Opening the Eye of the Beholder

By today’s standards, girls must make a conscious, and most often, futile effort to become skinny but not lanky, curvy but not fat, sexy but not slutty. We have, as a society, created unfeasible beauty standards that are so rigid and limiting they often seem fixed and unchangeable. I certainly concur that our focus on appearance is here to stay, and that it is not necessarily a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with appreciating when a person is beautiful. But we need to stop condensing the word “beauty” so that it applies only to the meticulously airbrushed models that we see between the pages of a fashion magazine. Furthermore, we need to stop seeing external appearance as fundamentally and intrinsically tied to individual value. (As a woman who has first-hand experience with body image, I will focus primarily on the standards set for women in our society in this article.) As comedian Tina Fey points out in her autobiography, Bossypants, “Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama and doll tits.” This glorified, hyper-sexualized image of the “ideal” woman is not the universal norm. In fact, many standards of beauty throughout the world are considered undesirable by Western criteria. In China, the ancient practice of foot binding was once considered essential for a woman’s appearance, while in America, bound, miniscule feet are seen as grotesque. In some African and Asian cultures, brass rings are worn around one’s throat in order to create what Westerners would consider a freakishly elongated neck. Likewise, unibrows and aquiline noses are considered signs of great beauty in the Middle East, while Western culture requires hot wax and a scalpel to “cure” such deficiencies. I use these examples to demonstrate the fact that beauty is not solid or unchangeable. It is mutable, inconsistent and entirely subject to the whims of society. As a result, our cultural mindset needs to be reformed. In our present society, each individual, regardless of appearance, can look in the mirror find something wrong with what they see. In a riveting piece of slam poetry entitled “Pretty,” Kate Makkai describes a tragic culture of women who, amidst devastating stereotypes and crippling stigmas, “will prowl 30 stores in six malls to find the right cocktail dress, but haven’t a clue where to find fulfillment or how to wear joy.” Our ludicrous standards of beauty must be changed, and the answer could be as simple as widening our perspective of what it means to be “beautiful.” Changing our culture’s view of beauty does not mean belittling skinny, or curvy, or sexy women. We simply need to learn to acknowledge that while their image may be one form of beauty, it is not necessarily the only form of beauty. If we learn to find and appreciate the diverse beauty of various body types, hairstyles, skin tones, personalities and passions, then the battle is already half won. Furthermore, we need to separate our concept of physical appearance from our concept of individual worth. No person, male or female, should be considered a less valuable person as a result of how they look. And vice versa, no stereotypically beautiful person should be taken less seriously as result of his or her sex appeal. Any efforts to change our culture’s beauty standards in order to make them more diverse, more accessible and less damaging to our mental and physical well being must start at the most basic level. We have to start here, in high school, where girls and boys alike stress over what it means to be beautiful every single day. Look around Paresky Commons tomorrow and try to identify the beauty in each individual. If it is not immediately apparent to you, look again, and remember that there is more than one way to be beautiful. If we apply that knowledge to our surroundings, and even more importantly, apply it to ourselves, we could change the world, one step at a time. Grace Tully is a two-year Lower from Reading, Mass.