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Has Body Image Become Oppressive? A Look at the Backlash Against Beauty

 

You are beautiful. No matter who you are, what you do, or how you look, you are beautiful. At least that's what all the recent body image campaigns tell us. And while it seems like a great message, there is growing backlash against this idea of universal beauty—and really, the importance of beauty at all. 

Defiers aren't trying to challenge self-love or promote negativity, instead, they're trying to liberate women from feeling like their identity is centered on their physical appearance. (Real Women Discuss: Why Heavy Women Are Invisible.)

Kaila Prins, in an essay for XOJane provocatively titled "You Are Not Beautiful," says this message of self-esteem has gone from a positive affirmation to simply an ad. Companies reassure us about how gorgeous we all are and then subtly try to sell us more products to maintain or enhance that beauty; they're simultaneously telling us that we're beautiful and yet not beautiful enough.

Even worse, both types of messages center outward beauty as the most important attribute a woman can have.

"There is so much pressure on women to 'feel beautiful' from both sides, that I often wonder what would happen if we stopped oppressing ourselves with the concept of beauty in general. Because it is oppressive," Prins writes. "What if we stopped spending so much damn time trying to lie to ourselves about how beautiful we are and started focusing on things that actually mattered? What if we just took beauty out of the equation completely?"

This concept is important because, as much as we may want to think otherwise, not everyone is physically beautiful according to society's definition. "You probably aren't beautiful. Most of us are average, a few of us are ugly, and a tiny number of us are beautiful or handsome," says Scott Griffiths, a psychological researcher who studies this topic, in The Conversation. "It's statistical, not personal." (Just like these 5 Common Body Goals That Are Unrealistic.)

So why not just broaden the definition of beauty? After all, isn't it in the eye of the beholder? Well, universally, our brains find certain facial symmetry and body shapes more appealing than others, and Griffiths points to decades of research that shows that attractive people are considered not just intrinsically good but also more intelligent, sociable, trustworthy, honest, capable, competent, likable, and friendly.

All of this can feel overwhelming, and it would certainly be a lot easier if we really could purchase social acceptance and a positive body image in a jar at the makeup counter. But these anti-beauty activists say this is why it's more important than ever to tell people they're not beautiful—and that that's okay, because they're actually something more important than beautiful. They're happy and confident and fulfilled (or at least trying to be).

"Instead of insisting that beauty is necessary for everyone, more body-positive activists are working toward making beauty optional—something we can pursue if it matters to us, but also something we can have full and satisfying lives without," says King-Miller. "We should affirm our bodies for what they can do, how they can feel, the tribulations they've survived, and the amazing minds they carry around, without having to first justify their existence by looking pretty." (Should Facebook Ban the "Feeling Fat" Emoji?)

Feeling beautiful (and happy and powerful) is a different thing entirely than having society tell us we're beautiful. As many former beauty queens or models can tell you, you can do all the "right" things to look beautiful and still feel very ugly.

While there's nothing wrong with being beautiful or wanting to feel beautiful, it's time we start looking past our appearance to achieve confidence and happiness. We are strong women who hike mountains, write dissertations, birth babies, feed the hungry, run companies, make music, and achieve goals both big and small. In the end, it's these things that will make us see our own worth, not what stares back at us in the mirror.

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