We have been taught to demonize flaws and conceal imperfections. We have been taught to vie for an unattainable illusion. We have been taught that the definition of beauty is physical perfection, a supreme standard. This is no accident. Societal beauty standards are designed to sabotage the intellectual progress of women; they are instruments of repression. Despite the steady, incremental gains in economic and political power, women are still being restrained, coerced into being lifelong consumers who feed the success of capitalism. Industries such as social media, cosmetics, and plastic surgery rely on psychological exploitation and constant censoring of reality, directly targeting women. These industries carelessly promote falsities about worthiness and individuality, blatantly undermining the well-being of girls and women, forcing them to conform to conventional ideals of femininity.
Societal beauty standards have been utilized since the dawn of civilization to ensure the success of male-dominated power structures. Disseminating images of women with flawless figures, symmetrical faces and impeccable temperaments is necessary to suppress female liberation. By imposing these constructs upon women, not only is their ambition diverted and exhausted, but women are forced to see each other as competitors in a perpetual battle for the attention of men. Beauty standards evolve simultaneously with society, mutating to remain unattainable.
Social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are the most recent evolution. They directly exploit the human instinct to compete for superiority. “What we see portrayed on social media is curated, staged and doctored,” says Robyn Gregory, a clinical social worker practicing independently in Portland. “It is completely unrealistic and yet we start to substitute social media for our own reality and then we feel like we are not stacking up.” This is how the ruthless cycle of self-chastising and inauthentic promotion of our lives begins. So many ache to break free from this artificial, commercialized delusion but are too entranced by the facade of grandeur to do so. A Harvard research study titled Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time found that humans’ “dopamine-driven desire for social validation” is what makes us so susceptible to social media addiction. Gregory elaborates further, explaining “dopamine gets triggered in our brain when we feel good. Social media makers have learned how to get more dopamine hits off of their social media pages.” Social media hypnotizes us by structuring platforms around praise and validation. Societal beauty standards exploit that same vulnerability, the instinct to conform.
Consumption runs deep through the roots of our society. Industries see the idea of beauty as profitable. They market and advertise to girls and women that simple materialistic items and invasive cosmetic surgeries will empower their sense of self; this is psychological abuse. We have become so numb to this toxic manipulation that we blindly tolerate it without a second thought. “It’s the external validation that people receive because of their physicality that then gets confused or conflated in their own minds with self worth,” remarks Gregory. As your internal belief in character becomes contaminated with your perception of your external shell, you become vulnerable to anxiety, body dysmorphia, anorexia and a plethora of other disorders. In her internationally acclaimed, nonfiction bestseller The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf articulates the underlying issue. “There is a secret underlife poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control.” This ever impending urge to satisfy patriarchal standards gnaws at our subconscious. In her song “Pretty Hurts,” Beyoncé voices the silent struggle of girls and women, singing, “We shine the light on whatever’s worst. Perfection is a disease of a nation.”
It is futile to think that the monstrous beauty franchises will reform, for they capitalize on our ceaseless pursuit of physical perfection. The healing must start with us. We need to dismantle our own destructive thought patterns. We need to stop agonizing over our imperfections; our bodies are not replicable objects in need of alteration. “One of the biggest falsities [promoted through the media] is that there is a formula for beauty,” says Grace Curley, senior leader of the Franklin Mental Health Advocacy Cohort. “I think beauty has a lot to do with the energy that people have, and if they’re radiating positive and welcoming energy, that’s beautiful.” We need to purge from ourselves the impossible standards we have internalized. Insecurities are not innate, they are conditioned. We need to start defining ourselves not by the contour of our body but by the intangible spirit that lies within.