Now that the Barbie conversation has died down, we need to talk about beauty. I was there in the cinema, during the scene Margot Robbie tells an old woman “you are beautiful”, when a hundred little voices in the theatre around me chanted in choir “no she is not!” It’s always been a bit ridiculous to insist “all women are beautiful” and call it feminism. It’s meaningless, and, frankly, a little embarrassing.
Not that beauty standards are as natural or universal as you’d think. To a large extent, they are constructed and imposed by various nefarious forces, such as white supremacy and colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy. Traits associated with whiteness (or recently racial ambiguity), wealth, youth, thinness, health and heteronormativity are usually presented as the norm or the ideal, while other traits that deviate from them are marginalized or stigmatized. How are these forces impacting beauty standards? Here’s how:
White supremacy and colonialism have created a hierarchy of skin color, where lighter skin is considered more beautiful, desirable, and valuable than darker skin. This is a result of the historical oppression and discrimination of people of color by white colonizers, who associated whiteness with purity, civilization, and power, and blackness with impurity, savagery, and inferiority. This hierarchy of skin color has led to the widespread practice of skin bleaching or lightening, which can have harmful effects on physical and mental health.
This has imposed a narrow and rigid definition of beauty, where certain features that are associated with whiteness, such as straight hair, thin nose, small lips (in the past), and a slender body, are considered more attractive than features that are associated with other races, such as curly hair, wide nose, full lips (in the past), and a curvy body. This is a result of the cultural erasure and assimilation of people of color by white colonizers, who imposed their own standards of beauty on the colonized populations and devalued their native cultures and aesthetics. This narrow and rigid definition of beauty has led to the widespread practice of cosmetic surgery or alteration. It’s hard to find a woman in Hollywood who hasn’t altered her nose and it’s hard to find a career woman who doesn’t straighten her hair.
[Oh, and if you think that because full lips and curvy bodies made a come-back, we’ve been liberated from the white supremacy body standard, think again. The fact that western beauty standards can “borrow” physical traits that belong exclusively to non-white people, and incorporate them into the western beauty ideal, in a way that could never be found in nature, opens a whole new can of worms we’ll discuss in classism].
Patriarchy reinforces a gender binary of beauty (gender dimorphism), where certain features or traits are considered feminine or masculine, and are assigned different values and meanings. Feminine features or traits, such as softness, delicacy or sweetness, are often considered inferior, weak, or passive, but for women, they are desirable, while masculine features or traits, such as hardness, strength, or aggressiveness, are often considered superior and powerful, and are the only safe options for men. This gender binary of beauty can limit the expression and diversity of people’s identities and preferences, and can create pressure and stigma for those who do not fit into the normative categories.
Patriarchy also creates a double standard of beauty, where women are expected to conform to a higher and stricter level of physical attractiveness than men, and are judged more harshly for their appearance. Women are also expected to invest more time, money, and energy into their beauty routines, often at the expense of their health, well-being, and autonomy. Men, on the other hand, are valued more for their skills, achievements, and personality than their looks.
Patriarchy perpetuates a culture of objectification and sexualization of women’s bodies, where women are reduced to their physical appearance and treated as commodities or ornaments for men’s pleasure or consumption. Women’s bodies are also subjected to constant scrutiny, regulation, and control by men and society, such as through dress codes, weight, hairstyles, makeup or cosmetic procedures. This culture of objectification and sexualization can have negative consequences for women’s self-esteem, body image, mental health and safety.
Classism is closely connected to beauty, because it’s the rich who set the standards and keep raising the bar to exclude people who will never be able to afford the privileged lifestyle. Back when workers worked in the fields and caught the sun, being pale was considered a must. After the industrial revolution, where workers were closed up in factories and never saw the sun, tanning became fashionable because the rich could afford holidays on the beach.
A new cream or a new lipstick used to be enough. Now, it’s a signature 25 product skincare routine every night, a new derm treatment every week and a state-of-the art surgical procedure every month. If you read between the (non-existent) lines, the “clean beauty” aesthetic and “the 5 minute face” both have a prerequisite of a perfected blanc canvas, a real life face-tuned face, altered and tweaked to be unattainable for the masses. Glazed skin, button noses, “foxy eyes” and overfilled lips, all normalized and expected. Makeup becomes vulgar, because if you’re rich enough, you shouldn’t need it.
Capitalism creates a market for beauty products and services, which generates a huge demand and supply for them. The beauty industry is one of the most profitable and influential industries in the world, with an estimated value of over $579 billion in 2023.
