There’s a charm in the proselytism of venerable writers, most of whom can spin hard truths into phrases of intricate beauty. As a child, I found immense beauty in thrift store books, cafes, sunsets and kittens — subjects that I could admire for their content or aesthetic. However, the concept of physical beauty didn’t strike me until the age of 12 when a particularly rude young boy told me I lacked it. His words threw me into a tailspin and left me feeling vaguely hollow. I found solace in proving him wrong through the only method accessible to a 12-year-old, self-conscious girl: edited selfies posted on Instagram. Instead of joy, they gave me years of body dysmorphia.
My experience as a young girl is a reflection of an existing societal pattern. High use of social media negatively impacts individuals’ self-esteem and societal acceptance and has been linked to depression. Social media defines our idea of “beauty” and sets an unattainable ideal for young girls, who race to compete for external validation. Social media’s disastrous effect on the mental health of all women, white and minorities alike, is governed by societal adherence to beauty as a unit of individual worth. However, the idea of external beauty as a measure of value is archaic, and we must move beyond it.
As author Virginia Woolf pointed out years before the advent of social media, “loveliness is infernally sad.” Edited beauty has a monstrous impact on teenagers, exacerbated by social media. An image of a body on Instagram is often grossly unrepresentative of reality, as teenagers edit their images to meet shockingly unrealistic standards. Young girls adore social media filters and acclimate to romanticized versions of themselves with whiter, blemishless and poreless skin, thinner structures, and unrealistically tiny waists, only to be let down by reality. These apps further profit from building insecurities in young women by triggering compensatory consumption. Consumers buy products to ward off a psychological threat, such as the fear of not being conventionally attractive, which then drives the growing demand for products or services that make consumers feel beautiful, like plastic surgery. With 45% of teenagers spending most of their day on social media, exemption from overexposure to manipulated imagery is a pipe dream for most of Generation Z.
Social media exposes beauty for what it is: an everlasting rat race that unwittingly pits young girls against themselves. By glorifying physical attractiveness — as much of third-wave lipstick feminism still does — we, as a society, give it value. But conventional beauty is a genetic lottery composed of feature size and symmetry that we are biologically programmed to admire. Despite how many times we might argue against it, not all women are beautiful. And they shouldn’t have to be.
Many lipstick feminists argue that women should be able to spend money and time on products that make them feel beautiful, and I agree. Women should be able to spend their money on whatever products they desire and have absolute financial autonomy. However, I take issue with our desperate need to feel beautiful and consequently tying our self-worth to ridiculous beauty metrics. Furthermore, not only is the idea of “beauty for oneself” exorbitantly expensive, it is a price tag that predominantly falls on women. It has grown to the point where beauty is currency — it makes certain opportunities available to you, be it romantic relationships or workplace opportunities. Beauty is not a choice; it is a time-consuming and expensive prerequisite for a shot at a slightly more equal playing field. Believing that women always wear makeup for themselves not only is an easy way out, but it also hinges on the extant beauty rhetoric. Activist Cameron Russell, in her fantastic TED talk titled, “Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model,” recalled a young girl who asked her if she could be a model when she grew up. Russell replied saying, “Why? You know? You can be anything. You could be the president of the United States.” When the girl persisted, Russell told her that she should aspire to be not like Russell, but like Russell’s boss instead.
The value our society puts on female attractiveness is perpetually reinforced. We saw it when former first lady Michelle Obama was criticized for her looks, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was regularly lambasted for her pantsuits and when President Donald Trump repeatedly used phrases such as “horseface,” “face of a pig” and “ugly” to denigrate women. A society that values female attractiveness tells women their worth is inextricably attached to an arbitrary set of physical traits that they cannot control and that reveals nothing about their character. By giving the idea of physical beauty value, we collectively teach women that they have to be beautiful to have worth. It’s time to finally reject that narrative and treat women for what they are: capable, intelligent people who don’t owe anyone beauty.
Rhea Gupta (23C) is from Mumbai, India.