As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder—that is, as long as the one being beholden is thin, tall, white, has perfect skin, and symmetrical features. Let’s face it: from a very young age, regardless of one’s culture, humans are made aware of what is considered beautiful, what is considered not, and the significance of that distinction. And in the United States, those traits—thin, tall, and white, with clear skin and symmetrical features—are the epitome of beautiful.
Beauty, of course, is the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses. From an evolutionary perspective, humans find certain features or traits more physically appealing or attractive than others because they are the expression of good genes, and we humans are biologically driven to seek out a mate with the best genes to reproduce. From a cultural perspective, however, certain traits are defined as more attractive than others due to certain cultural beliefs and values. These traits then become the golden standard which all individuals living within that culture are conditioned to believe they must live up to.
In the United States, beauty is an industry in which cultural beauty standards are upheld by a system that profits off selling products to consumers which guarantee improving specific sought-after traits. In other words, the beauty industry conditions us into thinking certain traits or characteristics are more attractive than others, because they can profit the most off of them. In reality, however, many of these “favored” traits have nothing to do with beauty and can actually be harmful to those who try to seek them.
Here are some of the biggest and most pervasive lies told to us by the beauty industry:
1. Women are supposed to be hairless.
If women were supposed to be hairless everywhere except the top of their head, eyebrows, and eyelashes, then we would have been born that way. But we aren’t, because hair is intended to protect us from foreign objects, insulate us, and cool us down. Yet women are conditioned into believing that having hair anywhere other than those three areas is unfeminine, unattractive, and even gross or offensive. That’s because the beauty industry can healthily profit off hair removal products and services. Don’t believe it for a second, ladies: there’s nothing unnatural about having hair. In fact, it’s unnatural to remove it.
2. Eurocentric features are the epitome of beauty.
Ever heard the phrase “You’re pretty for a black girl”? This concept is why. Several centuries back, a bunch of racist old white dudes defined beauty by the Eurocentric features found in white women, and those beliefs have lasted through the ages. People spend millions on plastic surgery to get features that they believe offer the only way of being beautiful, when in reality those features only represent one out of many different types of beauty.
3. Being fat is ugly.
Quite possibly the most harmful lie told to us by the beauty industry is the idea that being fat is ugly. Women and men spend millions of dollars a year on products and services that guarantee weight loss because being fat in our society is on par with criminal activity. But the concept that fat is unhealthy is almost entirely baseless. Health does not look the same on every person, for one thing—but even if it did, one person’s health is nobody else’s business. And if health were so important, than the beauty industry wouldn’t encourage people to starve themselves and develop eating disorders all in the name of “being healthy”.
4. Skin is supposed to be flawless.
Scars, acne, cellulite, veins, pigmentation, rosacea, and other skin conditions are natural. They happen, sometimes regardless of how perfect our genes are. We wouldn’t believe they are so unattractive and unnatural if we weren’t offered a plethora of products promising to erase or get rid of them.
5. White is better.
Similar to the lie that eurocentric features are the epitome of beauty, the idea that white is better in our society is quite pervasive. Up until Rihanna’s new Fenty beauty line, almost all makeup lines came in shades that stopped at a certain point—a troubling trend that largely exists because dark skin is not considered attractive or acceptable. Additionally, there are countless skin whitening products made available to people of color so that they can get a “desired” skin tone too. Thanks, but no thanks.
6. Disabilities, ailments, illnesses, or disorders are unattractive.
Take a look at any magazine, commercial, or advertisement and try to find a model with a disability or disorder of some kind. Actually, I’ll save you the suspense and a lot of time: you won’t find one. The lack of inclusion of differently-abled people in the mainstream beauty industry is very telling of just how restricted and exclusive (read: fucked up) our culture’s idea of beauty is.
7. Women are supposed to have hourglass figures, and men are supposed to have defined muscle tone
Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and yet only one is ever shown. Women are made to believe that they need big breasts, a tiny waist, and a curvy booty in order to be considered feminine and beautiful—but if women were all supposed to look like that, then we would. Same with men: they are made to believe that their worth as a man and as a person is dependent on how much muscle definition they have. But there are a wide array of diverse bodies out there. All of them are beautiful, and all of them are capable of amazing things.