Smashing the Beauty Myth

Hello, Fabulous Person!

I made a video this morning diving into The Beauty Myth, but this topic deserves far more contemplation than one can provide in a short video on social media. I shot the video multiple times to get it under ten minutes in length. There was so much to impart, so much to explore, so much to unpack when it comes to the limited construct that has been built around what society deems beautiful. That construct informs so much of how we view ourselves and treat other people. It starts when we are infants, and it continues to inform us as we age. It’s pervasive, pernicious, and powerful, and it can be poisonous when you exist in a realm that is far outside of the parameters of what is considered beautiful and therefore worthy of adoration/success/attention. It’s informed by biases that reflect a toxic cocktail of sexism, racism, gender discrimination, ageism, size-sim, bias against people with disabilities, and the myriad of ways that we impose arbitrary rules about what is and what is not beautiful.

Ask yourself, what is beautiful? Then think about how your answer reflects your bias and how that bias is informed by cultural mythology.

Then ask yourself, what values you subscribe to physical beauty? Then think about how that reflects your bias and how that informs the way you perceive and treat other people.

Are you uncomfortable around people who are different from you? Do you feel uncomfortable around people with physical disabilities or deformities?

Do you feel disdain or disgust for people who you deem to be physically unattractive?

Do you feel physically unattractive and does that make you feel less than?

As I grow older, I’m finding myself digging deeper into my own biases. Whatever the rules may be, if they are limiting people from coming into the fullness of who they are, they are rules that should be defied. There are as many ways of being in the world as there are people in the world, none of them are more valid. When I say this, I am referring to physical being, because behavior is a whole other nut to crack.

When I was very young, I didn’t think about being pretty or not pretty. I didn’t know pale skin was a problem or cellulite was bad or not having the right pair of shoes and shirt made me look poor or weird. I didn’t know that I had to dress a certain way because I was a girl. It wasn’t until the world told me that I was ‘ugly’ that I doubted my beauty. It wasn’t until the world told me that I wasn’t ‘doing things right’ that I started to feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t until the world told me I was wearing the ‘wrong’ clothing, that I started to care about fashion. It wasn’t until people made fun of my appearance, that I began to see parts of my body as flawed.

Aidy Bryant’s new show Shrill on Hulu is a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a woman who is not skinny in our skinny obsessed culture. It’s about far more than this, but it really pushes and pokes at the pervasiveness of size bias. The show is based on the memoir Shrill by Lindy West. I could not stop watching it until I’d seen every episode. There’s a scene in the show where Aidy’s character Annie goes to a pool party with other fat women, only fat women. As I am considered fat by the tables that determine this crap, I feel comfortable using that word. Annie wears jeans and a blouse, but eventually feels comfortable taking them off and wearing her bathing suit. Her tentative comfort is eclipsed by unbridled joy when she swims and then dances in full celebration of her feeling of freedom. I related to this on a cellular level. I’ve never felt comfortable in a bathing suit in public. Almost every time I’ve worn one, someone has made a point of telling me that I need to get a tan. I was a skinny person until I hit menopause, but my tits were too small and my skin was too pale and people were relentless in pointing this out. Now that I’m older, curvier, lumpier, and still pale, I’m even less inclined to wear a bathing suit in public. The last time I did was at a small gathering with relatives, and someone STILL made a point of making fun of my skin. Seriously. I cannot imagine being in a space where I could not only feel comfortable in a bathing suit, but comfortable enough to dance in my bathing suit.

We can thank Coco Chanel for the pale skin bias, and the real truth is that like many biases, it’s rooted in racism and classism. Until Coco got a suntan on the French Riviera in the 1920s, the prevailing Beauty Myth was that extremely pale women were the height of beauty. Extremely pale women were wealthy white women. Poor people were either born with darker skin because they were not white people, or they were suntanned because they had to work outside in the sun. Being pale was a status symbol. Rich white people could stay inside or under hats and parasols, and maintain their lily white skin. Then the suntan, thanks to Coco, became a status symbol. People of color were still not included in this Beauty Myth, but white people who got suntans were. This is because they were from a social class where they could afford to vacation in tropical locations and cultivate tan skin. The myth here was that it was okay to turn your skin brown in the sun, but it wasn’t okay to have brown skin naturally, and that’s some fucked up racist bullshit right there which is further reflected in the popularity of products designed to help brown skinned people make their skin lighter.

