Not only are we expected to see beauty as purely subjective, but we’re currently enduring a grand redefining of what beauty is and can be. This effort has gone to such extremes as to glorify people who are, by all objective reasoning, not beautiful in an effort to destroy our perceptions of what natural beauty is and to spare hurt feelings.
The ironic thing about American beauty culture is that while we have things like the body positivity movement, we also have Kim Kardashian and celebrity culture which is simultaneously celebrated. Celebrities use extreme plastic surgery, heavy makeup, photo editing, and filters to make themselves appear perfect. The battle between the extreme acceptance of anything as beautiful, while we can’t seem to look away from the ever-shrinking waistlines of Instagram models, paints a picture of a kind of schizophrenic culture wanting one thing and doing another.
Young women in the West have never been more confused about what it means to be beautiful. Too often they think letting themselves go and not taking care of themselves is just fine because we have “beauty at any size” now. Others look to the over-sexualized celebrity and Instagram culture and think that without looking like the unrealistic images we see on our phones they will never be beautiful, creating neuroticism and a lot of grief. In a word, it’s a mess. As a culture, we’re battling the instinctual desire to seek and create objective beauty while pretending beauty is totally subjective at the same time.
The Body Positivity Movement, Influencer Culture, and Beauty
In an innocent way, the body positivity movement attempts to be inclusive of women who are any size, any race, any age, and with any range of ability in beauty culture. It tries to allow women who often feel ugly the opportunity to feel beautiful, and that is in itself a noble effort. While many ordinary women embrace this movement and feel that the visibility of different types of women than we’re used to seeing on TV makes them feel better about themselves, the reality of trying to see all women, no matter what they look like, as beautiful is completely unrealistic and has left beauty culture in the West at odds with itself.
While, on the one hand, the acceptance of a wider range of types of women into beauty culture can liberate us from the sometimes harsh standards set by celebrity culture, the body positivity movement has left many American women scratching their heads when considering what being beautiful even means to them.
Up until now, beauty culture has always been aspirational, and women like Brigitte Bardot, Esther Williams, and Grace Kelly have been models of female beauty that we can emulate and look up to. Without being able to hold objectively beautiful women up and celebrate their excellence, we lose touch with our ability to create beauty in our own lives. The more obese, over-sexualized, and unhealthy women we hold up, the uglier the ordinary woman becomes in response.
We’re battling the instinctual desire to create objective beauty while pretending beauty is totally subjective.
If everyone is beautiful just as they are, needing to do nothing to achieve beauty, how can you provide meaningful tips about how to make oneself more beautiful? Most women love receiving beauty tips and love beauty rituals, but if we’re not allowed to have aspirational examples of beauty, then how are young women supposed to navigate their own personal expression of beauty? In short, they can’t.
Progressive Feminism’s Rejection of Beauty
To add insult to injury, we have had decades-long academic feminist interference shaping attitudes and perceptions of what beauty is. Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth in 1990, and in it made the claim that as women have advanced themselves in the realm of political liberation and financial advancement, they have also slowly become dominated by the cultural pressure to conform to mainstream images of beauty. As women became more present in academic and career life, plastic surgery and pornography exploded. But when asked, women said they would rather lose 10-15 pounds more than achieve any other goal — much to Wolf’s dismay.
Wolf saw women’s preoccupation with their appearance and fashion as something imposed on us, which holds us back from being successful. She imagined that the striving for physical perfection among women was a shackle placed around our ankles by patriarchal oppressors. While there is some truth in the claim that we’re too obsessed with looking perfect and that media representation plays a role in shaping our negative ideas about how we should look, women have not been tricked into caring about being beautiful. For most women, beauty culture, rituals, fashion, and taking care of our appearance is a source of joy, self-care, and even relaxation. This is why spas exist and why women happily pay huge fees for luxurious beautification services. Trust me, no one is forcing these women to be there. We love it.
We should not have to apologize for reveling in beauty. Beauty is an eternal human value.
Camille Paglia, another well-known feminist thinker, was most vocal and entirely accurate in her criticism of Wolf’s analysis of beauty culture, saying, “We should not have to apologize for reveling in beauty. Beauty is an eternal human value. It was not a trick invented by nasty men in a room someplace on Madison Avenue.”
To Paglia, beauty should be seen as a wild and ancient force of nature, our love for and craving for beauty is something that can’t be tamed or dominated by progressive feminist ideology. No matter how hard feminists try to use language and philosophy to undermine our natural instincts towards beauty, it will always fail. This, in my opinion, is a good explanation of why we see the contradictory expressions of Western beauty culture. It’s the tension between what the dominant progressive ideology has taught women about beauty versus our natural and innate inclinations towards beauty.
Our Appearance Communicates Our Values
It’s also true that we naturally judge people based on their appearance. Anyone who is honest with themselves and others will admit this is true. When we first encounter a person, within seconds we gather all sorts of visual data and place them in the various categories of people we know based on pattern recognition. These identifiers can be anything from hair length, makeup, clothing style, posture, gate, weight, body shape, facial symmetry and expressions, height, etc.
This is what our brains were designed to do; it’s not “mean girl” behavior or patriarchal influence. We use visual information to navigate social situations and understand the world around us. When a person who looks healthy, beautiful, and put together goes out into the world, they’re communicating certain things to other people using their appearance. They’re communicating things like: I respect myself and I care about my well-being, I’m a genetically healthy person, I’m fertile, I’m powerful. They sometimes communicate wealth by wearing designer brands, and they can communicate self-awareness in knowing what’s flattering on them or what’s an appropriate outfit for the situation they are in.
Women have been misled into thinking normal beauty standards make them boring or basic.
When we encounter a heavily tattooed, blue-haired, obese, gender-neutral individual with a bull-ring, that person is communicating to us that they actively disregard the standards for normality that the majority of people agree on. They’re attempting to appear tough, like an outsider, unapproachable, and, in an immature way, rebelling against norms for aesthetic reasons. Then, ironically, they cry discrimination when people judge them accordingly or don’t want to hire them.
It’s ultimately a real shame that so many women have been misled into thinking that participating in normal beauty standards makes them boring or basic. Whether women are striving for validation under normal beauty standards or under the new low standards, they’re still striving for social validation, just in different groups with different values. One group encourages each other to be as beautiful as we can be, sharing genuine tips and inspiration, cheering each other on for our successes. The other is a race to the bottom of who can be ugliest and obliterate their natural beauty.
Don’t be afraid to embrace your femininity and cheer on other women who are doing the same. To rebuild beauty culture, we must be vocal in our defense of beauty. We must protect it like a dying light, shining dimly in an endless darkness. We must be the light ourselves and not fall victim to the shaming tactics of progressives who say we are “pick me’s” if we dare to accentuate our feminine beauty.
Our courage could save an onlooker from getting that face tattoo or shaving her head. We’re all ambassadors of beauty, and it’s our responsibility to pass it on and to celebrate it in each other. One woman’s beauty does not diminish another’s. Just as many candles can be lit from a single flame, so too can many women’s feminine appearance be encouraged by one woman’s courage to defend beauty.