By: S. Costa Franco
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All around us are indications of how we, women, should look. And believe or not, these representations of beauty have an enormous impact on our society, and how we perceive gender roles. From art, to media, to advertisements, and even toys our children play with, these all portray, in one way or another, symbols of feminine beauty. These symbols are imposed upon us from a very young age, and society continuously regresses through encouraging women to comply to these expectations. But exactly what are these symbols, and how do they reflect on our society?
It is evident that gender roles have changed over time, but not nearly as much as they should have. Rather than abolish the concept of imposing restrictive stereotypes and conjectures upon individuals of any gender, the only difference that has really been made was exactly what these stereotypes and conjectures are. For instance, in the past, a woman's main source of identity was seen as deriving from caring for children and the home; essentially, being a nurturing mother and wife. Currently, and fortunately, society as a whole is more accepting, of women being further integrated in the workplace and pursuing their own future and career of choice.
Regardless, there is now another characteristic that is viewed as a woman's main, if not sole, source of identity: that of appearance. It seems like anywhere we turn we see movies displaying unrealistic forms of beauty, advertisements promoting products that claim to modify women's faces and bodies, artwork that acts as contemporary symbols of what was and is perceived as feminine beauty, and even dolls and toys that spread unattainable ideals of how women should look. This occurs to the extent that some women might even feel inadequate due to these stigmas. We must stop possessing the belief that there is a "right way to be a woman" that is determined by one's appearance. Truthfully, this goes for all genders as well. In fact, the confining box of "gender" itself, within which we place the citizens of our society, is what limits the potential of so many to explore their true selves and can have significantly negative consequences upon the global community.
REPRESENTATION OF FEMININE BEAUTY IN ART
To pertain to the theme of this issue, one of the examples that will be mentioned of artistic representation of feminine beauty shall be none other than the bust of Nefertiti, currently found in the Neues Museum in Berlin. For context, Nefertiti herself was an inspiring figure, acting as an Egyptian Queen and Great Royal Wife to Akhenaten, Egyptian Pharaoh. Her statue is of notable importance, being that Egyptian art at the time of her ruling served ideological and religious purposes, illustrating what was thought to be eternal. Artists depicted rulers as an archetype, and Nefertiti became an archetype of feminine beauty. This is even further highlighted by the fact that her name means "the beautiful one has come" or "the perfect one has arrived". Ergo, it is clear that Nefertiti does act as a symbol of feminine beauty.
Further examples of the representation of feminine beauty in art include Aphrodite of Knidos, statue of the Greek goddess of love and beauty by the name of Aphrodite. The sculpture was created by Praxiteles of Athens around the 4th Century B.C., and plainly conveys, even through a religious lens, all that was thought to represent feminine beauty at the time. Similar paintings and sculptures of the sort depict the same meaning.
A final example would be the dancer Parvati, seen in the famous sculpture Shiva and Parvati, from India, made in around 1300. The dancer contains features perceived as beautiful and forever acted as a symbol of grace and charm.
Examples like this can be found all around the world from any time period, allowing us to conclude that art has a significant role to play when it comes to representing feminine beauty.
REPRESENTATION OF FEMININE BEAUTY IN MEDIA
There is no doubt about the fact that media has become all-encompassed and heavily integrated into our current society. As a result of that, what this media is used for will most certainly impact said society, and hence must be severely scrutinised and tailored to fit what are generally accepted as adequate values we collectively adopt, based on the pillars of liberty, equity and justice. That said, there is also no doubt about the fact that media portrays a very detrimental view of women to the general public, and this must be addressed.
Makeup artists, hairdressers and stylists spend hours ensuring that celebrities and actresses appear perfect on the television, movies, TV shows and social media content we consume, forcing women and young girls to feel like they must look like this naturally to be "adequately and sufficiently female". These unrealistic expectations range to other genders as well, and even to certain aspects of our lives such as relationships and careers, but the representation of female beauty is one of the most striking. With the rise of digital tools that allow us to alter and enhance our appearance in photographs, some have become dependent on said tools to feel confident sharing content, and those who view such content acquire a feeling of inadequacy due to the inevitable habit of comparison that we humans employ for ourselves in relation to others.
REPRESENTATION OF FEMININE BEAUTY IN MARKETING AND THE COSMETICS INDUSTRY
When picturing the modern societal representation of feminine beauty, it is likely that advertisements and cosmetics are what initially come to mind, and it is true that this is one of the most obvious examples.
The 'myth' of beauty we have collectively created and hold so sacred can be understood as no more than a marketing tactic. Think about it – by repeatedly promoting certain beauty ideals in adverts and magazines which are completely unattainable, consumers of this content are made to feel inadequate and wish to achieve this appearance as well. Yes, we have already established this, and highlighted that it is a very negative thing, but... what if it was not? At least, from an economic perspective, that is.
