CW: Body image issues
“Perfection is a disease of a nation” – Pretty Hurts, Beyoncé.
It’s no secret that beauty standards are essentially made up, and as such, are subject to whimsical change. We often think of trends in terms of fashion, but the body types that are celebrated often vary with comparable frequency. As a Black girl growing up in the UK, this has affected me for as long as I can remember; in just Year 3, my swimming teacher told me that I would struggle more than everyone else because of my body type.
Growing up, I was the chubby kid whose cheeks everyone loved to squeeze. Upon hitting puberty, my body type changed from being chubby to what might now be described as “curvy”. However, in an environment where everyone was desperate to have a thigh gap, that was nothing to be celebrated, and I was still cripplingly self-conscious. Then, mid-way through Year 8, I felt people’s perceptions begin to change. For the first time, my friends were lamenting over being “too skinny”, asking me for advice on how many squats they should do to enhance their curves. I am still coming to terms with the idea that the body type I was shamed for is now seen as ideal, and am honestly yet to fully internalise that message. A part of me still ascribes to the view that thigh gaps are the ideal, even though this is no longer necessarily the case within contemporary society.
This change in beauty standards is exemplified by the frequent media and fan comparison of Halle and Chloe Bailey. Chloe – the more curvaceous of the two sisters – has almost double the following of Halle, even though they are a singing duo and mostly appear in movies together. It has been suggested that a reason for this is Chloe’s body type, with her behaviour subsequently sexualised and policed to a much greater degree, as shown by the backlash to her “Buss it” challenge, and other videos perceived as overly sexual. Meanwhile, Halle’s participation in comparable behaviour has typically provoked a far weaker reaction.
This speaks to the fact that since curvaceous body types are now “in fashion”, anything a woman with this body type does is hyper-sexualised – as if their bodies are inherently sexual. This specific example is only a microcosm of the wider consequences of beauty standards. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Chloe or Halle’s body is seen as more desirable, or what videos they choose to upload of themselves; the idea that their bodies are so central to their popularity is problematic.
Since coming to Oxford, I have befriended women who, whilst living in the UK, grew up surrounded by different diaspora communities where it was seen as shameful to be slim, and where these women were ridiculed for being “too skinny”. This originally shocked me as it was the opposite of my own experience, but it also exemplifies just how changeable and ultimately baseless ideal body types are. More importantly, it demonstrates how much power we, as members of a society, have in influencing beauty standards. As with anything, this power can be used to effect positive change, or can result in detrimental consequences.
The rise of ‘influencer’ culture has drastically increased the influence that normal people can have on beauty standards. With a large following, influencers – essentially social media celebrities – have control over their content, and the values which they choose to perpetuate. Often, in my opinion, influencers don’t take advantage of this level of influence and instead continue to perpetuate unrealistic beauty standards not just related to body types, but also other features such as stretch marks, yellow-ish teeth etc. A recent example of this is Love Island’s Molly Mae’s reaction to her natural teeth after she removed her composite bonds (less permanent version of veneers) as part of a wider attempt to be more ‘natural’. In her video reveal of her new teeth, she described them as “extremely yellow” and booked an appointment to have them whitened the next day, causing her significant pain. Upon seeing her teeth, which she described as “a gold-y shade”, I was surprised to find that they looked absolutely normal. While I am not trying to invalidate her insecurity in any way, watching her talk about her teeth in such a way reinforces the idea that even slight imperfection is intolerable, whilst inadvertently shaming anyone with teeth the same shade as hers.
Whilst Molly Mae has been honest about the procedures she has undergone to curate her appearance, it is common for influencers and celebrities to deny cosmetic procedures, or the use of Photoshop to imperceptibly change their features. This is arguably more problematic as it leads people to aspire to an image that cannot be attained naturally. Attempts to combat this have centred more around the idea of ridiculing celebrities for their “Photoshop fails” or “exposing” celebrities, instead of real introspection within a society that encourages this kind of behaviour.
However, a recent trend has surfaced on TikTok where influencers showcase insecurities such as stretch marks, cellulite, stomach creases, and “yellow” teeth. Although these videos won’t completely revolutionise our society, these influencers might just be influential in changing our perception of perfection. For me personally, seeing influencers be so honest about their imperfections is refreshing – it reminds me that even people who make a living based on their appearance still don’t perfectly match up to beauty standards and if that’s the case, I don’t have to either. This type of open discourse effectively combats the shame that can often be associated with feeling inadequate.
Cover photo: Jennifer Burk via Unsplash