By Natalia Petrzela
A virtual stroll through the hashtag #effyourbeautystandards can feel like an oasis of body positivity. Thousands of women of a range of skin tones and body types, some fat — yes, that word has been reclaimed — and twisted into yoga poses; others proudly sporting manes of untamed natural hair; and still more unapologetically snapping selfies despite physical challenges from chemotherapy to amputation.
Far more significant than a single hashtag is the media backlash to dominant beauty standards — Refinery29 launched an Anti-Diet beat, Women’s Health banished “bikini body” from its cover, and Sports Illustrated recently featured its first plus-size swimsuit cover model. These public movements are refreshing because they redefine women’s appearance as opportunities for empowerment rather than oppression.
"These public movements are refreshing because they redefine women’s appearance as opportunities for empowerment rather than oppression."
But how far have we really come? And is burying dominant beauty standards under mountains of body-positive Instagram posts really the road to liberation?
Let’s start with where “beauty standards” came from. Beauty itself might be timeless, but in the United States, the term “beauty standard” surfaced in the early 1900s, when a growing middle class had the time and money to enjoy new publications that reported on beauty tips and Hollywood style, not to mention to shop the advertised products available in another new invention for the leisured class: department stores. Women poured emotional and financial resources into cultivating these newly uniform looks, or “standards.”
Certain ideals, like the coveted tiny waist, can seem disturbingly eternal – how different, for example, is the “new trend” of waist trainers from the corsets of the 16th century, including the gut-crushing side effects?
"Certain ideals, like the coveted tiny waist, can seem disturbingly eternal – how different, for example, is the “new trend” of waist trainers from the corsets of the 16th century, including the gut-crushing side effects?"
But for the most part, what is considered beautiful in one era can be undesirable in another. Girth was once considered a mark of upper social class, but once industrialization made luxurious high-calorie food more available, thinness became a desirable outward sign of the discipline to resist such temptations. White women once fiercely protected their pale skin against the sunshine that gave outdoor laborers a decidedly working-class tan. Come the late 1920s, however, the wealthy traveled to warm climates to sunbathe during the winter, and a bronze glow suggested social privilege. Makeup, which in the nineteenth century was worn only by “painted” or “public” women — aka prostitutes — became an expected part of feminine presentation when respectable ladies began working, shopping, and consorting outside the home. Today, makeup is such a required ritual that challenges like #MakeupFreeMonday can feel like a radical act!
Yet, women have never been passive victims of externally imposed beauty standards; they have both helped create and resist them. In 1935, a group of women hairdressers and cosmetologists whose livelihood depended on the beauty biz, after all, spoke out to reject new guidelines set by the International Beauty Shop Owners that recommended that “the ideal woman” beauty shop owner should “lose 34 pounds, reduce her bust to 30 inches, and waist to 23 inches.” These pioneering women in the beauty industry helped raise broader awareness of how the pursuit of pretty could hurt: the New York Times reported on their protest, noting that “this deadly dangerous starvation business,” was driving schoolgirls to skip breakfast, become tubercular, and give birth to “small nervous babies,” rather than to become “happy, healthy, wholesome women… [and] cheerful wives and mothers.”
Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s skewered beauty culture as a primary force of oppression against women (and not because it threatened their identity as wives and mothers, another set of gender assumptions they attacked). In 1968, activists protested the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City by filling a giant “freedom trash can” with girdles, bras, hair curlers, false eyelashes, and other tools of women’s “enslavement.” They strove to destroy beauty culture and the tools and institutions, like pageants, that enforced it. Ironically, they also fought for the right of African-American women to be included in the pageant, which since its 1921 establishment had never crowned a black winner.
Challenging dominant beauty ideals was feminist and civil rights strategy carried out in everyday self-presentation more than in splashy protests. “Going natural” could mean not shaving one’s underarms and legs (that’s where Miley got the idea), or wearing one’s hair unstyled, a symbol of sexual freedom. For black women, long taught that “good” hair was smooth, sporting an Afro embodied the “Black is Beautiful” slogan popular in activist circles. Slowly, these critiques touched the mainstream. In 1974, Vogue featured its first African-American cover model: Beverly Johnson, who struggled to find an agent, was told Kodak didn’t make film that could handle her dark skin, and endured the humiliation of hairdressers who refused to touch her hair.
“It’s impossible for men to understand,” a spokeswoman for the Miss America protestors had declared of women’s struggles in 1968. Yet today, even as guys are often celebrated for their paunchy “dad bods” in a way unimaginable for women, the media also fetishizes ripped abs and sculpted biceps. American men have their own set of standards, and are doubly stigmatized when they seek help for these “women’s issues.”