See, when women and girls, and those who identify as a range of other genders, become forcibly obsessed with chasing a certain impossible appearance, they are capable of exhausting an enormous abundance of resources on attempting to attain the unattainable, especially if they are presented with a product that promises to get them one step closer to achieving this beauty standard. For instance, in 2018 alone, Americans spent $16.5 billion on cosmetic plastic surgery. Also in the United States, the revenue of the American cosmetic industry was estimated to amount to 49.2 billion dollars in 2019. These statistics are an indication of the power that can come from utilising beauty stereotypes for financial benefit.
HOW DOES THIS REFLECT ON SOCIETY?
Let us first discuss the impact of representing feminine beauty through art. These types of symbols actually permit us to learn more about the historical perception of beauty, which truly puts into perspective the one we now possess and can teach us much about gender roles in that sense. Thus, this form of representation can in fact be extremely beneficial to modern society and does not carry the added burden of women feeling obliged to comply to this form of beauty, as we tend to be more centered on living up to present beauty standards. The key disadvantage to beware of is that when historical figures, such as Nefertiti for example, become known solely for their beauty and role in contributing to the creation of beauty standards, we can often lose sight of their other accomplishments and how there is more that made up their identity than merely their appearance. This is crucial to consider, as although there is no problem with admiring an individual's physical beauty, we must ensure that we do not fall into the trap of believing this is the sole component of their historical impact and identity.
Now, to the topic of media. It seems blatantly unjust to subject so many women and girls to the persistent feeling of inadequacy and dissatisfaction with oneself by continuing to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and expectations. We all enjoy certain media for the purpose that it conveys to us an alternate reality, but the problems emerge when this alternative reality is made to seem like the reality we should all experience, when in fact this is not the case. Homo Sapiens are social creatures, and thus suffer the tendency of constantly comparing ourselves to our social surroundings, forcing many down the path of chasing something we shall never attain. This reflects on our society as it depicts just how repressive and psychologically and emotionally detrimental some of our biases and behaviours can be, and this must be fully addressed to be utterly resolved.
Additionally, the reflection that the representation of female beauty in the cosmetic industry has on society is a striking, and frankly rather appalling one. If we are willing to feed costumers unattainable expectations which carry with them the sense of misery, inadequacy and self-dissatisfaction with the sole purpose of extracting their resources, how far have we truly come as a society? Our world is already far too heavily powered on the premises of capitalism and greed and exploiting consumers to acquire monetary resources at the cost of their emotional wellbeing is the epitome of cruelty and selfishness. It may be tempting, but to continue to fight the rise of stereotypes that limit the possibilities of one's identity, we must also resist the urge of falling subject to the desire to expand economically without regard to the wellbeing of others. Then, and only then, shall we move towards achieving the more just way of life that we currently strive for.
Lastly, to return to the brief initial mention of the representation of female beauty directed to children through means of television, toys and other forms of leisure, the impact of this on society must not be ignored. If the pressure of needing to comply to gender roles and beauty standards is something we collectively recognise as negative that must be actively combatted, it seems unbelievably unfitting that we expose young children to these stereotypes as well. Creating a world in which restrictive society expectations are non-existent begins with deconstructing these stereotypes openly in front of future generations. Gender roles have become structural, and we rely on new generations to deconstruct this oppressive structure - let us not lose sight of that.
Now, we have established that symbols that delineate feminine beauty and only portray one form of such leads to a feeling of inadequacy and the need to conform to characteristics that are either unattainable or non-representative of one's identity upon many young girls and women. However, these feelings are endured by all, although perhaps to different extents, due to the gender roles and expectations we impose upon others.
Well, what can truly be done about all of this?
Indeed, when it comes to stereotypes and restrictive expectations that have become deep-rooted into the structure of society, it can often seem like there is no way out – society is too far gone. But, this is never the case.
The first step to recognising issues within our society is always to address them. I cannot stress the importance of this. Too many of us are in denial of the problems that arise with expectations we place upon individuals of different genders, hence why it is so crucial to get informed about these issues and recognise what is going on around us.
We must also work towards deconstructing our implicit biases. So many of us are not aware of the notions we have within us (thus why they are known as 'implicit'), in which we too expect others to conform to our ideas of what they should be. Ergo, it is key to spread awareness that these biases lie in us all, independent of whether we may deny it, and collectively work towards abolishing them and adopting a more open and accepting mindset.
Let us not continue to perpetuate the harmful stigmas and stereotypes that, in truth, negatively impact us all. Instead, together we must work towards constructing a society that is far more inclusive in which all can thrive whilst living true to their identity.