By: Stephanie Duncan
Living in the city of Chicago, I am subjected to an ambush of the beauty industry’s marketing every day. In just a five minute walk from my apartment, I am exposed to billboards, taxi ads, bus stop signs, and full-size murals all campaigning for my attention with a different media message: this mascara will guarantee you a great date, these boots are winter must-haves, this dress will make a new you! But to a twenty-year-old college girl who knows she does not roll out of the sheets in the morning looking like a perfume model, these messages get translated a little differently. I see the media goddess, whose body is all tan and confidence and curve, or, everything that I am not, and all I hear is a roaring accusation: These are not your legs, this is not your skin, you will never have this hair, this body, this allure.
Apparently, I am not the only one who feels insecure at these images. A recent survey shows that 70% of women feel insecure, depressed and guilty after only three minutes of browsing through a fashion magazine . And even though I know there are whole departments dedicated to the digital and cosmetic perfecting of that magazine face and figure, it still makes me wonder what my own body is missing. It made me hate my freckles growing up, because all the leading ladies were summery bronze; it made me count calories at age thirteen because I was convinced my stomach needed to be flawlessly right-angle-flat. In my head, I know that the girl on the cover makes her paycheck by being posed and edited and made-up just so, yet it is hard not to play the deadly game of comparison.
The problem with the mass media for women is that it dares to confine the dynamic definition of beauty to one, narrow feminine ideal: she is tall, tan, thin, wasp-waisted, full-breasted and with a face to launch a thousand ships. There is no room for variety; instead, beauty is restricted to a set of immovable ideals. So even though the body type of the average American model only makes up 2% of the national population, her 5’11” height and 117 pound frame is projected to the rest of us as normative.
The Hollywood standard shoves beauty into a narrow category that causes women to limit themselves to come up to scratch. A restrictive media ideal results in restrictive cultural practices, so we limit ourselves through eating disorders that have reached epidemic proportions, cosmetic surgery that is used for saleable self-esteem and sexual compromise to the rising cultural expectation of the woman’s body as a mere pleasure device.
The media ideal is offensive to the female identity because it reduces our personhood to a specific brand, dress size, hair volume and skin tone. It degrades our sense of worth by validating only one facet of a multi-faceted woman: her body image. Her complex and unique personhood is oversimplified in the fact that only her body is acknowledged. The media icon, that glowing goddess of attraction, fragments our understanding of personhood because she only presents one part of the whole. Like a broken mirror, we only see a fraction of the true, complete image.
And this is where I, and many other women, protest. Women are whole beings; and true beauty is holistic. Rather than limiting the definition of beauty and so stifling it, the definition of beauty begs to be widened, so setting us free. True beauty recognizes that the narrow containment of “it-factor” attractiveness is an amateur understanding of a much grander, much more intricate splendor. Beauty is not one-dimensional, but found in personhood, in the many facets of a woman: emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual. Beauty is not found in the compartmentalization of these elements, but in the composition of all of our unique facets combined.
This kind of beauty, the kind of beauty that recognizes the wholeness of women, then expresses itself in freedom. The woman who knows true beauty is free to develop a self-worth that is based on an understanding of herself as a whole person, rather than a fragmented image. She is free to grow in healthy confidence rather than exhaust her energy racing to measure up to the media ideal. She is free from the comparison game, and she is free to empower others to discover their own beauty. She is free to enjoy life rather than retreat into a dissatisfying tangle of insecurities.
So how do we bridge the gap between fragmented thinking and holistic thinking? How do we make peace with our bodies in a culture that ever-insists we need to be younger, thinner, softer, curvier? We can start by choosing what voices we will listen to. As we sift through the conflicting messages about beauty from our culture, family, community, and peers, we can ask ourselves, what messages empower my self-esteem? And what messages injure how I view myself?
By separating the false voices from the true, we empower ourselves to choose our own standard of beauty. We do not have to let our value be dictated by the insistent media roar; we can choose for ourselves the voices to which we will listen. We do not need to spend our energy and our self-esteem trying to imitate a face and figure whose very career it is to sit pretty.
True beauty celebrates the wholeness of women and the radiant variety in which we express it, empowering us to make peace with our bodies as a distinctive and matchless part of our design. As we grow in our understanding of true beauty, let us rise above the media tricks and pressures and choose to celebrate the whole image, the whole person, that we see in the mirror.
Gallagher, B.J. Everything I need to Know I Learned from Other Women. York Beach, Maine: Cohari, 2002. p. 109.