“Unattainable Standards of Beauty”

Balthus, Nude Before a Mirror, 1955

Balthus, Nude Before a Mirror, 1955

I have a pet peeve about this expression.

It tends to come up in articles that criticize media images of women, generally in fashion magazines and advertisements. The latest appearance is in an article about an Australian model who is rebelling against the label “plus size.”

“I am a model FULL STOP,” wrote Stefania Ferrario, a size 8 model described as “curvy” in the article. “Unfortunately in the modeling industry if you’re above a US size 4 you are considered a plus size, and so I’m often labelled a ‘plus size’ model. I do NOT find this empowering.”

The article concludes: “The fact that these are pictures of a supposed ‘plus size model’ shows how ridiculous and unattainable our beauty standards have become.”

Stefania Ferrario is the latest in a line of non-skinny models to make the bold declaration that she is beautiful as she is and that our standards of beauty are narrow.

Of course she is, and they are.

But arguing for a broader standard of beauty fails to question a deeply ingrained set of problematic cultural assumptions.

1. That it is vitally important that women be (or at least feel they are) physically beautiful. Note how the idea of beauty and the idea of power are linked in the model’s quote. Being called “plus size” is not “empowering.” A woman’s power is derived her physical attractiveness. Historically women had few options to achieve power in the world besides attracting a powerful man. This is no longer the case, but cultural assumptions are slow to change. We need to abandon this antiquated mindset.

2. It accepts the premise that pointing out a woman is larger than another (with the label “plus size”) is negative and shaming. You don’t have models taking a stand and saying “don’t call me a blonde model, I’m just a model” or “don’t call me a petite model, I’m just a model” because blondeness and petiteness are considered descriptive, neutral qualities.

3. It frames beauty as something that can– and should– be “attained,” generally through the purchase of fashion and consumer beauty products.

One of the first articles I ever published on this blog back in 2011 was called “In Defense of Beauty.”  What I wrote then bears repeating:

For some time American women, and to a lesser extent, men, have been made to feel threatened by images of beautiful people. We have been trained to see beautiful fashion models and actors as a commentary on our plainness. But why?

When exposed to a painting of a reclining nude in a museum, or a statue of Venus or Michelangelo’s David, we appreciate the physical beauty but we do not take it as a commentary on ourselves. We do not resent the artist for presenting an idealized physical form. We simply delight in its beauty…

Our deeply held assumption is that we are not only meant to look, we are meant to look like the beauties we see in media. Who said that? Who told you that someone else’s beauty is something you should strive to “attain?” My guess is that they were trying to sell you something.

The problem is not that models are beautiful. It is not even that they are impossibly beautiful—extraordinarily young, skinny and photoshopped. It is only our relationship to the images that is unhealthy and dangerous.  The danger is in our unshakable belief that our beauty ideal is aspirational, that perfection is something we should always strive towards.

What marketing does that museums do not is to transform our natural appreciation of a beautiful form into a push to buy a product. A model is presented with a call to action—buy my make up, buy my jeans. Advertisers create the implicit promise that not only can this beauty be contemplated, it can be imitated. And it is easy to do so, just buy the jacket, the perfume, the deodorant, the car. If it is so easy to become beautiful, if all you have to do is buy a shampoo, then it really is a personal failing if you don’t make the effort…

That is a shame, not only because of the way it makes us feel about ourselves, but also because it robs us of the joy of simple aesthetic appreciation of rare physical beauty. We should celebrate the capricious twist of genetic fate that creates a Heidi Klum, and be grateful that it occasionally happens.

We listen to musical virtuosos, not a class room full of music students, even though the virtuoso level is “unobtainable” by most people. We like to watch professional athletes performing at a skill level that is “unobtainable” by most people. Most people will never “obtain” the level of a professional ballet dancer at ABT, but that is exactly why we go to watch. Appreciation of the extraordinary and rare is not unhealthy or destructive.

Clothing stores want to sell you clothing. They do not care if they sell clothing by making you feel insecure or making you feel sexy. Whatever works.

This is why I instinctively question it whenever a company that wants to sell me something starts to coo about how beautiful I am at my real woman size. It is not that I don’t like to be told that I am lovely and that I’m included in the beauty party. Who doesn’t? But being called beautiful, while pleasant, is not my aim in life. It is not my primary source of self-esteem.

It helps marketers if we continue to believe that our power is tied to our physical beauty, that it is imperative that we are, or at least feel, beautiful, and that beauty is something that can and must be obtained (by buying their stuff). That state of affairs is good for them, but bad for us. Whether that message is packaged in aspirational or inclusive imagery, we need to question it.

It is not being plus size that takes away my power. It is taking cultural cues from companies who are only interested in selling stuff that takes away my power. Let them sell stuff. That’s their job. We need to shape the culture. That is ours.

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