• Thu. Dec 7th, 2023

Aesthetic trauma: why beauty standards need a makeover

ByEmma Gill

Mar 5, 2021
A woman's silhouette is getting her hair and makeup done. There are three hands. One powdering her nose, one combing her hair, and one spraying her hair with hairspray.

Shiny hair, glowing skin, glossy lips, flawless faces… social media is saturated with them. After all, it’s a place to share our highlight reels, our “best of” moments. But how many times have you scrolled through Instagram or TikTok and found yourself thinking: “wow, they’re way prettier than me”? I’ll be the first to admit to being guilty of it.

Although I’m sure we’ve all been told, at some point in our lives, that comparison is the thief of joy, but it seems to be all that we do nowadays. The world is literally a scroll away from our fingertips. Everyday we are inundated with images embodying the latest beauty standards or creating the next ones. There are so many parts of my bodies that I had never even considered before TikTok told me they were a potential cause for insecurity. My lips, for example. Did anyone else try out the “bratz doll challenge” on TikTok? In short, it involved using a lip-enhancing filter on your face; if the filter made your lips swell and pucker on screen, then you have “desirable” lips. If not, then you apparently have no upper lip – aka a lip tragedy. Until giving that filter a go, I’d never even stopped to consider my lips as an attractive feature or not.

However trivial that incident may seem, I think it encapsulates the issue with social media and contemporary beauty standards. We have been conditioned, as a society, to expect of people what the media dictates as “beautiful”. Skin as smooth as porcelain rather than the textured and diverse organ that it is. Lustrous locks that never get frizzy or greasy. That adorable nose shape that all the models seem to have (or get through rhinoplasty). Bodies that are slim and toned, without a roll or stretch-mark in sight. I could go on, but I think you all get the picture.

Spoiler alert: this is not an achievable standard for the majority of the population. These images of beauty that we are force-fed are a form of aesthetic trauma: the distressing experiences related to appearance. It is being made to feel that you are somehow inadequate because you don’t look a certain way. It is being penalised because you don’t fit into sexist, racist, and ableist beauty standards.

Acting on aesthetic trauma could look like (but is not limited to): dieting on and off for most of your life; bleaching, chemically treating, and heat-styling your hair so it fits into a certain ideal; avoiding the sun at all costs, so your skin stays as pale as possible and the list goes on…. It’s different for everyone – because we are all different – but the end goal is the same: to achieve beauty in all its elusiveness according to the present-day standards. When I was younger, the paradigm fed to us was the skinny but also curvy female body – as if showing your ribs whilst also having an hourglass figure is attainable.

Moving away from body shape, though, aesthetic trauma works in many other ways. Facetune and other photo-editing apps have led to a whole generation of adolescents with major skin insecurities, since the skin-smoothing functionality makes us believe that textured skin – with spots, wrinkles, blackheads, scarring, discolouration – is abnormal. That it’s, for want of a better word, “ugly”. I know people who have tried every home remedy out there for clear skin. I also know people who choose to cover up their scars, birthmarks, moles, and stretch-marks, because we so rarely see them on people lauded as “beautiful” by the media.

In my (almost) 21 years on this planet, I’ve learnt a fair few lessons about the beauty canons that govern our lives. First and foremost: capitalism positively thrives off of these standards. The creation of an unattainable ideal allows them to generate self-loathing and, in turn, sell us products to “fix” our flaws and assimilate to this ideal. Secondly: beauty is inherently subjective and quite simply does not exist as a fixed reality. Beauty standards are constantly changing. What one individual finds beautiful is unique to them and therefore there cannot be one version of beauty. And, finally: cis-women face far more beauty scrutiny than cis-men. Beauty, as a concept, is ingrained in patriarchy and perpetuates sterotypical cis-male objectification of the biological female body. We need to stop moulding ourselves into boxes to please men.

Beauty standards are designed to keep us on a tight leash, always within reach of capitalist profit ploys. But, if you ask me, it’s all bullsh*t. It’s a lose-lose situation. On the one hand, if you submit to these beauty standards and try to adapt to them, someone, somewhere, will still find a fault. And conversely, if you choose not to blend in, your “flaws” get picked apart by everyone and anyone. If that isn’t traumatic, I don’t know what is.

It’s time beauty standards got a makeover. Because, for something with “beauty” in the name, there’s absolutely nothing beautiful about them.  

Image: mohamed_hassan via Pixabay