The beauty industry creates artificial needs and desires for beauty products and services that promise to enhance one’s appearance and social status, as well as to act as health care, self-care and even prayer, voodoo or moral imperative, using various strategies to manipulate consumers’ perceptions, including outrageous claims that can be downright dangerous. It all creates a cycle of consumption and dissatisfaction, because no product or treatment will ever cure the systemic oppression dynamic.
The beauty industry also creates unrealistic and unhealthy standards of beauty that are impossible to achieve or maintain, and that constantly change over time, to keep consumers feeling insecure and inadequate, so that they seek to buy more products and services to improve their appearance and self-esteem.
So now we get that beauty standards have psychological and spiritual effects on people, especially women and marginalized groups. They can cause anxiety, depression, dysmorphia, eating disorders, self-harm, low self-esteem and internalized oppression. They can also disconnect people from their true selves, their bodies and their emotions.
But here’s the thing. Beauty is a privilege and “pretty privilege” is a real thing.
The term is used to describe the benefits and advantages that people who are considered attractive by society’s standards receive, such as more attention, opportunities, and rewards. Pretty privilege is based on the assumption that physical appearance is a valuable and important trait, and that people who are more beautiful are also more worthy. Some examples of pretty privilege are:
People who are more attractive are more likely to be hired, promoted, or paid higher salaries than their less attractive counterparts. This is known as the beauty premium or the halo effect. According to a study by Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle, attractive workers earn about 10% more than average-looking workers, and unattractive workers earn about 9% less than average-looking workers.
People who are more attractive are more likely to receive better treatment, service, or assistance from others, such as getting free drinks, discounts, or favors. Even beautiful criminals receive lower sentences. This is known as the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype or the attractiveness bias. According to a study by Elaine Walster and colleagues, people who are more attractive are rated as more friendly, sociable, competent, and trustworthy than their less attractive counterparts.
People who are more attractive are more likely to have more romantic options, partners, or satisfaction than their less attractive counterparts. This is known as the matching hypothesis or the physical attractiveness stereotype. According to a study by David Buss and colleagues, physical attractiveness is one of the most important criteria for mate selection across cultures.
Oh, and fun fact, if you are beautiful, your TikTok video is way more likely to go viral, thanks to the infamous TikTok beauty algorithm, which is based on detailed AI face mapping. That’s why you see so many beautiful people on the app, making it hard to put your phone down. It’s because the videos of people the algorithm considers ugly are buried, while the ones from young, pretty teens are catapulted to fame. The whole experiment warps our idea of reality and keeps us feeling inadequate and even dissatisfied with our romantic options, because we are given the false impression that this is what people look like out there. The thing is, we were never supposed to encounter that many beautiful people in real life.
(And did I mention the algorithm also favors rich-looking environments? Yep, that too).
Pretty privilege creates and reinforces inequalities and injustices among people based on their appearance. People who are less attractive face lower opportunities, resources, or respect from others, as well as higher discrimination, prejudice, or self-hatred. They may also be ignored, excluded, or ridiculed by others based on their looks.
In other words, even though we know full well how oppressive and harmful beauty standards are, it’s still in our interest to adhere to them, in order to gain some power back. Being pretty paves the way to power, and it takes a lot of privilege to be able to ignore that fact and resist the urge to try.
So we pluck and we shave and laser body hair away, we straighten and we curl and we iron our permitted hair to death, we scrub and we squeeze, we apply serums, creams and masks and 25-step-skincare routines before bed, on silk pillowcases to keep wrinkles at bay, we strategically burn, electrocute and inject, we diet to depression, we cry in front of the mirror, we take supplements, we subtract foods, we spend years, so many years and money, so much money, from the less money we earn compared to men, because that’s the only thing that can buy us back what society has denied, the power to be seen as what we really are.
So what can we do? All we can do is be aware. We can recognize and acknowledge beauty standards and their impact on ourselves and others. We can question their sources and motives, we can resist and reject the messages and products that promote unhealthy habits, behaviors and mental states. We can embrace diversity and uniqueness and celebrate our body, even if we don’t consider it beautiful, even if we haven’t managed to love it.
We can create new narratives and practices of beauty that are more holistic, inclusive, and empowering. Although it’s too late, the beauty industry is already on that. So, what else? I don’t know. I never said I had all the answers. I guess we could work on liking people for their character, personality and behavior. I am laughing as I type. I know it doesn’t really work. But it’s all I have.