Distorted(?) Perceptions of Beauty

Image courtesy of Aleksa D / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Aleksa D / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In one of her posts last week, Holley asked the question: Do you believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

She then shared some of the male celebrities that had been crushes of hers, and how her crushes differed from those of her mother and grandmother. You can see the post by clicking on the link above.

The sociologist in me got excited about this and wanted to comment about the fact that while we have our natural inclinations about what we like, they are affected by the way we are socialized into what is “beautiful.” If you know me at all, you will understand that I was compelled to go beyond “who floats our boat?” to the deeper question of how does this socialized concept of “beauty” affect us at a deeper level, primarily because of the effect it has on all of us, but particularly on young women. Following is an edited version of my comment to Holley:

I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, our ideas of what we are attracted to do not occur in a vacuum. We are also socialized into what beauty is. It’s one thing when we’re discussing celebrities with our friends and comparing who we find most appealing. It’s quite another, when we look at the darker side of the socialization that pressures women (more so than men) to live up to a standard of beauty that is unrealistic. If advertising and movies can convince young women (and men) that they are inadequate in some way, they will be more enticed to fix these inadequacies through the purchase of cosmetics, surgical procedures, and clothing.

It would be nice to believe that these societal expectations don’t exist, but they do. For example, open any magazine or turn on the TV, and you can’t help but notice how many “opportunities” we’re given to take care of our inadequacies so that we can be beautiful. It wouldn’t take much exposure to this type of propaganda to convince us that we don’t measure up in the beauty department. We can’t help NOT being influenced by such things, because they permeate our lives on a daily basis.

This sense of inadequacy is often in spite of the fact that there is someone (usually a spouse or significant other) who has chosen that person, as a beholder of beauty. It’s a deep subject, and while I’m sure you weren’t looking to make this a deep sociological discussion, it is interesting that what we view as beautiful is often a result of how we are socialized. Similarly, what is defined as beauty varies depending on one’s culture and other background.

On a personal level, I see the effects of this stuff on my students, especially the young women. They have very interesting attitudes about what they will and won’t eat, and are fixated by doing whatever it takes to stay thin. I have no problem with maintaining a healthy weight, but some of the young women who are most concerned about their looks have absolutely beautiful bodies, but they have been brainwashed into thinking they are lacking in some way.

I could ramble on endlessly it appears, so I’ll stop here. Obviously, I think this is a fascinating topic, and I enjoyed the fact that the people we tend to crush on is indeed very personal. It’s just that most of the people we crush on are also marketed to us in one way or another.  🙂

Holley responded and we talked of the possibility of taking this topic a little further. It was never my intention to go into sociological topics in this blog, but sometimes a topic just jumps out and captures my attention, Since others were interested as well, I decided to take the plunge.

A day or two later, I came across an amazing post from a father who was giving advice to his daughter about the dangers of growing up in a society fixated on a warped sense of beauty and sexuality. You can read it here. He invites his daughter to realize that the message she gets from retailers, magazines, and the media is not where real beauty is to be found. He does it in a letter that is truly moving and inspirational. I wish all young women had someone who would share this wisdom with them.

The expectations that society has engrained in us about beauty are not possible, and yet we judge ourselves (and others) by those unrealistic expectations. These larger than life expectations are also on billboards: we can’t get away from them. And yet, many of those images are deliberately distorted. In other words, NO ONE really looks like the image that is posted on that billboard.  Take a look at this video:

About a year ago, Dove did an interesting experiment in which women were asked to describe themselves to a forensic artist. Another set of pictures were done by the artist, this time with a stranger describing each of the women. The women were then shown the two pictures: how they saw themselves and how a stranger saw them. The results were striking as you can see in this video.

There are several messages in this video, but one is particularly clear. It’s not just our young women entering adulthood who are affected by distorted expectations of what beauty is. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, particularly when that beholder is conscious of the illusions promoted by the business industry. We all need to stop using these false expectations as a mirror for what we see.

If we remember to look within and trust what we see, we can help ourselves and those around us to see real beauty and not stuff that comes out of bottles, packages, and software programs.

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Related post: http://holley4734.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/beauty-the-beholder-nablopomo/

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23 comments on “Distorted(?) Perceptions of Beauty

  1. Great post, Deb. I don’t wear a lot of makeup and I often go without it in the summer when my skin is tan from outdoor activities and I’m wearing sunglasses and a hat anyway. This past fall I wanted to be done with makeup entirely–the money I paid for it and the time I spent applying it (five minutes a day)–and I went about two whole months without it. It took nearly that long to get used to not having makeup on, to realize that my coworkers really weren’t concerned about it, that I wasn’t all that frightening. The thing was, I looked tired and I looked old and I felt less confident. And, as I lost my summer tan, I went back to some makeup. I feel I look healthier and to me healthy is beautiful. It’s definitely an interesting topic.

