The Ugly Side of Beauty: Oppression and Appearance
Like many other women, I fell prey to the oppressive standards of beauty. But it is not just mentally exhausting to keep chasing an unattainable ideal: beauty standards are discriminatory and further marginalise the people in society that are already underprivileged.
In my experience, growing up as a woman in a culture that values your looks as much as ours does, you are made aware very early on what the societal expectations for your appearance are. My earliest memory of my mother telling me to have a more ‘ladylike’ posture is from a birthday party at 5 years old, a word that has been repeated to me and many other young girls growing up more times than we can remember. We instil so much value in how women visually present themselves that it’s truly no wonder so many young women internalise that their worth is completely dependent on how they look, and often spend inordinate amounts of time, money, and effort ensuring that they are looking their absolute best at all times.
From fad diets to always having to buy the trendiest clothes, young girls are constantly pressured into very unhealthy behaviours and beliefs at the expense of their true potential. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with being interested in beauty or fashion — which can be incredible creative outlets for self-expression — it is good to ask oneself where your standards of beauty come from and whether they reflect your own values. I found myself questioning the teachings of my own mother about how is acceptable to appear or act like as a woman. Once you start noticing the implicit messages about beauty standards in your own surroundings and more widely in society, it is difficult to ignore how pervasive they are.
Beauty at the cost of justice
For me, breaking free from self-limiting beliefs about beauty standards — albeit a long process, since we are socialised this way since birth — took another level of depth when I made the connection with how beauty is used to oppress not only women, but almost all minorities. Thinking about looks appears a lot less frivolous when interrogated in this way: the perception of ‘proper womanhood’ and how to present or perform one’s gender as feminine can be used as a transphobic standard, for example. Furthermore, our current beauty standards for women stem from colonialism, and remain extremely Eurocentric and racist. We have previously written about colourism and how harmful privileging whiteness as an ideal of beauty is. The racist roots of our beauty standards even extend to food, as diet culture historically labelled non-European cuisines as ‘unhealthy’ and demonised non-white bodies. Fatphobia in our society manifests in not only discrimination of people in larger bodies, but also in soaring eating disorders.
The pressures of beauty negatively affect everyone, even if they are protected from appearance-based discrimination through their various privileges. It is mentally exhausting to constantly keep up with expectations of perfection. Crucially, this is not a fear that exists solely in one’s head: the professional capabilities of politicians who are women are more often judged on the basis of their appearance, whereas their male counterparts do not have to live up to the same expectations. For many women, not paying attention to their external presentation poses a real risk of being exposed to misogyny and marginalisation. Perpetuating insecurity of women benefits the profitable beauty and weight-loss industries, and every time women have somehow gained economic or political power in history, standards of beauty get stricter and stricter. Our current beauty ideals stand in the way of social justice, in both its demands and its power to preoccupy women’s attention from true liberation.
Unlearning beauty oppression
The question that arises is obvious: how do we combat these oppressive beauty standards? It seems clear that so-called ‘choice feminism’, whereby any choice that a woman makes is deemed inherently feminist, as it is assumed as an expression of autonomy without considering the societal conditions and structured behind that decision, is inadequate to counter the pressures of beauty. At the same time, we cannot judge anyone who would rather adhere to standard expectations of beauty to access certain privileges in society: indeed, for some, traditional gender expression can well be a question of life and death. Therefore, rather than attacking anyone who shaves their body hair for instance, we should seek to resist the structural oppression of women, particularly that of women of colour, trans women, and women in bodies that are discriminated against.
For me, this started with exposing myself to a more diverse range of beautiful people — traditional and social media are saturated by thin, white, able-bodied, wealthy models, so merely breaking away from that can be helpful in diversifying your own idea of ‘beauty’. Moreover, I try to be extremely careful in perpetuating ideals of beauty that are harmful: for example, I avoid commenting on anyone’s body size (including my own) and, rather than paying attention to features that one is born with, try compliment someone’s choice of clothes instead, or something entirely unrelated to their appearance. While we undeniably live in a society where one’s appearance unfortunately does matter and recognising one’s privilege in this sense is extremely important, at the end of the day, we are all way more than our looks. Although I genuinely think that the people I love are beautiful all in their own ways, that is not the reason I think they are amazing people.
We at JAN Trust stand against all kinds of oppression and marginalisation, including discrimination based on one’s looks. Beyond the prevailing beauty standards, we know that for example visible expression of religion is often a reason hijabi women are discriminated against. Women have so much to give irrespective of their looks, and we want to encourage, educate and empower them to harness their full potential. In order to do so, we all must resist marginalisation of people based on their appearance.