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Unpacking Beauty: What the Ideal is & What it Does

What does Beauty look like? If we were to visit colleges across national and cultural boundaries, we would likely find that the answer to this question is neither simple nor universal— within these boundaries, however, we find patterns of qualities that depict an ‘ideal’, or norm, against which all other physical attributes are compared. One of the best indicators of what is considered to be ‘beautiful’ is revealed through the various ways in which women compliment each other.

“You look SO skinny today”

“Did you go to the beach? You look so tan!”

“I wish I had your curves!”

“I love your hair, where do you get it done?”

What we should be asking is: What does Beauty feel like? When we ask what beauty looks like, we get a diverse array of answers. Beauty can look like a tanned body, a pale body, curled hair, highlighted hair, straightened hair, a skinny body, a curvy body. These qualities all look different, but how do they feel? If we were to ask fellow Oxy student and singer, Lencia Kebede, she might say that “Pretty Hurts”. In America, we consider tanned skin to be beautiful; the darkening of the skin is an indicator of sun damage. In East Asian cultures, pale skin is considered to be beautiful; women spend thousands of dollars on products and treatments that quite literally ‘bleach’ their skin. To get skinny, one must often get hungry first; to get bigger breasts, one must seek out surgery. The photo below demonstrates the extent to which physical pain precedes beauty; there is not a single limb on a woman’s body that is left untouched.We have all heard it before, so lets say it again:

Beauty is Pain


Yes. Beauty is Pain. But let us remember that just as there is not only one kind of beauty, there is also not one kind of pain. So far, we have explored pain as a physical sensation— now, its time to get emotional. What is so problematic about the Beauty Ideal is that it isn’t merely about making women feel the need to look a certain way—  the reality is that the pain in beauty has a bigger agenda. From a young age, we are socialized into masochism (and I’m not talking about the 50 Shades of Grey kind). To learn to restrict our food intake, walk in heels, or pluck our eyebrows is to learn how to feel pain, how to build a tolerance to pain, and how to enjoy our pain. We are taught to believe that pain is merely an opportunity cost for the reward that is beauty. When we learn to “Embrace the Pain”, we do not just learn how to embrace physical pain— we learn how to tolerate emotional pain. The Beauty Ideal sets women up for a life of self-abnegation. When we hurt ourselves to be beautiful for others, we stop living for us and start living for them. The Beauty Ideal sets women up for a life of pleasing others at the expense of our own pleasure. It tells us that our bodies— and by extension, our ‘selves’ are not our own.

The Beauty Ideal says that there is only (1) normative type of Beauty; one ideal against which all other types of Beauty are measured. In other words, any type of Beauty that does not neatly correspond to this idea is deviant. I say that what is beautiful about beauty is its diversity— its inherent rejection of sameness. Each and every one of us is a beautiful deviant. Let us take the concept of ‘Beauty as Pain’ and throw it to the wayside.

Beauty is diverse. Beauty is different. Beauty is Deviant.



Is from the East Coast but about as Connecticut as Feminists are Man-haters (Hint: Not at all) I love studying (but not eating) brains because brains. Music-lover, Social Justice Instigator, Professional Pisser-off-er. Wander till you get lost, get lost until you get found. Das ist it.
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