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When you hear the term “beautiful woman,” what image first comes into your mind? Long glossy hair, light porcelain skin and a thin but curvaceous figure? Maybe a pair of bright eyes, a long slender nose and beautiful pink lips? The list could go on, it doesn’t matter anyways… or does it?
The truth is, these standards affect us. Beauty seems to be the one trait that determines our worth. From social media to billboards, we subconsciously learn and force ourselves to adhere to these standards. When the pursuit of beauty turns excessive, it can lead to mental health complications like body dysmorphic disorder, social anxiety, eating disorders, and so much more. So, why do we still try to achieve these unrealistic beauty standards? And how do we challenge these social ideals?
The hegemony of beauty
Let’s have a look at what hegemony is before we get started. As stated by Britannica, hegemony is the dominant influence of the ruling class over other classes. Previously used to narrate the link between city-states, its meaning was later on expanded by the Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci. According to Gramsci, hegemony is achieved through the spreading of certain ideologies among the masses.
What does this have to do with standards of beauty? If we take a closer look at beauty ideals throughout the timeline of humanity, we realise that it is also a set of ideologies spread from the upper class to the middle and lower classes. Through Asia’s historical lenses, fair skin was a sign of nobility as labourers who diligently worked under the scorching sun tended to develop darker skin. Therefore, fair skin became a standard of beauty.
The concept of beauty is a creation, a 2017 research suggests. Cultural, political and economic hegemonies are cited as reasons for the emergence of beauty ideals in the study. It was stated that the colonisation period had a significant impact on how beauty is perceived since Western countries had global economic and cultural hegemony. As a result, beauty standards all around the world are usually eurocentric. To back up its claims, the 2017 study also gathered data on cosmetic goods and Miss World titleholders.
If we observe the Miss Universe Malaysia titleholders from the past decade, most of them possess European-like features such as high nose bridges, deep-set eyes, and sculpted features. The ladies are able to pull off western-influenced makeup effortlessly and they conform to the beauty standards. Eurocentric beauty ideals are prominent not only in other countries but in Malaysia as well.
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Colourism in beauty standards
I’m sure the saying “You would look so pretty if you had fair skin!” is familiar to all of us. If you are born with fair skin, chances are everyone would compliment you for your great skin tone. People with darker skin are marginalised and discriminated against as a result, revealing the underlying tone of…you got it, racism and colorism.
We’ve been taught to think of fair skin as attractive since we were children. Countless folktales and fairytales connote the desirability of snowlike skin. From Western fairytales to Eastern mythologies, there is never a lack of praise for a heroine’s bright skin colour. Beautiful women in ancient Chinese literature often had pale skin, with words like ‘snow’ and ‘jade’ associated with their skin complexion.
Malaysia too has its own mythology, known as ‘Dayang Senandung’. As Malay Mail reported, this folklore tells the story of a princess cursed with black skin, and what she did to lift the curse. The story was adapted as a Malaysian TV drama in 2020, creating outrage on the internet due to the usage of blackface as well as colorist overtones that associate dark complexion with curses and ugliness.
It’s easy to turn a blind eye to racism and colorism concerns when we’re taught the ‘norms’ around skin colour through seemingly innocent childhood stories, especially when the injustice is directed towards our dark-skinned peers. Earlier this year, A Malaysian musician was condemned for his insensitivity towards racial issues in his ‘Bai Wa Wa’ music release. The music video was intended to advertise for a skin-whitening brand, Snowbebe. Nevertheless, some continued to support the singer as they were also rarely exposed to topics about colorism and racism.
Colorism is deeply rooted in our culture, thereby influencing our beauty standards. Although it is a topic commonly discussed online, a vast majority of us remain clueless about the subject.
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The beauty idéal through the eyes of the media
Ever heard of the mere exposure effect? According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, it is a psychological phenomenon identified by Robert B. Zajonc where people tend to show positive feelings for something that is repeatedly exposed to them. Referring back to the hegemony of beauty, the psychological effect can explain how beauty norms are repeatedly propagated by the media to become a universal standard.
The majority of beauty ideals shown by the media are often monotonous, resulting in a lack of representation of other beauty types in the media. Gradually, we begin to believe that beauty should only look one way and not the other; you are socially unacceptable if you don’t mould seamlessly into the stencil.
How could social media not be mentioned when it seeps into all aspects of our lives? Not long ago, The Observer reported that TikTok was exposed for using a beauty algorithm to measure the attractive score of the content creators; a video featuring someone regarded as pretty gets promoted more frequently through the algorithm. Now you know why well-known TikTokers tend to fit beauty conventions pretty well.
TikTok is not the only platform that uses such algorithm. Tons of advertisements and films carefully craft these flawless images of women for commercialisation. A popular concept in the feminist film theory suggests that we consume media through the ‘male gaze’. To put it simply, media representations of women are unrealistically designed to satisfy the viewer’s desire to watch.
Of course, we can never forget about K-pop seeing its global popularity. Undeniably, it is an enjoyable culture with its positive facets. However, K-pop is notorious for the strict beauty standards imposed on its artists. A K-pop idol, Amber Liu once revealed the industry’s obsession with beauty on CBS This Morning. She noted that it was detrimental to her mental health, which led her to develop bad eating disorders in the past.
Just like K-pop idols, the people on LED screens are packaged as perfect human beings and ‘sold’ to us, shaping unachievable beauty ideals as the media and entertainment industry’s dark sides stay hidden under a gorgeous veil.
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How capitalism shaped our ideals
A unilateral outlook towards beauty helps plenty of businesses bloom. Many ads tell us what creams to apply on our faces and what is the next trending nose shape. It is uncanny to think how consumerism is encouraged by capitalizing on human insecurities, suggesting that we are never enough.
Economically, beauty standards are beneficial for the cosmetic industry. Think about the times you are recommended whitening products and you relentlessly bought into the marvelous copywriting, expecting the serum to alter your complexion overnight. Sometimes it’s worse than just creams; they encourage you to get a rhinoplasty package the moment you think your nose looks too bulbous compared to the beauty icons.
If you follow the fashion industry, you would have heard of a fast fashion brand that was slammed by the public for its one-size-fits-all policy. Given that their consumers are typically teenagers, the brand’s idealization of skinniness is dangerous as it may provoke eating disorders. With perfectly retouched models sitting on the billboards year-round, chasing physical perfection that is also visually appealing becomes customary for us.
How do we make a change?
There’s a Chinese saying that goes “everyone has an eye for beauty,” which certainly rings true. It is okay to find someone physically attractive, but it’s worrying when we glorify them and create rules to define “true” beauty. To challenge these values, we need to learn that beauty isn’t everything and work towards a less objectifying and non-discriminative environment.
It doesn’t mean that we need to reject all mainstream standards. In fact, we should accept mainstream beauty just like we accept every other kind of beauty. Beauty in its best form is the acceptance of human flaws and embracing diversity. After all, the world will look boring if everything is measured with immaculate accuracy.
By: Erica Loh