The Predicament of Beauty

When someone as flawless as Cara Delevingne says that the fashion industry made her hate the way she looks, you know there's something inherently toxic about our beauty standards. She's not alone, in fact, recently many models have vocalized their discontent with the pressures of their industry and have made their exits.

My time in fashion and beauty led me to investigate the idea of beauty as an aesthetic, beauty as power, and especially beauty as a commodity. All of these ways of examining beauty detach it from ownership since there is no object in any of those evaluations. When someone is beautiful, they no longer own their beauty. What I've come to find is that the most beautiful person is often the most fragile, because their sense of self worth is dependent on a fleeting notion requiring constant affirmation. Someone must judge the beautiful person to be beautiful and other people must agree, otherwise there exists no basis to determine that beauty. Although there are objective and empirical ways of evaluating beauty, those often reduce beauty to generic criteria that overlooks the attributes that makes someone more attractive because they deviate from the norm.

A person's beauty brings pleasure to others and invites them to be looked at but rarely understood. We need to be understood, not just objectified to make a true connection, and connections are the basis of our well being. Beauty as a deflective shield is also an analogy for the expectations of the beauty industry. Women have to invest much of their energy and resources on beauty products and treatments to be sure they're visually judged as beautiful, and thus, acceptable, otherwise it can be costly not just to self-esteem but to their careers.

We see this expectation of being displayed and judged as beautiful playing out on social media, where narcissism is rewarded because it allows beauty to be approved of by the spectator. Being dependent on socially-determined beauty also fosters a sense of privilege that is unrealistic -- when you're so used to the power of your beauty, you've never learned the interpersonal skills required to get things done without it. What happens when you're no longer beautiful? Beauty standards set up a very unstable sense of self for those who are, and want to be, beautiful.

As Monica Bellucci once said: "beauty is just five minutes long if you don't have anything else to sustain that curiosity. I don't think that I would have made this kind of career if I were just beautiful." Fortunately the landscape is changing in terms of what men find an ideal and even the trophy wife trope has evolved to be less about appearances and about being educated too. To quote a friend: "guys in New York are looking for Angelina Jolie with a PhD." Though standards are still impossibly high, at least "value" is not based purely on appearance anymore. However, even my most successful, educated and attractive friends judge their appearances harshly, but on the basis of what?

Aesthetically, fashion has isolated and sequestered beauty by creating one standard that makes the majority of the population the out group. The result is that women who are not that specific type think there's something wrong with them without understanding the reality of life within that standard. I've seen what models are subjected to and heard some confess what they do to their bodies. It is distressing, to say the least -- during fashion weeks I've seen women not eat at all, I've seen women becoming riddled with anxieties about consuming a tiny amount of sugar because their skin will break out from all the stress. I've seen hair thinning out so much from the constant styling, women so tired from running around the city that they can barely walk and their bleeding and bruised feet from parading in heels make it even more impossible to not just walk, but wear the shoes they're supposed to. Then this type of beauty gets assigned a monetary value, yet another oppressive system. On the other side of it all is the glamorized spectacle that influences women everywhere to feel like shit about themselves.

Today I was in an exercise class next to a model. She was beautiful in the way that demands to be photographed, but also in a way that elicits worry. She looked so frail, unhappy and undernourished that I was afraid she would fall off her spin bike. Meanwhile, the instructor was strong, toned and healthy. She exuded a natural beauty that was all her own, because you knew she felt powerful and beautiful inside. Perhaps why her aesthetic isn't within the uniform "beauty standard" set by the fashion and entertainment industries is because it's inherently threatening. There is a primordial power to be found in curves, in muscle, and even moreso in ownership. She no longer needs affirmation because her beauty is not reliant on others, nor is it transient. The body types of goddesses in art and literature shows that strong women were of quite a different type of beauty, and not a uniform one.

Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It is within the person who decides she is beautiful and does not sacrifice her own belief in her worth to the arbitrary standards set for us.