navigating multiple beauty standards
Content Warning: this contains a brief mention of eating disorders
People from different places envision something different when they think of the word “beauty”. For someone living in America, the word “beauty” could mean a young woman that looks like classic Barbie, with blonde hair, blue eyes, tanned skin, and a skinny figure. For someone living in southeast Asia, “beauty” could mean a young woman with fair skin, sleek and straight black hair.
The thing is, beauty standards vary from place to place and even from century to century. What is beautiful in one country is not necessarily what is beautiful in another country. What is beautiful in 2016 is not necessarily what was beautiful in 1954. Corsets are not so common today but most women would not have been seen wearing pantsuits back then.
While it is interesting and fascinating to observe beauty trends and standards, there is also certain pressure and a certain mark left by such beauty standards on females (and even males). Skin-lightening creams are a huge thing in South East Asia, and in the West, there are numerous tanning beds. So imagine a vulnerable girl with darker skin and brown hair watching one of these skin-lightening commercials, or a paler girl being pressured to go out more under the sun. Or a girl with thick, curly hair being pressured to use a straightener… or a girl with thin, straight hair wishing her hair had more volume to it.
What about the girl that’s in-between? The girl that doesn’t just have one standard of beauty placed on her, but has two or more than two. Take for instance, a woman who is born and raised in a Western country but her parents or grandparents immigrated from an Asian or African country. This particular girl could be complimented by her friends at school on her natural skin tone, but be bashed by friends of similar ethnic background for not being “lighter”.
I myself have had to deal with two sets of beauty standards and so have some other young women. One girl, Pari Dhayagude, talked about the importance of having light skin as part of the Indian beauty standard. But she also stated how she was reminded of the lack of representation of models that didn’t look Caucasian when walking into American stores. ‘Ninety-nine per cent of the models have the light-skinned typical American look… the variety for dark skin sucks,’ she states. Pari also says she ‘doesn’t know what side to please’ when talking about the contrasting American and Asian standards. However, since she lives in America, the American standards affect her more.
Yumna Chowdhury had felt what she calls a ‘desperate need’ to be lighter-skinned before, adhering to Asian beauty standards. ‘The whiter you are, the better they treat you,’ she mentions about both American and Asian beauty standards. She also wanted to starve herself at a younger age, adhering to the American ideal image of being thin. ‘Everyone is equal in beauty to me but myself,’ she states, bringing in how we as humans tend to be harsher on ourselves than on others.
One girl, who chose to remain anonymous, has had to deal with both American beauty standards and even ‘gaming culture’ beauty standards, showing beauty standards extend past cultures and into the gaming industry. According to her, females in video games are usually portrayed with tiny waists, perfect hair, and are often side characters rather than protagonists. This gives off the notion that women should be beautiful yet remain to the side, so not only does it stand as a beauty standard but also a gender standard of a woman’s place. ‘It really affects young girls and just people in general who play them on how they view women,’ the girl states.
The standards are evident in the broader media industry too. Another girl who also wanted to be anonymous mentions how acne is ‘on the character that’s supposed to be nerdy and ugly’. The way characters look in some movies can have a significant impact on girls that are watching the movies.
However, standards can also be decided by ourselves when we look in the mirror and decide there’s something we want to change. The girl who commented on the way acne is portrayed in some films, also mentioned wanting to have straighter hair when she was younger.
I myself have wanted for my nose to be smaller. Even when we see and observe ourselves, we can develop standards for ourselves based on our surroundings and what we think is beautiful, which can be the opposite of what we are.
All four girls and myself have grown more confident and realized that “beautiful” is not limited to one set of standards, yet such standards have left their impression on us. We’ve all felt pressured but we’ve come out stronger and are realising our own beauty as young women. ‘They’re not gone, but they bother me less,’ says one of the girls on her insecurities. A little self-esteem can go a long way.
Beauty standards can be interesting to study and observe but at the end of the day, they put pressure on people. And yet, at the end of the day, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. At the end of day, beauty could very well possibly be in the eye of the beholder. At the end of the day, we are beautiful to somebody, whether it be a friend, a family member, or even a stranger. We can be inspired by culture and the fashion industry and we can participate in culture and the fashion industry. But we should try not to let it leave us wondering if we are worthy. And we should try not to belittle our own appearances. To do such things is not easy, but a little effort and a little love for our appearances can be all the difference.
Fareen Ali is a college student living in the USA. She has previously written for MuslimGirl.