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The Real Problems with Beauty Standards: How They Harm Women

by Angelie Rodriguez

From just a wee little seed in the ground, to an adorable little sprout, a flower grows and grows. But suddenly, it stops. It wants to bloom--but it can’t. In a way, this flower is burdened by the word “beautiful.” Because it feels like it’s not good enough to grow along with its other fully bloomed and colorful companions, and it’s appearance is a little bit different than the rest of them, it ceases to flourish.

But, this flower isn’t alone. This flower is in fact just like the millions of women and young girls that suffer because of beauty standards that make them feel like they aren’t beautiful just because they don’t have clear porcelain skin, or stick straight hair, or big eyes, or full plump lips rather than giving them an image to look up to. As a result, they don’t feel comfortable in their own skin, and soresort to solutions like plastic surgery, and excessive makeup.

There’s been this view that beauty is one way, and one way only. But then again, the fact that we believe this way is not entirely our fault. After all, that’s how the media has portrayed beauty for ages,it’s become natural--normalized. In fact, it was and is widely believed that in order for females to look truly attractive they must enhance their features by wearing makeup. Makeup is so much of a cultural staple, that it is now believed that makeup is a necessity. Not something that’s optional but something that’s indispensable.

In the Stone Age for example, which was about 2.6 million years ago, the use of body paint, which was the first version of what we now know as makeup, was widely used and desired. Women not only viewed it as an important part of their routine, but were also expected to wear it. A woman without body paint was seen as lesser in appearance than a woman who did. The Roman writer Titus Maccius Plautus, even said “A woman without paint, is like food without salt.” as said in the book Made Up by Martha Laham.

Women from the Tang dynasty in ancient China followed a seven step makeup routine which involved powder, darkening of the eyebrows, the painting of dimples, cheek coating, and ornamental designs on the forehead to please the gods. Makeup was linked to spiritual worth and if you did not wear makeup, you were not only seen as unworthy in the eyes of men, but unworthy in the eyes of the gods as well.

Not only in the United States but from a global standpoint, makeup as a beauty standard and other forms of enhancement like plastic surgery is affecting how women see themselves. For example, beauty is an enormous part of South Korea’s culture and economy. According to Escape the Corset: How South Koreans are Pushing Back Against Beauty Standards, “The country is among the world's 10 biggest beauty markets, and was worth around $13 billion in 2017… It has also long been known as the ‘plastic surgery capital of the world,’ with about 22% of women saying they have gone under the knife… Of those, about half agreed with the statement that they'd done so ‘because appearance is important in life.’”

It is also a place where women happen to feel unconfident because of wide usage of makeup. One of those women is 21 year old Bae Eun-Jeong. Better known as the YouTube star, Lina Bae, whose “beauty regimen routinely took two hours, to the point that she'd give herself less time to sleep and eat in order to squeeze it all in before going to school. Even a simple trip to the supermarket by her home took plenty of preparation.” She even said, “If I went out without makeup, I didn't have much confidence. I felt embarrassed that someone would look at me. I hated my face. Even if I would only be out for an hour, I would put on makeup first.”

The situation that has been created is one that shows that women now depend on makeup. They feel like they need it. The case is the same with plastic surgery. Many women decide to get plastic surgery to enhance parts of their bodies. According to It’s Time to Reshape Our Beauty Standards, “In 2010, Americans spent $10.7 billion on cosmetic procedures...and $33.3 billion on beauty products… Some of us spend time and money so we can look our best. Others feel pressured to meet beauty standards.” Beauty standards do in fact affect how women view themselves, but how are women put under the influence of these beauty standards in the first place?

Beauty ads and media influence how we think about our appearance, and they also are a dominant spreader of beauty standards. The beauty industry ensures that consumers will buy into their products and stay interested by preying on women’s insecurities. When a woman has an insecurity about their appearance, they will naturally appeal to things that they feel will fix what they call a problem, whether that be their acne, or their wrinkles, or the dullness of their skin.

Aging is a prime example of this. The anti-aging market is big money for the beauty industry. This is because youth is desired. Youth within itself, is a beauty standard as women see aging as something that shouldn’t happen, despite the fact that aging is a natural part of human life. According to Made up, “The Global anti-aging market clocked in sales of $250 billion in 2016 and is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 5.8 percent, climbing to $331.41 billion by 2021.” Industries profit off of this. You see insecurities, they see dollar signs and what’s worse is that most of the time these pharmaceuticals don’t work as well as they claim to. It’s something that’s called emotional branding which “...refers to the practise of building brands that appeal directly to a consumer’s ego, emotional state, needs and aspirations” which is specifically, the need to look lighter, the need to look youthful, and the need to look “prettier”.

One of the most common ways that they get you is by pushing consumers to get anxiety about their appearance. By showing you people with features that you may not have, they make you start believing that what you have is not right and that the features shown are what you should have. As Martha Laham states in Made Up, “One way of achieving this is by subtly telling them they are ugly--something that many cosmetics adverts achieve implicitly and very effectively by showing images of unusually beautiful women.” The problem with that is a lot of women tend to take those things to heart especially if they already have preexisting insecurities.

But that raises the question, what exactly is beauty? How do people make judgements about what features classify as beauty and what features do not? There is a psychology behind beauty and what people perceive as the beauty ideal. In other words, the way we see and define beauty is hardwired into our brains so that it automatically associates beauty with people who have certain features. Have you ever heard the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder?” It means that beauty is different for everybody because it is whatever features they personally find attractive which is why in a lot of cases it’s so hard to define it. But despite that, there is still a classical conception of beauty that is integrated into our brains even to this day.

Beauty standards have been changing since the 1600’s, but no matter what kinds of bodies these eras advocated, women still found it hard to deal with. Whether it was “The Voluptuous Woman” in the 1600’s-1800’s which favored a full-bodied hourglass figure, the “Soft Siren, Star Spangled Girl” in the 1930’s and 40’s which favored a soft-feminine figure, “The California Girl” in the 1980’s which favored a bronzed, slender, and athletic figure, or “The Waif” in the 1990’s which favored an extremely thin and untidy appearance, women ultimately felt pressured to emulate these body figures just because they’re society implied they should. This is something that is continued today where all the buzz is huge breasts, a big buttox, and an overexaggerated hourglass figure.

Men also contribute to this issue in terms of patriarchy and gender norms. Even though gender norms aren’t exactly the same as beauty norms, the two can closely be linked together. When men say things like I like women with slim figures, big eyes, full lips, and whatnot, it is implied that these features are the only ones that make a woman beautiful. This leads to the common thought that in order to please a man, they must have those features which coincidentally are the beauty standards of their society. A solution to this problem is to learn to differentiate what you think is attractive from what society thinks is attractive. If you learn to disassociate, the status quo can eventually be broken down. Women all around the world feel like the only thing they are good for is their exterior.

Women are so much more than what they show on the outside and there is nothing wrong with melanin skin, or tanned skin, or even light skin. There is nothing wrong with a curvy body, or a thin body, or even something in the middle. There is nothing wrong with curly hair, wavy hair, or straight or big eyes, small eyes, or thin eyes, and there is nothing wrong with full lips, small lips, thin lips, or plump lips. Like that flower will eventually come to learn, everyone is different, and different is okay. Just because you don’t look like what you see on television doesn’t mean you should bring yourself down. Beauty is diverse, beauty is universal. That is something that women should tell themselves everyday.

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