The fraught nature of ‘beauty’

There are some unhelpful standards in society, from the impact of that loaded little question ‘so what do you do?’ to someone who is currently unemployed, to people judging the relative merits of potential employees based on how ‘ethnic’ their second name sounds. Along with these, one standard which has always bothered me is the idea of ‘beauty.’

Beauty is one of those binary constructions which exist in relation to its opposite. Beauty is opposite to ’ugly.’ You can find references to this ‘ugly’ all over the place. Assigning the label ‘Ugly’ can be a weapon used by people to  shame and belittle others – often by bullies or trolls. But there is a whole machine of beauty and ugly going on beyond one-on-one bullying.  Every supermarket has its fair share of magazines featuring the apparent standard for beauty. Most often those ascribed with ‘beauty’ are White, under the age of about 35, thin and wealthy. So that’s beauty apparently. Somehow we are encouraged to measure ourselves – and others – against this standard. Too bad if you are any race or ethnicity other than white, older than 35, full-figured, poor and a whole list of other things. Close to the top of that list, if not directly articulated, is the ‘disabled’ label and the ‘weird / different’ label. If you use a wheelchair or cane, have obvious physical differences such as a skin condition or an atypical gait or seem ‘odd’ or uncategorisable you are not in the ‘beautiful’ group.

Sadly all of that beauty stuff is complete bull crap and leads to  a lot of misery for a lot of people. I would like to do a little survey of my experiences of the beauty / ugly construction and how it is used to ‘other’ people.

Judging from photos, as a child and teen I was what would be considered beautiful by the standards discussed above. However I have never seen myself that way. Bullies constantly told me how ‘fugly’ I was all through high school. My apparently deficient appearance was linked to insults around sex. Strangely I was either cast as a ‘filthy whore’ and ‘slag’ or told I was ‘frigid.’  Apparently nobody would want to sleep with  me but everyone would. I guess bullies are good on double stands and illogical insults.

Sone 1995 I have been taking anti-psychotic medication and mood stabilisers for my mental illness. Anyone who has taken these meds will know they almost always result in significant weight gain. I am actually quite a sensible eater – small portions, lots of veggies, not much processed or ‘junk’ food….(and so here I am justifying myself to you  even in this article on appearance. This shame thing is pretty pervasive!) But over the years I have had a lot of attention focussed on my body size more than my attitudes and character. Someone even fat-shamed me in the comments on my TEDx talk! I had someone I barely knew insist that I should do their personal training program and then when I explained the reason for my weight gain, the person proceeded to gaslight me about my mental illness! Fat women over forty don’t tend to get much positive attention. I am lucky though – I have pretty much no body image issues. Fat-shaming me will result in me getting very peeved and calling out the person doing the shaming. It won’t result in me hating myself. I’m fat. That’s how it is. It is nothing to be embarrassed by or feel guilty for. If I didn’t take my meds, being fat would be the least of my worries!! I am healthy and it has been said a few times that I do the work of at least two people.

Scarily body shape acceptance is not the case for many other people. I have friends who have been fat-shamed while they are working very hard on recovering from an eating disorder. Horribly family members often seem to do this shaming. This act of trying to enforce a ‘norm’ of body shape can have disastrous consequences in this situation – fatal sometimes, for apparently eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all the mental health conditions.

I have friends and colleagues with disability whose appearance / difference has resulted in a range of discrimination. I had a mental health support worker a few years ago whose face looks very different to others’ faces. Going out for coffee with her gave me a perspective I hadn’t seen before on ignorance and poor behaviour in response to a physical difference,  I saw people speaking to her as if she was a three year old child to people physically recoiling. She was a great mental health worker and really cared about me. I didn’t really care what her face looked like. Her face wasn’t helping me get through my mental health difficulties, her character was.

This is the problem or one of the problems – around a standard of ’beauty.’ It is meaningless. My face and body do not say anything at all about me. My mind, my character, my thoughts – those do.

I feel ‘beauty’ can be used as a weapon. It reinforces a whole load of unhelpful thinking around difference, disability, race, culture, socio-economic status, sexuality and gender identity.  These attitudes need to be challenged whenever they come up as they are completely contrary to inclusion and respect of difference.  To me beauty is what is in your mind and your heart. I know that sounds trite but it is correct. What your face and body look like is just that – appearance. This narrow ‘norm’ of appearance and being told continually what we are supposed to look like, how we should eat, what to wear etc etc etc is not good for identity and self-esteem.  For people who do not conform to the accepted ‘norm’ for whatever reason, these standards can be incredibly harmful. I guess the weapon to fight back in this battle is self-respect, loving ourselves and championing difference and diversity. Standing up for ourselves, our friends and strangers who are being victimised and shamed is also a great counter-attack.


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