Amidst the onslaught of images telling me to get thin, push those up, and shave everything but my head, there are also images of top U.S. celebrities’ exploring the alternative: uniqueness. Tyra Banks’ Beauty Inside and Out (B.I.O.) campaign is a global media initiative to redefine women’s understandings of beauty. By encouraging women to confront media’s unrealistic and unhealthy standards, B.I.O. hopes to transform female self-confidence. On the campaign website, all are welcome to upload photo and video pledges and receive suggestions on how to spread B.I.O.’s mission in one’s own community. If women across the globe can expand their definitions of beauty, they will gain confidence and understand that they are beautiful, encourages B.I.O.
B.I.O. calls upon “Fiercely Real” women to take a stand and discard popular beauty standards. What Tyra seeks is a revolution within the female gender, within what has become a global network of women struggling with their image.
Yet, Tyra’s televised and online empowerment endeavor flops in one important arena: beauty image is not just “a women’s issue”; it is everyone’s issue. I don’t know the extent to which Tyra embraces cultural relativism and the time it takes to really put oneself in another’s shoes—in another’s sociopolitical space, in another’s historical moment. But I do know top model Tyra is neglecting the larger picture: if we want a revolution within the social structure, wherever that may be, we must include ALL members in that fight—women and men alike. It’s going to take more convincing and more inclusivity to change standards of beauty in our world—or how about end them altogether?
It’s going to take more than a celebrity proclamation that my “unique” qualities are beautiful, despite what popular media—and the male gaze driving it—say. Because beauty standards are socially constructed, redefining what “beauty” means is a hairy, multifaceted venture that must consider entrenched social forces. Powerful influences such as patriarchy, historical context, consumerism, and media are embedded in the fabric of almost every society. While boosting women’s self-confidence is peachy, it cannot be a successful driver of social change. What we really need to contest is the beauty myth—the illusion that female beauty standards are natural, inevitable, and backed by some concrete “truth” about optimum femininity.
Jessica Simpson is another top celebrity making her empower-tainment debut. In her new VH1 show The Price of Beauty, Simpson travels to different countries to learn about relative concepts of beauty. After being harangued for her 10 pound weight gain back in January 2009, Simpson decided to turn her shame into something constructive. In a recent interview with Robin Roberts, Simpson declared she doesn’t care what people think about her anymore. Exploring what beauty means in different contexts opened her eyes to a broader understanding.
While Simpson’s actions are noble, and her sincerity seems authentic, the consequences of her cultural showcase are disappointing. Perhaps the show will empower women to feel more secure in their skin. But culture-hopping to isolate global beauty standards seems less than productive. For one, it simplifies the extremely complex dynamics involved in beauty standard formation, blurring the power relations and history that structure each culture and practice. Secondly, Simpson’s approach doesn’t work to change the status quo…anywhere. Rather, it allows one celebrity to condone beauty pressures she implicitly acknowledges won’t change.
Throughout her travels to Brazil, Japan, Uganda, India, France, Morocco, and Thailand, Simpson tours with a “beauty ambassador” to discern cultural beauty standards. In some cases, beauty practices seem harmless (even enticing): henna tattoos, wine spas, and Ugandan fattening tents. In other cases, women’s experiences with beauty practices are devastating. One woman in Thailand used a whitening cream to lighten her skin (here, fair is ideal), which resulted in facial discoloring and lasting public humiliation. Another woman nearly died at 80 pounds, trying to meet Parisian runway model standards. Another woman in Rio is saving money for butt implants, yet she cannot even afford electricity.
No matter one’s experience, these encounters certainly spark empathy for female viewers. But they also clearly indicate a much larger issue: women’s inequality. While the visual images from B.I.O. and Beauty raise awareness about beauty struggles across cultures, the images communicate a circuitous, one-sided approach to change.
Reworking how women see ourselves—the mission of B.I.O. and Beauty—is great, particularly if we feel energized by the process and outcome. But what do we do when others haven’t changed how they see us? Does it matter? Tyra would probably say no; Simpson would probably say no. But how then can we really claim to have transformed understandings of beauty? Both celebrities are big on the confidence concept, but I don’t see true confidence emerging from these initiatives. I see a self-help mentality that ignores, or doesn’t want to deal with, structural forces like patriarchy, consumerism, historical context, and media.
I want to watch a show that unpacks the beauty myth, that derails the “naturalness” of beauty standards overall. As a 20-something year old woman, visuality smothers my every day. Manufactured images influence my awareness about everything, communicate meaning—both positive and negative—and attempt to win my profitable allegiance. But as I study anthropology, the study of human cultural diversity, I learn about the science behind these images—mainly, that it’s completely social—i.e., there is no natural or immovable science behind them at all.
I mean not insult the vast array of cultural traditions, because I do value human creativity, diversity, and custom. But I want to identify the root of all those pressures we feel. I want to expose the source—the complex web of male power, media, law, tradition, the market, and more—to infiltrate that web successfully. We can’t rely on female self-empowerment to find and congeal “true beauty.” It just isn’t viable.
If Tyra and Simpson, perhaps with the help of an anthropologist or two, could unload the myths of beauty—the social forces that play into beauty standard formation—we might have revolutionary visuality to cling to. Rather than showcase uniqueness, why not break down the norms and work towards a place where “unique” and “ideal” are no longer opposing images?
Samantha Moore is a senior Sociology & Anthropology major and Communications minor at Messiah College, Grantham, PA. Her interests include media, consumerism, urban anthropology, social policy, and community development issues. Currently, she is working on her thesis, procrastinating lots, and missing her five cats back home.