    • Thanks, Randee! In the end, everyone has to find out what works best for them. I just think it’s sad that so many people are insecure about how they look. As a parent (and a teacher), I just want to influence young people to see that their beauty isn’t dependent on what is being sold by the beauty industry. Nothing wrong with enhancing what we have, but it’s the systematic indoctrination that tries to convince us that we aren’t good enough without the stuff that bothers me. I especially love your idea of “looking healthier” and how it’s much easier to feel that way in the summer. No wonder we’re so sick of winter! 🙂

      • And then there’s the question of do we really look healthier in the summer or do we just think we do and where did that indoctrination come from? (rhetorical question)

  2. Wow.. just wow. I had never seen that Dove video before but it sure made me think. I am one of the most self critical people that I know and I wholeheartedly agree that it is the media that is one of the main reasons that we feel this way. I hope that this post and the others that you have mentioned, continue to inspire women to feel more realistic and free about their looks. Thank you Deb.

  3. It’s really weird how much influence other people have on our self-perception. A couple of years ago a Dutch documentary maker made a documentary about this subject that I found really amazing. It is called “beperkt houdbaar” (perishable). unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a version with English subtitles, although certain parts are in English because she visited a cosmetic surgeon in the US. That part was really shocking, she asked him what he thought she should have done to her body and he quite blatantly told her that pretty much every part of her body needed something done quoting how much each procedure would cost in the process.

    • That’s the thing. If someone can convince another that they NEED certain things to be beautiful, and there’s enough insecurity there, they can sell anything. And plastic surgery is such a lucrative specialty because it plays on vanity and insecurity. It’s disgusting how people consumed with greed can prey upon people’s insecurities. The saddest part though is that in spite of these documentaries, people still buy into what these people are selling.

  4. Wonderful and substantial post! I feel like there is one thing that makes it really hard to really digest the notion that we need to let go of these unrealistic images for ourselves (and for others). And that is the idea of what is healthy. It means that we are always trying to have it both ways, not worry about our outer appearance and yet knowing that we need to eat right and exercise, etc. to be healthy. I find myself torn back and forth all the time.

    • I think I understand what you’re saying, Luanne. Perhaps it’s a matter of mixed messages. After all, very few people are truly encouraged to not worry about their appearance. I mean, wouldn’t it be amazing if we truly believed that eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercising was enough to be healthy. In reality it is, but then the beauty industry preys on our insecurities and insinuates that everyone can use a little enhancement. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing things that make us feel good about ourselves and give us a little boost. BUT, when those things are pushed by advertising as a necessity to make people acceptable, I think it crosses the line.

      Darn it, Luanne, you’ve got me writing another post. haha

      • Hehehe, I love it! Yes, I can see what you mean. Another way it is done is that when someone says they are doing something healthy (exercise or food, in particular), people say something like, “Oh, you look great.” as if that is what counted.

    • Thanks for opening the topic, Holley. It wasn’t until I was writing my comment to your post that I realized that I had so much to say on the topic. And it got a lot of interest, too. So sometimes, you do just go with what jumps out at you. 🙂 Who knows? Maybe we’ll spark each other on another topic sometime. 😉

  5. I grew up in a small farming and ranching community of 23,000 people. Women didn’t wear lipstick, makeup, and jewelry because it made things very uncomfortable when tilling the field, feeding the chickens, slopping the pigs, herding the sheep, picking tomatoes, etc. For some reason, I have never liked lipstick, makeup, and jewelry on people. I wonder why………………

    • Thanks, Russel! It’s the perfect example of how we are socialized. You “escaped” mainstream socialization about what beauty is because of the environment that you grew up in. It’s fascinating because your own experience of what you saw in that community was a strong antidote to the commercialism about beauty. What I love about your comment is that young women assume that the portrait painted by the cosmetics industry is what all men are looking for. You have broken that stereotype. There are many men who prefer a more natural look, but that voice isn’t highly promoted in this society.

      Thanks for your comment and for the follow. 🙂

  6. Wonderfully perceptive of you, Debbie, and I agree with much of what you write. It’s truly the inner spirit that is beautiful or not, depending on the person. Outer appearances change over time and that appearance isn’t enough to sustain a deep relationship. I am pleased with the conversation you have ignited here and your observations on the topic too!

    • Thanks, Christy. It’s true about the outer appearances changing over time. I remember a friend once saying to me that the older she gets, the more invisible she feels. That’s one of the things that happens when outer beauty is the focus. The longing for a sense (or look) of youthfulness is part of what drives the plastic surgery industry. Interesting how intertwined all of this is.

  7. That Dove video is a great depiction of how unforgiving we are of ourselves. It’s interesting how differently we see ourselves as compared to how others see us. It’s sad, really.

    • It’s totally sad, but we don’t do it to ourselves in a vacuum. We are socialized into thinking that we don’t measure up. We are constantly presented with images and advertisements to help us make ourselves acceptable on some level. And it’s endless, so that in the end, we never measure up.

      With all the impossible standards we’re presented with, it takes a long time to come to terms with self-acceptance, if we are ever able to find it. But to me, that’s the real beauty of the Dove video. It gives us a striking counterpoint to the negative self-talk that we’ve been programmed to play for ourselves. If we could learn to see ourselves as others see us, maybe we could become a little more gentle toward ourselves.

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