Long Reads

"Why we need to change the way we talk about beauty"

Posted by
Natasha Preskey
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Can we celebrate body positivity while also asking why we have to be attractive?

Paint-by-numbers articles about women ‘opening up about their insecurities’, ‘celebrating imperfections’ and ‘promoting real beauty’ are a dependable fall-back option for lifestyle journalists when we’re writing about body positivity.

A body acceptance story has three core ingredients. First, there’s a confession of insecurity – either an earnest Instagram caption trimmed with a dozen hashtags, or an old-fashioned quote sourced from an A-lister (almost always a woman). Next comes the solidarity – women on social media pointing their smartphones into the mirror to organise a group trip to the body hang-ups confessional. Finally, there’s real-beautification – whatever we thought was wrong with our bodies is redeemed as ‘real’ or ‘natural’ beauty.

The overarching message here is a good one but, last year, while writing about a hashtag celebrating ‘hip dips’ (a ‘flaw’ I only learned I had from researching the piece), I began to question my own role in this cycle. Did ‘hip dips’ need to be beautiful for them, and us, to be acceptable? I’d been promoting, in good faith, the message that there’s more than one path to being physically attractive. But by neglecting to ask why women owe it to the world to be beautiful in the first place, had I entrusted half the world’s happiness and humanity to the beholder? 

“Growing up, I was taught that if you were a pretty girl, you’d get your own way more often,” Mia*, 25, tells me. “When I was about 18, my mum used to ask me to speak to the man in the shop if she needed to find something that wasn’t on the shelf, because she said that they’d work harder if I asked them.”

Being taught to be pretty and pliable is, for many women, a key lesson of girlhood. More than a third of seven to 10 year olds and over half of 11 to 21 year olds said they had been made to feel like their looks were the most important thing, when surveyed by Girlguiding UK in 2016. And the penalties for ‘getting it wrong’ are not always dished out evenly between genders. Research from the University of Messina found that being unattractive damaged women’s chances of securing a job interview significantly more than men’s.

“Historically, appearance has been seen to be very central to a woman’s identity,” says Dr Phillippa Diedrechs, a research psychologist and associate professor in appearance research at the University of West England. “We know men are affected by body image concerns and there can be narrow appearance ideals but, historically, they have been able to succeed, represent themselves and participate in society in lots of different ways.”

Dr Diedrechs suggests we need a shift in how we define beauty. “Beauty can be a very loaded word for lots of women,” she explains. As well as appearance, she adds, beauty can be about sensory experiences, self-expression, creativity, and pleasure. Media, and society more generally, must also put physical attractiveness “in its place among the spectrum of other things that are important in girls’ and women’s lives”.

Over the years, I’ve apologised to oblivious partners, friends, flatmates and colleagues for not washing my hair, wearing yesterday’s jumper or looking ‘a state’. Why? Because, as a woman, looking ‘ugly’ can feel like breaking an unspoken pact entered into at birth.

“I really want there to be a time where women don’t care about being viewed as attractive,” says 19-year-old Bonnie, who struggled with body image issues and a difficult relationship with food when she was at school. “But in a world where technology is becoming more prevalent and make-up is an industry worth billions and billions of dollars, I can’t imagine there will be a time where women who don’t care about how they look will be seen as normal – and that’s really sad.”

“We have unrealistic expectations for both genders – but for women it is harder to separate who they are as a person and what they look like,” adds Mia. “We say it all the time: ‘I better sort myself out and look nice if X person is coming round’. We’ve made it so that we have an obligation to look presentable for other people.”

It’s important to protect our right to be unkempt and unashamed if we choose but, equally important, is not allowing beauty to be the dominion of one kind of woman. Beauty should be a party to which everyone is invited and confining our notion of it to white, slender, cis-gendered and able-bodied women can harm both mental and physical wellbeing. In October last year, Childline revealed it had provided 2,609 counselling sessions on body image in the previous 12 months alone.

Naomi* was teased for years by bullies about her size at school. “When I hit middle school, friends would get ‘boyfriends’ or notes in their drawers from secret admirers, and I’d be the one who would be called names and mocked in PE,” she tells me.

When Naomi, now 25, was 12, she and her classmates had to perform raps together for a video. “The day came when we watched everyone’s back on a telly that was wheeled to the front of the room, and I remember seeing myself and silently crying at the back of the class because in my eyes I looked so big and disgusting - especially in front of the boy I fancied,” she says.

“I was wearing a sporty skirt that I loved from Matalan and I really thought I looked nice until I saw myself on the screen,” she adds. “My teacher didn’t understand and I remember feeling embarrassed and angry that she couldn’t see what I saw. I never wanted anyone to see that again.”

Body dissatisfaction is not only a risk factor for eating disorders but is also associated with low mood, depression, anxiety and stress, says Dr Diedrechs. “On days when they’re concerned about their appearance, we know women might not turn up to work or put themselves forward and give an opinion – or, for girls, put their hand up in the classroom,” she adds. “It can affect academic work, aspirations and performance.”

It’s clear that we need to claw beauty back from those who sell it as a joyless, compulsory task only a minority can complete. But to raise a generation of fearless, confident women, we must also teach girls that physical attractiveness is not a requirement for success, happiness and humanity.

For information and help on eating disorders, visit eating disorder charity BEAT.

*Name has been changed

Images: iStock, CSA Image, Jobalu