Un-Standardizing Beauty

Originally published in Psyched Magazine.

I’ll admit, my inner critic (an Internet troll version of it) is telling me this is the kind of article ugly people write to make themselves feel better. It’s saying if I had more self-discipline, money, and time for diets, Soul Cycle and Lululemon gear, I wouldn’t need to kid myself with all this “everyone is beautiful” bullshit. But screw it. Because I know that “attractive people” and “ugly people” all suffer as a result of arbitrary and oppressive beauty standards. And because I know my Inner Troll is presenting me with exactly what I intend to stand up against. So, thank you Inner Troll for being such a f#%&ing inspiration.

In line at Whole Foods recently I noticed the “Women’s Health” magazine on the rack and was reminded of what I and many of us are reminded of constantly — that health has nothing to do with the inside and everything to do with how hot you look in a bikini (or Speedo). I frequently hear people confusing thinness with health even though there is growing evidence* showing that a fat person with a healthy lifestyle lives just as long as a thin person with a healthy lifestyle. And, yes, fat people with healthy lifestyles exist. And thinness isn’t healthy if you have to hurt yourself to get there. So the next time someone tries to equate their fat shaming with concern for someone’s health, keep this in mind.

Let’s also keep in mind how arbitrary and culture-bound these expectations are. For instance, “healthy weight” varies from culture to culture. And while people will starve themselves, chop their bodies to bits, and buy mass amounts of useless stretch mark creams in the US and elsewhere, young girls in some parts of the world are being plumped up to obtain those revered stretch marks and make them attractive enough for marriage. Just like many of the things we take for granted in our lives, the kind of beauty most talked about is very much a superficial construct and these constructs can be more damaging than we might want to believe.

Beauty standards aren’t simply a matter of personal taste. For one, they are created to sell products. To give a trite example from fashion, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s it was all about the flared or bootleg jean. “Tapered” pants were hideous relics of the 80’s and early 90’s. Don’t even get me started on high-wasted jeans. But several years later, in comes the skinny jean and god forbid you’d see me in a flare. Suddenly I truly believe a flared pant is unflattering on my body and a skinny pant is the correct way to go. But there is no objective truth in this!

Secondly, beauty standards are socio-political constructs. People used to drink arsenic to make their skin more pale because it implied something about their socio-economic status that they didn’t have to work out in the sun. The rules are arbitrary and there are always a ton of people whose genetics just won’t throw them a bone. If this were 17th century Europe, I’d totally be a model. My soft features and pale skin would communicate something quite different than they do now. And these standards speak to a hierarchical system in which value based on physical appearance is assigned in order to advance the objectives of some while by keeping others down.

In a moving article called “Why It’s More Than Just a Haircut”, Lanise Lywood, a young black woman, explains why she chose to cut off her long, straightened hair and instead keep it short, curly, and natural. She talks about how the beauty standards that impact black women are intricately linked to the slave trade and continued oppression of black people. Measuring people up as objects and determining their value based on appearance is demoralizing to anyone. Add to this the fact that how dark a person of color is absolutely impacts how they are treated by society. Black women have been fighting against their natural hair and purchasing skin lightening creams for decades just to feel more desirable and worthy in a world where white beauty standards dominate. Because of what she has learned about the history behind her beauty practices Lanise says:

“I have decided to reject those messages of inferiority, to stop feeling like I need to alter my appearance in order to make it up the ladder, and to embrace all aspects of what makes me who I am. Recently there have been more and more black women in leadership going natural & as a person who considers myself a leader and someone who is passionate about mentoring young women, I want them to see that it is possible to be successful without fitting into a pre-determined look.”

As I stare in the mirror I take myself in — noticing the contours of my body from head to toe, noticing the colors and textures in my skin, noticing the felt experience of standing in this body, in this present moment. Is there beauty here? Thoughts race through me, judging, evaluating, labeling. The texture there is cellulite. Cellulite bad. The curve there jiggles when I move. Jiggling bad. That tone there, with it’s pale, tans and yellows and pinks. Pale bad. How can I begin to reject these messages and find my own personal sense of beauty? This question has been a part of my growth process for a while now. This is an ongoing practice which requires constant intervention with my active mind — and my inner critic. It requires me to soothe the part of myself that wants so badly to know that I will be loved no matter what.

To begin de-standardizing beauty in your own life, here are some things to try:

  1. Encorporate a daily practice of body-awareness. I find sitting or moving meditations helpful. This takes me out of the judging zone and into the experiencing zone with my body. It helps me begin to appreciate aspects of my body I wouldn’t have noticed before, being so caught up in what’s wrong. Also, hug yourself, move your hands across your skin, sense your boundaries.
  2. Keep a critical mind about the “shoulds” you notice inside and outside regarding your beauty and your “health”. For instance, why do you think ___ lbs is the weight you should be? Where did you get that number? Is that realistic? Would it make you happy? Question the underlying assumptions that shape your picture of your ideal self.
  3. Support your friends and ask for support to challenge body-bashing and judging others based on appearance.
  4. People watch (on the bus, in the park, at a restaurant) and find someone you think is unattractive then try to see if you can find just one element of beauty in that person. It could be in a mannerism or a facial expression or the unique outfit they put together. (But don’t get caught staring!)
  5. Write and/or talk about what authentic beauty means to you.
  6. Write and/or talk about what health means to you.

My hope is that as human beings we will not evolve to a new standard of beauty in which my features are the ones that will win. Instead, I hope our evolution will bring us to a new standard of standardless beauty. Meaning, my beauty and worth will not be determined by arbitrary and superficial spoken or unspoken guidelines, but by a deep appreciation of the felt sense of being in the moment with myself and others. I will truly see health as engagement with life (and it’s range of suffering and joy) and that this, no matter how it looks, will be beautiful. I will be more than my snapshots. My individual beauty will be more than the sum of its parts. I will move my body and eat in ways that feel nourishing — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And I will support others in nourishing themselves as is right for them. When I look in the mirror I will see myself, unfettered by the lens of arbitrary standards, and I will know I am worthy of love.

*For more on that research I mentioned earlier about healthy fat people, check out this myth-busting book, Health At Every Size, by Linda Bacon, PhD, a woman with a delicious food in her name.
For more on reclaiming your authentic beauty, check out The Body Positive, an incredible organization in Berkeley, CA that’s spreading a body positive message to High School students and beyond. Their book, Embody, has inspired me to continue to challenge a system of oppression that is affecting us all.

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