At some point in our lives, we have all heard something along the lines of: “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”. Well, it might or might not be a surprise for you to read that this statement is paradoxically both true and false. Beauty is subjectively objective. In fact, it appears that culture dictates greatly how we understand beauty. Sexual attraction is determined by a variety of organic, relational, and environmental factors. Yet, our brains are under constant assault by pop culture leading to the loss of our intuitive sense of attraction. We have been brainwashed. How does gender influence this picture? Let’s take a look.
Most feminists understand gender as a construct, yet we must delve deep into its origins to truly understand this idea. In “The Invention of Women” by Oyeronke Oyewumi, Oyewumi narrates that not only is gender a construct, but a western construct, one that was solidified during colonialism. Gender was used as a civilising marker. So, womanhood became to signify white, upper-class, and European, while everything outside that box was seen as animalistic, less-than, and not womanly enough. Forget being considered attractive. To be a true beautiful woman or a beautiful man, you must abide by the racist markers imposed by gender and, as we will now see, beauty.
When we look at antique European depictions of feminine beauty, we may notice these women´s rounded, soft, voluptuous shape. Today, beauty standards are very different, what has changed? Why are we seeing headlines claiming that “heroine chic”, the 90s trend of emaciated bodies, is back? Why is there suddenly a surge of people removing their buccal fat to have their faces appear slimmer? You may start to notice a pattern here, but the culprit of this shift is easy to name, it starts with a “c” and ends with “olonialism”.
Sabrina Strings, in “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia”, unearths the deep racist roots of our rejection of fatness. Strings shows that the change in European diets, particularly due to the sudden accessibility to sugar, as a by-product of slavery and colonisation, lead to anxieties around fatness. Thinness began to be admired as a sign of rationality and self-control, and as being spiritually superior. So, the Svelte ideal emerged as the new sought-after ascetic aesthetic. Similarly, youth was admired as virginal, a sign of self-regulation, and thus, as being closer to god. Slowly but surely, thinness and youth emerged as markers of beauty.
On the other hand, fatness emerged as a resource for racial categorisation. It began to be linked to intellectual inferiority and moral debasement, to the laziness of the body, mind, and spirit, to Blackness. So, in pop culture, Sub-saharan African women became depicted as grotesquely shaped, and fat. You might have heard of Saartjie Baartman, widely known as the “Hottentot Venus”. Due to the characteristic shape of her body, in the early 1800s, Baartman was brought from South Africa to Europe where she was paraded around “freak shows”, prostituted, and experimented on. Her body was both sexualised while simultaneously rejected and repudiated. Today, back bodies continue to be hypersexualised and eroticised (objectified and dehumanised).
So, back to beauty. As we have seen, beauty is raced, and so is gender. To be a beautiful woman or to be a beautiful man, is to be a white woman and a white man that is thin and has impeccable self-control (poised, elegant, graceful, refined, polished, suave etc. etc. etc.). This leaves little space to be beautiful for people that do not fit neatly into these categories.
The beauty industry is marketed and advertised to the gender binary. It caters to the needs of women or men. Make-up is sold to women, whereas face-shaving products are advertised to men. This, however, is slightly shifting. With brands adopting a façade of inclusion we now see a variety of products to be used by a variety of people. However, feminine and masculine beauty continues to be understood in the same way. Instead, non-binary individuals are left with little more than an imposed androgynous look, gendering a group that refuses to use those labels. Similarly, transgender women and men are required to “pass” and adopt binary beauty standards. Essentially, beauty reinforces the gender binary.
Yet, this isn’t all, for, as mentioned earlier, those that do not abide by these racist binary beauty standards are shunned and disdained. There has been a lot of buzz these past weeks about the artist Sam Smith, in particular about their new music video. This video shows Smith in campy outfits dancing and making cheeky sexual references. Nothing particularly raunchy. However, the video has been marked as shockingly explicit and sexual. Here, Sam Smith’s body, a fat body that does not fit neatly into the gender binary, is sexualised while simultaneously rejected and repudiated. Seems familiar, doesn’t it?
Beauty cannot be understood outside of control. We must control how we look and shape ourselves into the particular standards that are thrown our way. When we do not abide by these standards we are policed until doing so or imprisoned into a life of constant rejection. There is a further “c” word that must be thrown into the equation, capitalism. Beauty marketing uses psychological manipulation to sell products. We are told that we are not beautiful enough, that we are lacking, that we need that particular product, garment or surgery to be better, to be beautiful. “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf, argues that this capitalist marketing strategy creates pressure on women to spend money, time, and effort to attain beauty. A strategy that Wolf believes is motivated by sexism and the desire to stall gender equality. However, women are not the only gendered group that faces pressure from beauty standards.
Men face a lot of societal pressure to sport athletic bodies. We all watched in amazement as our childhood crush Zac Efron broke down in tears while eating a bowl of pasta in the Netflix show “Down to Earth”. In this culture-defining moment, Efron speaks about how for a period of his life he would not eat carbohydrates to maintain a particular body aesthetic. It is fair to say that this diet affected and continues to affect his emotional well-being. The pressure to maintain a chiselled body is even higher amongst queer men. So, dating apps such as Grindr show mostly pictures of men´s sculpted torsos, everything else seems secondary. This pressure has led to body image issues amongst queer men leading to a spike in steroid use and plastic surgery.
I could go on and on about the concept of beauty and the implications it has on our societies. However, I will end the discussion here. Yet, before we go on with our day, hopefully, slightly more knowledgeable than we were before the start of this entry, I would like to gift you a quote from one of the masterpieces of our time, the movie Spanglish: “American women, I believe, actually feel the same as Hispanic women about weight. A desire for the comfort of fullness. And when that desire is suppressed for style and deprivation allowed to rule, dieting, exercising American women become afraid of everything associated with being curvaceous. Such as wantonness, lustfulness, sex, food, motherhood. All that is best in life.”