We can’t even be comfortable in our own skin.

The Fashion and Beauty industries are built on convincing people that their lives will be better if they can afford this brand or that shoe or this lipstick or that haircut. That’s how they sell us the newest thing. Trends are an illusion created to instill a sense of urgency that convinces and compels us to spend money. This plays into our desire to fit in and be accepted. Fashion and beauty are also informed by male fantasy and the binary gender model. The Fashion and Beauty industries are built on convincing women that they’ll be happier and more successful and more desirable if they just make themselves more ‘attractive.’ As we get older, we are also told that we need to look younger to remain relevant.

What we think is attractive is learned, and in America a Euro-centric, youth focused model of beauty informs our media and our bias. That youthful thing, that’s interesting too, because it’s male gaze/fantasy informed. There wouldn’t be millions of children across the globe being sold into sexual slavery if there weren’t men eager to have sex with pubescent girls and boys. Is this biology or cultural mythology? I’m not sure, but it’s worth exploring and dissecting, because if you look at fashion magazines and runway shows and beauty ads, the models are often in their teens but being dressed up to look older, and thereby sexualized and objectified.

I’ve been told by men more times than I can count that women want to see ‘beautiful, young women’ in magazines, ads, film, and TV. Do we, though? Aerie figured something out that Victoria’s Secret missed. I think everyone wants to know that moment at the pool party being surrounded by people who make us feel like it’s okay to not reflect a limited idea of what is acceptable, beautiful, or relevant. I think we ALL want to see ourselves reflected in the media and marketing, to live in a world where we don’t have to fear being shamed or bullied just for existing. How can I imagine myself needing your bra or jeans or lip gloss or wrinkle cream if your advertising only shows impossibly perfect airbrushed and digitally enhanced people wearing your products?

Beauty as a life goal is a myth, and that myth needs to be smashed. Being ‘pretty’ is not an accomplishment, it’s genetics. You are beautiful, exactly as you are, and however you choose to dish it out is entirely your business. I wish Aidy Bryant could star in a show that didn’t have to focus on her size or how she navigates the way other people react to her size, because that’s some fucked up size-ist bullshit right there.

Digging deeper, when we do see a more diverse reflection of people in the media, especially in TV and film, they are still being filtered through our cultural (Eurocentric, youth focused, binary gender) ideas of what is beautiful. This means that most people are not reflected. We see diversity, but the diversity is still limited.

My current life experience involves not seeing women over 50 in the media, or if I do, most of the women over 50 look like they’re in their 40s or have had extensive amounts of surgical and chemical intervention. I don’t have a problem with that unless it’s being presented as the only acceptable way to age. Women should age however they choose. But I do ask myself, “What’s wrong with looking like a woman in your 50s?” When we do see an aging face reflected in the media, it’s shocking, because it’s so rare.

If a woman in her 50s wants to wear make-up, no one is showing her how to do that addressing the changes that happen as we age. Our faces fall, our skin wrinkles, our pores expand, shit happens to our faces. Most of us can’t afford Botox and lasers and Ultherapy, and even if we can, we should not feel that we have to do these things to be beautiful.

Why can’t the beauty industry embrace more naturally aging faces? Why don’t they see the value in that? Beyond that, why can’t a beauty influencer not be ‘beautiful’ according to our limited and biased view of beauty?

Is there a beauty company willing to do for the beauty space what Aerie did for the lingerie space?

I’ve decided I’m no longer buying new clothes at retail with the exception of some essentials, because it’s far more fun having no limitation to what colors or patterns or styles I can choose. I get to wear what I like, and reject the idea that I have to conform to the ever shifting whims of the fickle finger of fashion. It’s like playing dress-up every day, or not playing dress-up if that’s what feels good. I am wearing makeup when I choose or feeling comfortable enough without it that I can make videos and share them online of my makeup free 55 year old face. That feels amazing.

I’m trying to catch and correct my biases as they arise, and to smash my own beauty myths.

Collectively, we can smash all of the myths that separate and limit us. We are all worthy and no one else gets to define us. I want to know that unbridled joy of being surrounded by people who accept and embrace me exactly as I am, and I want to offer that to everyone I meet. I want to keep striving for a world where we are all free to be comfortable in our skin.

(If you like this post, you might enjoy my book Fifty and Other F-Words: Reflections from the Rearview Mirror. I’m just sayin’.)