Monday, June 22, 2009

Ideals and Varieties

Many feminists are critical of America's standards of beauty, and with good reason.  American beauty ideals are bizarrely restrictive, bound by arbitrary rules that have little to do with aesthetic value or genuine sex appeal.  Our society is incredibly intolerant of women with an ounce of extra flesh.  We're no kinder to the very thin; slender women are belittled as weak and anorexic, and reviled by their peers as "skinny bitches."  And while the Nordic ideal has lost ground in recent decades, our beauty standards remain hopelessly ethnocentric.  

America's unhealthy obsession with beauty has damaging consequences, for women and men alike.  We live in a culture that equates beauty with virtue, sexual desirability, and personal worth, and then sets the bar for physical "beauty" impossibly high.  The result?  A lot of unnecessary misery.  While concerns about physical appearance may seem petty to some, they can have a major impact on an individual's quality of life.  Body dysmorphia, an intense preoccupation with one's perceived physical flaws, is associated with a higher completed suicide rate than that which accompanies major depression.

It's tempting to blame our culture's obsession with physical appearance on our beauty icons: on fashion models, pop stars, and anime babes.  Those icons, and the ideals they represent, are certainly problematic.  Teen modeling, for instance, is a perversely terrifying industry.  Many celebrities maintain workout routines that would be life-destroying for most of us.  But while the stars may embody an absurd and destructive standard of beauty, I don't think that's what's really undercutting American women's self-esteem.

What's the Real Problem?

The problem that is that when it comes to beauty, we compare ourselves to the stars.  This isn't something most of us do in other arenas.  I don't care that Michael Phelps gets all kinds of media attention, because I understand that I don't have to live up to his example.  My thirty-minute workouts  are no less rewarding, simply because they seem paltry compared to the exploits of olympic athletes.  In a similar vein, I don't feel the need to measure my  intellectual achievements against those of Einstein or Gauss.  We all understand, at a fundamental level, that there's no shame in being imperfect.

Except, that is, when it comes to beauty.  Many of us, particularly young women and girls, compare ourselves to people for whom beauty is more-or-less a full-time job.  We do this at least in part because the media encourages us to do so.  We're told to imitate celebrities' hair and make-up, to be disgusted by Jennifer Love Hewit's negligible cellulite--and by extension, our own bodies.  And that's insane.

The problem, as I see it, isn't just that our culture idolizes a certain kind of beauty.  Yes, there are problems with that ideal. It's genuinely troubling, for example, that our conception of beauty is overwhelmingly White. That needs to change. But that doesn't mean that its necessary or even realistic to eliminate the concept of ideal beauty. Every culture has its own ideals, its own values. The mere existence of beauty ideals is, perhaps, an inevitable feature of any society. And ideals, by their very nature, are unattainable for the majority of the population.

The trouble is that we view any deviation from the beauty ideal as some kind of terrible flaw. We're almost never presented with positive media representations of women who fall outside the range of what's conventionally attractive.  It's problematic that fashion models are all rail-thin.  But it's perhaps more damaging that a restrictive standard of beauty holds for actresses in movies and on television, even those who nominally play ordinary women.  The message, here, is that any imperfection makes a woman unworthy to be seen.

What Can We Do?

 I don't think the answer is simply to lambast the mainstream media--as satisfying as that might be.  We won't bring about the revolution by demonizing barbie, or Miss America, or Brittany Spears.  Instead, perhaps we should focus on creating and popularizing positive representations of women who fall outside the norms of conventional attractiveness.  It's all very well to say that we shouldn't slavishly adhere to an artificial beauty ideal.  But that statement is only meaningful when we have a real alternative: when we can envision a healthier, more inclusive definition of  beauty.  

That's why I get really excited about sites like (NSFW).  Yes, these are pictures of fat women, and they may not appeal to everyone.  But the photographer clearly strives to portray her subjects as beautiful, strong, and empowered.  And for me, the images work.  Sure, America may idolize thin women.  But the women in these photographs refuse to be bound by those narrow ideals.  They are beautiful in their own way, on their own terms. 

I think we need to find ways to re-imagine what it means to be beautiful--regardless of size, shape, skin color, or clothing budget.  We need to recognize that everyone has physical "imperfections," and that that's okay.  Each of us is beautiful enough.

P.S. A major shout-out to any of you who caught the math pun in the title.  Commutative algebra has colonized my brain this week.

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