Still, beauty standards constrain women uniquely. Recently, I was waiting in a green room to appear on a TV show hosted by a personality who also does radio. My fellow guest, a man, arrived and realized he had been booked for television rather than radio. He caught a glimpse of himself in a window, joked he was glad he shaved, and went on set, apparently without a second thought about his appearance (which was fine). I considered my own blown out hair, freshly polished nails, heavy under-eye concealer, and the sprinkling of special “HD Powder” a saleslady had assured me was “a must for making those pores disappear.” As a professor commenting on education rather than eyeliner, I am far from a professional pretty person, but I knew that displeasing aesthetics could distract from my message, so I ended up (with some embarrassment) paying almost as much attention to my appearance as to my arguments.
I’m not alone. Barack Obama acknowledged that in 2008, Hillary Clinton had to do everything he did, as well as walk in uncomfortable heels and “wake up earlier to get her hair done.” In 2016, the beauty burden of campaigning while female is all the more apparent, as Bernie Sanders is celebrated for his rumpled suits and mussed hair and Clinton continues to be scrutinized for the frequency of her smiles and her sartorial choices. In her book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College president Debora Spar shows that over a lifetime, women spend five years of their lives attending to the basic ministrations of manicures, makeup, and hair.
"...over a lifetime, women spend five years of their lives attending to the basic ministrations of manicures, makeup, and hair."
That half-decade is hardly a prison sentence, however. From the bouncy boost of a blowout with a girlfriend to the bright-and-shiny possibilities of the new genre of nail art, beauty culture can be fun. Especially as beauty standards become more inclusive, thanks to social media proliferating bodies and faces once invisible on glossy magazines and primetime TV. Even big brands have discovered the marketing gold of vaguely feminist “love yourself” messaging to sell everything from shampoo to underwear.
Let’s take a moment before treating each other to congratulatory facials, however. I recently posted an excited “How far we’ve come!!!” about the latest video in Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, which showed self-deprecating women recognizing their beauty through the eyes of others. A friend, who happens to have an illness that has significantly altered her appearance, commented that the spot’s feel-good, you-go-girl messaging masked a far more conservative takeaway: women’s self-worth is tied to how beautiful we feel. What about daring to say that believing in our physical beauty is not the highest expression of womanhood?
"What about daring to say that believing in our physical beauty is not the highest expression of womanhood?"
The point is spot-on. We have more power than ever before to redefine our beauty standards, but our highly visual culture also demands constant attention to appearances, to capturing, consuming, and contemplating an endless scroll of images of ourselves and of others. “The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance,” feminist critic Naomi Wolf famously wrote in The Beauty Myth (1991), and the behavior it dictates in 2016 is to always think and see in terms of “beauty,” even if it’s more inclusively defined than ever before.
The most powerful message The Beauty Myth imparts today is not to condemn the pursuit of beauty, which is unreasonable, and (as someone who loves a nice set of lashes and a shiny gel manicure) I personally think undesirable. Rather, it is to realize that the end game of self-love should not be conjuring the courage to post a selfie, even a vulnerable one in which you might look ten pounds heavier than you’d like, as hard as that might be. Acknowledging and celebrating our own physical beauty is only the beginning:
“A consequence of female self-love is that the woman grows convinced of social worth…If a woman loves her own body, she doesn't grudge what other women do with theirs; if she loves femaleness, she champions its rights.”
How’s that for #beautystandardgoals ?
For further reading:
Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are used Against Women
Amy Farrell, Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture
Natalia Petrzela is a scholar, writer, teacher, and activist. As Assistant Professor of History at The New School, she studies the politics and culture of the modern United States, particularly issues of gender, race, identity, and class. Her first book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015), explores the roots of the culture wars in American public schools, specifically amid heated battles over sexuality and bilingual education. Her latest research traces the rise of “fitness culture” since the 1950s, asking how and why Americans have increasingly linked workout regimes to the pursuit of self-fulfillment.
These scholarly pursuits are closely linked to her activist work as co-founder of HealthClass2.0, an experiential health education program that bridges a wellness gap in public school education and connects university mentors with K-12 students. She is also a Premiere Leader of intenSati (an innovative mind-body practice), which she teaches at Equinox and privately. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Slate, and The Huffington Post and she has been a featured expert in diverse media venues such as Brian Lehrer TV, The History Channel, and The Atlantic. Her work in wellness has been covered by many publications including The Guardian, Well+Good, Univision and Fox 5 NY. She co-hosts the Past Present Podcast. Natalia received a BA from Columbia College and a MA and Ph.D. from Stanford University and lives in New York City with her husband and two children.