Sunday, January 22, 2012

Setting the Standard

The standard of beauty. It’s something intelligent women are raised to acknowledge and publicly revile, although most of us chase after it just the same. Despite heaps of contrary evidence from living, breathing people, we take the word of two-dimensional images and one-dimensional portrayals of The Beautiful. I always considered the standards set in magazines or movies to be flawed, but I never stopped to think much about why. All I knew was that there were plenty of people who didn’t look like models or starlets – most of us, actually – and yet were considered attractive in one way or another.

I recently came across an article in the UK’s Daily Mail, however, that made me reframe everything I think about beauty ideals. The article was about a plus-size model who posed naked with a “standard” model to demonstrate the differences between real and idealized bodies. The photos were accompanied by facts, and the most telling one, to me, was this: More than 50% of women wear a size 14 or larger, but most retailers do not carry sizes over 14. Aside from the financial stupidity of this fact, what struck me was the plain definition of the majority. Most women are over a certain threshold, and the sizes considered appealing and attractive and marketable are under that threshold. Simply put, what we as a culture define as beautiful is the way we are not.

We all know, anecdotally, that the standard of beauty is fluid and changes over time and geography. We’re aware of Ruben’s era, when zaftig lovelies frolicked in the Vogue covers of the time and gout was considered a mark of high social status. Plumpness was a goal that represented comfort and leisure, things that most of the population rarely experienced. In the U.S, you only have to go as far back as the 1950s to see how the Depression influenced an appreciation for corn-fed glamazons like Marilyn Monroe. Likewise, some contemporary cultures in the Pacific islands still hold pageants that crown the biggest beauty. When access to food is of great value, the best food gatherers are valued. In these societies, weight meant, or means, success.

In most of the modern world, however, access to food is not an issue. Access to good, healthy, nutritious food may be, but cheap calories are rarely more than 100 yards away. So instead of worshipping the weighty, we idolize those who have the time and resources to eat well (or the self-control not to eat at all) and stay in shape. We work indoors and then watch our waists expand in the Chili’s-to-Go parking pad while the Beautiful People hire trainers and personal chefs to keep careful track of every caloric income and expense. You can never be too rich or too thin, the saying goes, and we gaze admiringly at those who’ve achieved both. They are beautiful because they represent the things we feel too weak or downtrodden to reach ourselves. They seem, quite simply, better than us.

So while I admire the efforts of Katya Zharkova to inspire women of all sizes to appreciate their beauty, I think the effort to shift the cultural standard may be wasted. I don’t think you can defeat the inherent human desire to put ourselves down. All we can do is recognize that flawed impulse and give it a little less power in our lives. Perhaps we’d be best served by just changing the name: instead of the beauty standard, perhaps we could call it the beauty myth, or the beauty delusion. We can see the beautiful as harmless anomalies, like Olympic athletes or extreme couponers, without feeling bad about ourselves for not sharing the same genetic quirks. If we can acknowledge that the pinnacle of beauty is determined by what we as a society feel is least attainable, maybe we can stop wasting so much time trying to attain it and be happy with our own standard selves.