By Jessica Haley

A young girl watches her mother frown at the numbers on the bathroom scale. She moves to the mirror and shifts from foot to foot before letting out a deep sigh. The daughter watches, fascinated, as her mother tweezes her eyebrows, applies concealer, mascara, contour, highlight and lipstick. “What are you doing mommy?” she asks. “Mommy is making herself look beautiful,” is the automatic reply. Unknowingly, the seeds have just been planted in a little girl’s mind that will define how she understands the construct of beauty and her place in it.

Over time, society moulds these ideas into the standards she will use to compare herself against other girls. “Are you sure you want to wear that?” “I liked your long hair better.” “You were in the sun too long!” “Did you lose weight?” “I wish I looked like her.” These phrases are an everyday part of a girl’s life.

In a world that has always judged women on their appearance, little remarks can slowly chip away at a person’s self-esteem and make them feel inadequate. The quest to achieve an ideal beauty aesthetic can have a traumatic effect on a person’s mental health.

Looking Into The Past

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it depends on when and where that beholder is! The definition of beauty is constantly evolving, and various cultures prize different attributes as beautiful. In the 18th century, European noblewomen were depicted as Greek goddesses in portraiture. In the early 20th century, Hollywood film stars like Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe dazzled audiences with their glamorous looks. These women did not have the Greek physique or attributes, and Marilyn did not need them to be the true icon of the century. 

Slowly Shifting Towards Inclusivity

As the world enters the third decade of the 21st century, the definition of beauty continues to broaden. It now includes diverse hairstyles, skin colours, body types, and age groups. Plus-sized models advocate for more body positivity and opportunities in the fashion industry. Rhianna caused a major shakeup in the cosmetic business when she released Fenty Beauty‘s 40 shades of foundation, the biggest colour range on the marketplace. Self-care has also become important to the modern beauty routine as more people promote healthy diets, exercise, and natural skin and hair care products.

Asia, Striving For Perfection

While the West makes strides towards more inclusivity, Asia still upholds some of the world’s strictest beauty standards. Many companies require applicants to attach a photo on their CV. In 2018, a Chinese makeup removal challenge went viral because the before and after results looked like two completely different people. Unblemished pale skin, large double lidded eyes, v-shaped jawline, and a small face are the desired aesthetic in this part of the world.

South Korea is plastic surgery mad. A 2015 study revealed that 31% of women in their 20s have undergone a cosmetic procedure. Here, it is acceptable for both men and women to use makeup while K-pop stars have unachievable flawless skin in advertisements. South Korea’s image-conscious society has also led to the globally famous K-beauty industry. But there is a growing #FreeTheCorset movement protesting Korea’s somewhat oppressive beauty standards and seeking change.

The Dysmorphia Of Social Media

The movement for less rigid beauty standards has gained traction, but social media is still a double-edged sword. The rise of selfie-culture encourages ordinary people to share pictures of themselves but also acts as a tool to compare yourself to others. In particular, many Instagram influencers have perfectly curated photos of themselves that can cause feelings of inadequacy for us mere-mortals.  Using filters is to alter faces and cover undesirable features is rampant.

There are entire apps for extreme photo editing—removing blemishes, smoothing skin tone, slimming waists and emphasising curves, plus various other deceptive means to attain the “perfect aesthetic”. Previous generations had to deal with photoshopped magazine covers, but in this internet age, anyone with a smartphone and some tech-savvy can fake it. It is hard to tell what is real or fake online, so making comparisons between yourself in the mirror and the “perfection” seen in social media photos can lead to traumatising issues with self-worth.

Breaking The Cycle

Society—subconsciously—judges people based on appearances and makes comparisons based on abstract standards; that will probably not change any time soon. However, what can change is how we perceive ourselves and what we pass on to future generations. It begins with a conscious effort to set our own standards based on self-love rather than the world’s approval. Embracing our flaws, being kind to ourselves, and focusing on inner beauty can lead to a positive self-image. We must remove traumatising beauty language from our vocabulary and replace it with confidence building instead. So when our future daughters look into the mirror, they can see themselves with love and acceptance and know that true beauty is how they choose to define it.