Beauty: A Social Construct
By Tanisha Chauhan(28/08/2020 18:00 IST)
For me, “beauty” is anything and everything that brings solace to one’s soul and peace to one’s heart. It can be found in the simplest of things and gestures, like someone smiling with all their heart, the sound of someone talking about something they truly love or an act that expresses compassion and understanding.
But in today’s “modern” world when it comes to the topic of what makes a person beautiful, our society is immensely specific. It has created quite an intricate checklist which depicts what a “beautiful” person must look like. For women, having an hour-glass figure tops this checklist. While for men, attributes such as having a tall stature and a muscular physique are considered prerequisites.
We all know about this list, as we’ve heard about it our entire lives. We look in the mirror every day and in our reflection we see the boxes we do not check.
But how often do we stop to wonder that why is this “the list”? Why is there any list at all? Why must we have to fill boxes to be beautiful?
People seem to see the idealisation of this list as natural, biologically determined and fixed. While in reality, this is a myth.
Historically, the idealised beauty standards have greatly shifted back and forth throughout the centuries. These show further variation according to different cultures, places and countries.
In Japan women have their teeth cosmetically un-straightened because there crowded teeth are seen as endearing. While in a tribe in Indonesia pointed teeth are considered attractive, so they sharpen their teeth with files.
In Ethiopia’s Karo tribe women scar their bellies as a form of sacred ceremonial tattoo that is seen as very attractive.
In the 19th century, women in Europe wore corsets, which were garments that squeezed their waists into tiny shapes, while in Mauritania girls were sent to “fat camps” to eat ten thousand calories a day because in their country, stretch marks were seen as the height of attractiveness.
Likewise, different cultures have different standards of beauty for men.
The point I’m trying to make here is that there is no specific definition of beauty. What is attractive for one person might not be so for another. We are all different individuals and therefore what we see as beautiful will always vary. Just like we can never be a community of identical individuals, we can never have a generalised eye for beauty.
An ever-changing list depicting the “ideal” beauty standards has been there since quite a long time, and its existence is probably not going to stop any-time in our immediate future either. Therefore we must learn to look past the list and be content with who we are and how we look. Those who can’t see what is beautiful about us aren’t really worth the trouble.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”
-Margaret Wolfe Hungerford
Beauty lies in uniqueness. There are no imperfections when it comes to the looks of a person. We wouldn’t see certain attributes about ourselves as “imperfections” if we weren’t reminded every day by our society and mass media that they are so.
One must learn to accept that this is their body and in its own way it is perfect, even with all the so-called “imperfections”.
“I think what we need in this world is body positivity. Instead of bringing each other down, try to give each other a compliment. If you see someone you know and they have nice hair, tell them. It’s not that difficult to create some kind of positivity.”
- Ira Querelle
Our society faces an immense lack of body positivity. This issue is ingrained in our day to day lives to such a large extent, that most of us end up judging and criticising ourselves about our looks, without even realising that in a way by doing so we are objectifying ourselves.
Self-objectification is the process of monitoring your body from an outsider’s perspective, picturing what you look like all day, even when no-one is looking at you.
Studies show, if individuals are in a state of self-objectification they perform worse on math and reading comprehension tests. They can’t throw a soft-ball as hard or run as fast or lift as heavy of weights, as they can when they are not self-conscious about their bodies.
If even a small part of our mental energy is constantly dedicated to our looks, we are at a disadvantage.
Self-objectification eventually leads to the formation of a negative body image.
Our body image is the way we see ourselves and how we imagine the way we look. Having a negative body image can result in self-worth issues, body-shame and self-consciousness.
For many people these feelings result in harmful coping mechanisms like self-harm, abuse of alcohol or drugs and disordered eating (over 25% of teenage girls in India suffer from eating disorders).
Eating disorders are a range of psychological conditions that cause unhealthy eating habits to develop. Their cause often revolves around an obsession with food, body weight, or body shape.
Perceived pressures to be thin, cultural preferences for thinness, and exposure to media promoting such ideals are also potential causes. Two of the most common of these disorders are:-
Anorexia Nervosa: People with this disorder generally view themselves as overweight even if they’re dangerously underweight. They tend to constantly monitor their weight, severely restrict their calories, and engage in purging behaviours such as forced vomiting, fasting, and excessive exercise.
Bulimia Nervosa (Bulimia): Individuals with this disorder tend to go through episodes of uncontrollable binge-eating. They then attempt to purge in order to compensate for the calories consumed. People with this disorder usually maintain a normal body weight.
Although eating disorders can affect people of any gender at any life stage, they're most often reported in adolescents and young women.
Our mass media has promoted the “ideal” beauty standards to such a large extent that young minds are often pushed into a harsh cycle of body-shame and self-consciousness issues, without even realizing the society and mass media’s role in the burgeoning of those feelings.
They often feel like their body is warped to the extent that no-one would ever like them. This is one of the most dreadful feelings a person can feel about themselves, and absolutely no-one deserves to feel this way.
In a research conducted by a non-profit organisation called “Beauty Redefined”, a 13 year old girl stated the following-
“I used to cut myself. Well, my last time doing that was yesterday.
But I did it because I was bullied every day about my looks. I was told that nobody would ever like me because of how I looked”
Many people resort to the method of “hiding and fixing” to deal with self-consciousness.
Hiding refers to avoiding social interactions, events and activities i.e. situations where one’s self-consciousness would be at its highest. This leads to a drop in a person’s confidence in social situations and missed opportunities for personal and professional growth.
Fixing refers to trying to “fix” what one thinks is wrong with the way they look. More often than not, the person resorting to this method doesn’t feel “fixed” even after all their best efforts. This is because the real problem here is self-objectification instead of the “imperfection” the person sees in themselves.
Hiding and fixing, doesn’t really allow a person to fight against body-shame. It just helps them to adapt to it. As the problem here was never the person’s body, but their body image.
This is not to suggest that working on one’s health isn’t a great thing. It is quite an admirable thing to work on one’s fitness and to try hard to have a healthier lifestyle. But the purpose of this should be one’s own personal development, and not social validation.
Another aspect of this issue is that, most of us judge ourselves in ways that have a lot to do with how we look (i.e. in comparison with the “ideal” body) and very little to do with our actual health.
Studies show, that a person’s level of physical activity is actually a much better indicator of their health and fitness, than their Body Mass Index (BMI), their weight, their size or any other external measurement.
“We need to redefine beauty for ourselves in ways that are better for our health, and redefine health for ourselves in ways that have nothing to do with beauty.”
If we put this ideology into action, health and fitness would become something which is so much more achievable and empowering. We’ll be able to focus on what our bodies can do, how we feel and our internal vitals and health, rather than focusing on whether we can fit into that old pair of jeans in the back of our closet or whether we have six pack abs.
We should see our body as an instrument to be used towards living our lives to the fullest, rather than an ornament to impress others.
We must learn to see more in others than what their body looks like. When we learn to see people as more than their bodies, only then will we be able to perceive ourselves as more than our own body. When we learn to see more, we’ll be able to be more, because then we can focus all our energy towards being our true selves without the dark cloud of body-shame constantly hovering over our heads.
People should be given the freedom to express themselves however they please to, be it through fashion or makeup or anything else. People should not be forced to leave their individuality in order to resemble the “idealised” beauty standards.
We as a society must centre back to the real meaning of beauty, which lies in uniqueness and individuality. We have to understand that beauty is not something that can be generalised and put into boxes. We must abolish this “checklist” that has haunted our confidence and self-worth throughout our lives. We should evolve into a society that upholds originality and values individuals for who they really are.
- Personal views and observations