We are perpetuating limited beauty standards in our own social media feeds
The beauty industry is finally, belatedly, embracing diverse forms of beauty. But we don’t need to wait for the media to change what is considered beautiful – we can do the work ourselves, starting with our own Instagram feeds.
This week, I watched Rihanna’s SAVAGE x FENTY show, which saw a range of women – women of different sizes and ethnicities, trans women, women with disabilities – display clothes and beauty in a way I’ve rarely seen. They weren’t tiny bodies moving rigidly, in order to disappear into expensive clothes.
That these women were modelling Rihanna’s lingerie was almost incidental: they were celebrating their bodies. They moved, danced, embodied strength and beauty.
The show was the opposite of the media’s usual objectifying gaze; it celebrated who women are, in all their glorious diversity, and celebrated what their bodies can do, not just what they look like. It was glorious and felt like what a show about beauty and fashion should be – inclusive, celebratory, representative.
“I spent a decade hungry, and self-loathing, and obsessively trying to reach an unattainable standard of beauty, all for them.”
I felt both inspired by and grateful for the show – and sad that it’s taken so long for us to get here, taken so long for different types of beauty to be embraced, taken so long for these women to be considered models. Growing up, I didn’t see this range of beauty.
Related: Watch Savage X Fenty
I saw one type of model: tiny-waisted, flat-tummied, high cheekbones, a thigh-gap. And I worshipped them. Used to pore over them in magazines, obsessed over every inch of their bodies. Knew their measurements like I knew my sister’s birthday, dreamed of being them more than I fantasised about being my favourite writers. I stopped eating for them. Started throwing up my meals for them. Spent a decade hungry, and self-loathing, and obsessively trying to reach an unattainable standard of beauty, all for them.
Ultimately failed them. Recovered in spite of them. Proved that I could never be them.
But I never forgot them.
As a film critic and a feminist, I publicly railed against our culture’s narrow scope of representation, complain that films and magazines and advertisements should show us more than that one pervasive view of female beauty; that they should move beyond thinking that skinny, white, able-bodied cis women were the ideal.
But privately, I wasn’t moving beyond it. My Instagram account was still filled with that ideal – lifestyle bloggers, fitness gurus, make-up artists, models, random women I had followed for no other reason than they were beautiful.
“I was choosing what to consume – and I was choosing to devour the same old images they had offered me.”
I was still consuming that one imagining of beauty, feeding off the never-ending stream of nearly identical images, feeling emptier all the while. And I couldn’t blame Hollywood or advertisers, couldn’t complain that it was the fault of the patriarchy.
I was choosing what to consume – and I was choosing to devour the same old images they had offered me. And it was impacting how I experienced different forms of beauty. Though the feminist, PC, body positivity-spouting intellectual part of my brain craved diverse forms of beauty, the other part of it – the pop culture saturated, patriarchy-programmed part – wasn’t ready for it.
Automatically jumped to judgement before celebration, grinded its thinness-worshipping gears before I could force it into acceptance. I outwardly praised it, but as “bravery” and “transgression” and “boundary-breaking” – all terms that implied that these women were different to other women, were doing something wrong by existing as themselves.
And I realised that I was the problem. To the profit-driven industry of pop culture creation, I had proven that I was an unwilling – or at least reluctant – consumer of diverse forms of beauty. I was more comfortable with images of slim, conventionally attractive women, and responded to them more positively. I couldn’t offer Hollywood or advertisers or beauty corporations any impetus to change because I had chosen not to change, myself.
“I unfollowed all Instagram accounts that only featured skinny cis white women, or used ‘Before And After’ photoshoots to equate being skinny with being successful.”
I didn’t want to be this woman. I wanted to be better. I wanted to live up to my ideals. And so I’d have to work at it. Patriarchy had programmed me into only valuing one form of beauty; it was up to me to de-programme myself. And not just by avoiding images that conformed to Western ideals of beauty, but by actively replacing them until homogeny was replaced with diversity, until women who I had ignored took centre stage.
So a couple of years ago, I unfollowed all Instagram accounts that only featured skinny cis white women, or used ‘Before And After’ photoshoots to equate being skinny with being successful. I started looking up accounts that celebrated all shapes, sizes, styles, ethnicities, abilities and gender expressions. My exposure to and consumption of images transformed. The photoshop-designed, male gaze-dominated, objectifying images of one type of woman started being overtaken by a joyful stream of all types of women.
Curvy women, hairy women, fat women, trans women, butch women, androgynous women, hijab-wearing women, women with disabilities. Women with scars and cellulite and birthmarks and prosthetic limbs and back fat. Women who believed themselves beautiful, and so were. Women that were confident and self-assured, and celebrated others. Women who doled out compliments and affirmations, telling other women – and me – that we were beautiful too.
This could seem like a small, even meaningless move. But consciously changing what kind of people you follow in your social media, and what kinds of beauty you expose yourself to, serves two purposes. Following people who defy limited, traditional beauty ideals expands their profile; it gives them a larger following and platform as they can turn their following into job opportunities, whether through monetising content, doing collaborations, or getting noticed by artists, agents, modelling agencies and casting directors. By following these women on social media, we can help make sure they become part of mainstream media.
And following these women can also transform our own ideas of what beauty is. It did mine.
“I realised that despite my best intentions and feminist ideals, I had not only been side-eyeing my own body, but I had been side-eyeing other women, too.”
As my exposure to and consumption of images transformed, slowly my mindset did too. I realised that despite my best intentions and feminist ideals, I had not only been side-eyeing my own body, but I had been side-eyeing other women, too.
I had internalised what the media had told me – that the tiny minority of women were the norm, and other women were abnormal, were failures, were other.
We’re not. We are the norm.
Observing a microcosm
As I accepted that – felt it, viscerally, instead of just knowing it intellectually – I stopped othering women and myself. I moved from observing a microcosm into celebrating a perpetual kaleidoscope of beauty. I stopped noticing the features so often dismissed as “flaws” and started focusing on what makes each individual woman gorgeous, and worthy of awe. By the time I sat down and awed at Rihanna’s fashion show, it felt normal.
It felt like this is how beauty representation always should be.
Changing my Instagram was only one part of an attempt to shift my attitudes and understanding of beauty; an ongoing project that includes learning about the history of beauty standards and who creates them; deliberately consuming different forms of media; and reading writing by and about women who are challenging modern ideals of beauty, and all its racialised, ablest, cisnormative, fatphobic limitations.
But in such a visual-media obsessed culture, imagery is a powerful medium. And constant exposure to different bodies changes our perception of what’s normal, and thus worthy.
There is so much more beauty in the world. We just need to choose to see it.
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