When I was still at school my mom and I bumped into a black lady we knew in the mall. Happy to see us, she asked how we were and we did likewise. To my shock and horror, she commented on how fat I was and congratulated my mother on her beautiful and healthy daughter. I was completely taken aback. I wasn’t fat but I wasn’t slender, either, and such a comment can do damage to a teenage girl’s impression of herself. Later I was to accept that she was really paying me a compliment and that, in her culture, I would be adored for my body shape – not because I was “fat” but because I wasn’t skinny; I had curves.
In my first year at university I took an anthropology module. While I had begun to fathom this idea of different perceptions of beauty, I was still a bit stunned to learn that amongst Azawagh Arabs, as studied by Rebecca Popenoe, a wet and fleshy body is found sexually and aesthetically attractive. Furthermore, women that fit this description reflect economic and social class. A fat woman is symbolic of wealth: she has access to the funds that feed her “fattening” and because she becomes largely immobile, she has the wealth to employ someone to help her with domestic tasks. This all is based on dependency: women are dependent on men for this transformation as they earn the income and men become dependent on women to turn their income into children and beauty that they prize.
With time I have learned of other beauty ideals in different cultures. Some ideals may seem strange and others more reasonable. Nevertheless, the idea that beauty is defined within the compounds of one’s culture is a statement I can support. Having said this, the Western perception of beauty – translated largely as perfection – that is often portrayed in the media and on Hollywood’s screens has become globalised and has creeped into societies the world over. Whether different notions of beauty will remain timeless remains a topic to be explored.
Despite the widely accepted narrative of Western beauty that portrays unrealistic and unattainable goals, this idea of beauty was not always dominant. Naomi Wolf explores this topic in her book The Beauty Myth. Where thinness is now perceived as the precipice of success and as symbolic of a fertile woman, previously it had quite the opposite effect: it was symbolic of fragility, weakness, infertility, and de-sexualisation with fat being symbolic of fertility and desire in women.
Be that as it may, today this is no longer the case. While writing this piece, I came upon a website cataloguing Victoria’s Secret models. Some of the models pictured gave me flashbacks to pictures of Holocaust survivors. In some cases their makeup was not enough to hide the circles under their sunken eyes. But hey, that’s what Photoshop is for! In saying this, I do not wish to stigmatise thin women – some people are naturally very skinny and I have heard someone confess that they feel insecure about their weight as a naturally skinny person. No, the thin I’m referring to is an unnatural, unhealthy, forced thin.
We live in a world where school girls are mapping their cosmetic surgeries on apps and beauty has been translated into capital – a widely seen phenomena amongst women who undergo cosmetic surgery to enhance job prospects and boost their careers. Procedures such as leg-lengthening surgery and double eyelid surgery have become prevalent amongst Chinese women. Black women are bleaching their beautiful skin to be whiter – an indication that beauty is still more associated with a fairer race. Beauty has crept into aspects of people’s culture, race, careers, and social lives.
The cosmetic surgery industry is not the only one that stands to capitalise on these unattainable standards of beauty. Big corporations profit in the process; the food, cosmetic, and fashion industries feed off of this narrative. As someone I spoke to remarked: “Right now we’re held hostage by the corporate interests of the beauty industry in the States. I think the Western perception of beauty is a lot about money making. The harder it is to get, not only does the beauty industry gain, so does the diet industry. There are fitness crazes. Even things like fads such as veganism. There are a lot of interests built into the beauty industry. I’m not sure if it’s Western cultural standards as much as a corporate interest: they all feed into each other and they all stand to gain.”
However, despite capitalising on ideals of beauty, the beauty, cosmetic, and fashion industries are losing out on money at the same time by not catering to different tastes. According to an article by Business Insider, the plus-size industry is worth $17.5 billion. There is clearly a demand there. Fashion aside, a work colleague complained recently that she’s not able to find a good shade of foundation as a Coloured, or mixed-race, woman. Similarly, a friend commented on the nightmare of finding swimwear that caters to a curvaceous body. For this reason some of her friends order swimwear online from Brazil because the shapes are more diverse and accentuate the right places. Alternatives generally aren’t very accessible, particularly not in a country such as South Africa. BeingU, as featured in a recent piece in Ayiba, perfectly understands this gap and sought to address the need for lingerie suited to women of all skin tones, particularly women of colour. The opportunities to be explored in this sphere are boundless and can be explored by small businesses and local markets.
When I asked people about their personal opinions when it comes to Western perspectives of beauty, their first response was, “Whoa! I have so much to say on this topic!” A friend of mine explained to me that, from his perspective as a black man, even though the world is going through a phase of black pride and black people are becoming more comfortable with the darkness of their skin, Western perspectives of beauty still run deep within our society: “We as Africans are genetically not slender human beings and the media portrays slender as the ideal size to be considered beautiful. [This] has bashed the self-esteem of many African ladies.”
One of the issues most remarked upon when speaking to people of different races, cultures, and sexual orientations is the extent to which mainstream narratives of beauty are exclusionary. Western perspectives of beauty are still largely associated with white skin and people that don’t fit this narrative don’t fit into the mainstream Western description of beauty. Another friend of mine confessed that as black lesbian, Western perspectives of beauty had reached that space as well. Something like androgynous fashion or androgyny in itself has a western aesthetic and perceptions of the lesbian aesthetic are Western. A woman who moved from France to the Middle East reinforced this position when she told me about the beauty and diversity she experienced upon making this move and how incredibly good she feels about herself now that she’s been removed from that toxic environment in which women feel pressured by the absurd standards of beauty they conform to.
“Personally I think we’re all losing sight of what beauty is, even the perception of beauty. It’s evolving into a dark unspeakable beast in the room. Aesthetic beauty of a person is ever more un-achievable, the pressure on women especially is immense. To fit a Western ‘standard,’ a standard set by men – when you don’t meet this, then you better have a good sense of humour or some ‘worth’ or men simply don’t give you a look in.” This mother of two also weighed in on her fears of raising both a daughter and a son within this context – that fear of failing them is ever-present. Although she’s been paying less attention to these narratives since hitting her 30s, there’s also an expectation for mothers to “bounce back” for their partner, feed their family organic, free range everything, and bake beautiful cakes with a full face of makeup and “Kardashian-ready outfit” – as if you’re expecting to be photographed or caught on camera at any second. All this while there is not a snotty nose in sight.
Perhaps you are one of the lucky few to feel unaffected by these standards of beauty, like one young woman described: “I’m not really affected by Western perceptions of beauty because I’m very comfortable in my own looks and don’t see a need to adhere to socially constructed ideas of beauty.” If, however, you fall on the other side of the spectrum, there is a lot you need to explore in order to come to terms with the unrealistic, unattainable demands being placed on you. Shifting the blame onto “Western ideals” and corporations is not enough, either. It’s time we challenge narratives within society. It’s time we challenge one another and the beliefs we espouse. It’s time entrepreneurs start mapping new avenues for business ventures that allow for more choice and inclusivity. In the end, though, as my lesbian friend would have it: “It’s all about reclaiming and recreating your own concept of beauty and reminding yourself of what that is in a world that solely tends to push a western and un-relatable [image] of how you should look to be considered beautiful.”
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