Written by: Julia who is a friend, cousin, supporter, and contributing writing for Unpolished Journey
At the start of this semester I registered for an art history class called “The Story of the Beautiful”. It was described as a course that would provide a comprehensive look at the meaning of beauty, and society’s changing perception of it. I anticipated having in-depth discussions about internal versus external beauty, learning about concepts of beauty outside my own culture, and the origin of seemingly absurd fashion trends such as unrealistic body types and proportions. I was looking forward to this class more than any other this semester because I felt that it would provide me with a platform to share my strong convictions about healthy body image and find validation in a well-rounded definition of beauty.
I know that there was a time that I would have approached this class with a far different mindset. I once believed that beauty only existed in one way and one way only. I had never ventured beyond Western culture’s prescribed recipe of beautiful to discover my own organic beauty, one that cannot be defined, measured or even captured in an image. I’ve watched the media’s obsession with the formula for beauty lead me and many others down a rabbit hole, causing us all to spin in circles hoping to find what attracts others. We are taught that striving for beauty is a way of improving ourselves and bettering how we feel in our own skin. However, it is clear to me now that the only thing this pursuit is bettering is the beauty industry’s profit margin.
Beauty in the commercial world is capitalism’s best friend; people go crazy searching for all the right products, procedures, exercise programs, pills, and diets to become beautiful, yet it seems that beauty is always out of reach. This is intentional. The beauty industry keeps us all reaching so we don’t stop buying, so we never feel good enough or satisfied with what we have, and so we keep on spending. From my perspective, the likes of the fashion industry, fitness models, and social media have done a great job at tainting and polluting all of our perspectives so that beauty appears to come from ‘stuff’. I believe these perspectives on beauty can be divided between artificial beauty, and holistic beauty. The difference between these two ideas is similar to the difference between infatuation and love. The allure of adhering to a designated set of beauty standards comes from it’s glossy, shinny packaging: topped with lipstick, designer shoes, slenderness and perfect proportions. You are not meant to resist this; it caters to a subconscious desire for god-like perfection. To be seduced is the very intention of this marketable beauty because it sells us an idea of what we are not and can never be. Though fantasy is not intrinsically harmful, when mistaken for reality we feel as if the ground has been swept out from under us. Like an infatuation, we romanticize this beauty until finally exposed for what it really is and we discover that this ideal can never be lived up to.
I know that I personally never loved myself during this affair with artificial beauty. In fact, it grew into a parasitic self-hatred that infected not only my mind, but the environment and people around me. This version of beauty made me blind. Its long list of requirements and alterations clouded my sight and any horizon of hope to become someone I, or anyone else would like. I couldn’t see that beauty is not as something to be earned, but is something intrinsic in every person. The sooner we stop believing the lie fed to us by a consumer driven world that we must earn beauty, the sooner we are free from it’s superficial and unfulfilling prophecy. I’m not preaching to stop any regimen of self-care, to stop wearing fashionable clothes, or makeup, but to look more critically at why we buy these things. Is it out of obligation, or is something that makes you truly happy? I for one would never step into a department store if it wasn’t absolutely necessary to my survival, but I spent years convincing myself I liked shopping, and enjoyed wearing tight and trendy clothing, and for what end? The only results for me was a wasted paycheck, and clothes that would sit at the back of my closet after wearing them once. That is not to say that I am somehow morally superior because I have realized I do not enjoy fashion, nor am I implying that if you do you are shallow or superficial. I am advocating that being your authentic self is the most beautiful fashion statement of all.
Primed with this perspective I sat down in my art history class to find we would not be discussing the history of real and perceived beauty, or beauty’s implications across multiple cultures. Instead, I stepped into a class that idolized high fashion and would discuss “The Thirties & Forties: The Hourglass Silhouette”, “The Fifties: Breasts, Waist, Hips, History of the pinup”, and “Back and Buttocks: Marilyn Monroe: Barbie as Cultural Icon”. After reading the syllabus I learned that in essence, this class would dissect female bodies and rank them according to each decade’s standard of sexiness. I would be spending three hours a week trying to not fall into my old habit of ranking my own body against the unrealistic representations of women in advertisements and pop culture. More than being personally offended by this approach to the topic of beauty, I was shocked that an art school, one I had thought to be progressive, was endorsing this perspective. I knew that if I participated in this class I would be validating the very concept of beauty I so vehemently reject.
I could choose to stay in the class and argue my professor on every point he introduced, but I had to consider the toll that would have on my own mental health. I would essentially be battling with an entire classroom of people about my delicately transformed perception of beauty, and quite honestly I worked too hard to attain this healthy view of myself, and beauty to put it jeopardy of being openly tarnished by others’ doubts and judgments on a weekly basis. I do not believe that I was admitting weakness in dropping the class. I know I don’t need a class to tell me what beauty is. Strength is seeing beauty all around me; it is in the smallest of organisms and the grandest of sunsets, in moments of hardship and moments of joy, in all ages, shapes and sizes. Everything that is true to its form is beautiful because it was made just so.