aging cream and cosmetic companies wealthy at the expense of my self-esteem? Absolutely not!

It’s both a personal and a communal battle. We as individuals need to take a look at whose standards we’re straining to achieve. Sure, some are worthwhile. Let’s all aspire to be happy and healthy. But why should I deny or disguise my natural appearance? Why should I hurt myself by applying or ingesting poisons in pursuit of an unrealistic aesthetic? If it isn’t making me stronger, healthier, or happier, I reject it.

Let’s support each other and the breadth of humanity’s natural beauty. Let’s stop looking for our goals and guidance among illusions—ads, television, and movies. Every age and area of the world will have it’s beauty ideal—put pretty on a pedestal as it sees fit. That’s human nature, and it’s actually not the problem I have a problem with. The thing to avoid is idealizing the ideal until it no longer resembles anything real and then imposing those unrealistic standards of appearance on the masses. The problem isn’t the preference; it’s disseminating it as though it’s mandatory.

Whether in television, film, commercials, or any other visual medium, women of every shape, size, and color should be affirmed and feel represented. It is harmful to perpetuate an unrealistic or monolithic ideal. No one should feel shackled to something as subjective as an aesthetic or beholden to beauty standards that are illusory at best.

The world is diverse. Every body is different, and that’s as it should be. Yes, you’re entitled to your own definition of beauty’s epitome. You simply can’t convince me that your ideal is compulsory. I will fight against all attempts to homogenize women’s bodies and dilute diversity. And if you don’t like the way I look, that actually has nothing to do with me.