Breaking Beauty: On Beauty Neutrality

Beauty negativity is nothing new, particularly for women. Societies have long been critical of women’s appearances, holding them up to standards of feminine “aesthetics.” During the European Renaissance, “larger, fleshier physiques were prized” in women, so long as they were in the right proportions (1). A turn in the Western tide came in eighteenth-century England when thinness, particularly in women, became associated with beauty, and moral and racial superiority. However the standards shift over time, women are held up to them. The overall message is that women must be beautiful, and to be beautiful they must follow certain steps and standards. Generally speaking, those who deviate from the ideal standard are shamed and shunned, pressured into fitting the normative beauty ideal. 

Enter: body positivity. Body positivity is nothing new now. I’m sure you’ve seen bits and pieces of the body positivity movement here and there on social media. The idea of the movement is that every individual, regardless of how they look, can and should be able to feel beautiful in their own bodies. Body positivity is the opposite of body-shaming. In some ways, the body positivity movement has contributed to a slightly more diverse representation of women’s bodies in media (although there is still much room for improvement). It has encouraged women (and men) to be more self-loving and to think of themselves as beautiful and worthy regardless of what society dictates. 

Here’s the problem I see with body positivity and, more generally, beauty positivity; these concepts still reinforce the idea that for a woman to have self-worth, she must be and feel beautiful. Undeniably, in our society, beauty is important to being able to fit in and feel good. And the body positivity movement makes people feel good … within the context of this societal notion. In other words, body positivity doesn’t truly challenge the value that beauty holds in our society. Instead, it operates within the idea that beauty is important, continuing to shackle people, particularly women, to the idea of beauty as necessity for self-esteem and self-worth. Body positivity is like taking a painkiller for a broken bone; it treats the symptom of pain without addressing the root of the issue. On top of it all, the body positivity movement has been turned into a business opportunity. Brands and corporations in the beauty market, like Dove, have capitalized off of the movement in their marketing (2), warping any substance the movement might have.

Ideally, we have to first find a way to body neutrality: the idea of not caring about your body’s appearance as much as its function (3) (aka not caring about beauty). Neutrality is far easier said than done, and it doesn’t help that the people advocating for body neutrality on social media are often beautiful celebrities who fit well into the societal standards of beauty (see: Jameela Jamil and Taylor Swift). Moreover, it is incredibly difficult to try and shift a personal view within society’s pressure cooker environment; our decisions and thoughts are not, after all, generated in a vacuum separate from society. Even as I write this article, I find myself in a somewhat of a quandary -- by writing about beauty and women, aren’t I reinforcing the idea that beauty is something that women need to be thinking about? 

All of these considerations are not to say there is no hope for society and women with regard to beauty. I cannot guarantee that there is a future wherein society as a whole no longer cares about beauty. That being said, I believe progress can be made to at least ameliorate that social and cognitive pressure to be beautiful and see ourselves through the lens of beauty. Discussions about beauty are important and necessary to this progress; we have to talk about a concept to begin to question its legitimacy. Talking about beauty (positivity, neutrality, and otherwise) creates awareness, which in turn opens the opportunity for us to begin to step outside of societal systems of thought. The next step, I think, is moving the conversation around women’s worth outside of the arena of beauty. This article does not do that -- it falls more in the range of beauty discussion. But if we begin to talk and write about women in the context of their careers, hobbies, opinions, etc., we can begin to shift the conversation away from beauty to something more substantive, and in doing so, slowly shift our valuation of beauty in our lives and in society.

 

(1) Strings, Sabrina. Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. New York University Press, 2019.

(2) Mull, Amanda. “Body Positivity Is a Scam.” Vox, Vox, 5 June 2018, www.vox.com/2018/6/5/17236212/body-positivity-scam-dove-campaign-ads.

(3)Weingus, Leigh. “Inside The Body Image Movement That Doesn't Focus On Your Appearance.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 15 Aug. 2018, www.huffpost.com/entry/what-is-body-neutrality_n_5b61d8f9e4b0de86f49d31b4.