A few days ago, I watched this video by Singaporean actor/vlogger Oon Shu An:
(If you watched the video, you might want to just go ahead and give this para a miss!)
In it, she cheerily goes through the steps of her make-up regime, as per the usual tutorials you would find all over the internet. But listen up, and you’ll hear a more unusual narrative. She begins by telling us about Alek Wek, a model from South Sudan who fled to Britain to escape the civil war, and was subsequently talent scouted and went on to walk for some of the biggest fashion houses any model can dream of being a part of. Shu An goes on to tell us about Alek Wek’s answer when people ask her if she thinks she’s beautiful: ‘Oh, yes!’. This, when other models would usually answer with a resounding no, and point out some flaw in their appearance, whether in the past or the present. The popular theory, Shu An continues, is that, growing up in the midst of violent conflict and without the heavy presence of the media, ‘beauty‘ as we would understand it was probably the last thing people were concerned about. How could you be, when you are barely even assured that the next breath you take won’t be your last? ‘And her mother said she was beautiful – so therefore she was. She never even thought that she was ugly’. Shu An then talks us through her own transition through different stages in life – how old she was, how she felt about herself then, and how happy she was as a result. She honestly – I have a great deal of respect for that! – lists all the problems that people have picked with her image since she began trying to get work; even naming problems with the way she laughed. There is the fantasy, the ideal, the perfect woman; and then there’s you. The one with crooked teeth. The one with the frizzy hair. The one with the dull or spotty complexion. The one with the crackly voice, or ample waist, or eyes too narrow. Shu An even admits to thinking about plastic surgery, as a means to advancing her career. Here’s what she says about that particular bit:
What stops me, is not because I think it’s wrong, you know. I think you should just do what makes you happy. I stop because I don’t know if that’s the root of the problem…. We’re conditioned to pick apart the way that we look, and it’s never-ending.
Personally, I think she’s beautiful. At the start of the video, when she’s smiling bare-faced at the camera, she already looks wonderful. I adore her smile! The video is uplifting and honest and sincere, and I love what she’s saying about beauty and how we should think about ourselves. The video was even buzzfed – how amazing is that?! (can’t find the link right this moment … ugh!) I’m so proud of local voices reaching a larger platform. At the same time, I feel nauseated and angry, because hers is part of the minority of voices out there. Not enough people are saying the things that people need to hear, and these voices still aren’t loud or powerful enough to drown out the pervasive, dominating voices that champion ridiculous standards of beauty.
The beauty standard. What even is that?! Without knowing it, we have society tell us how we should look, behave, and be. These harsh criticisms and expectations normally come masked behind beaming pearly whites, cheeriness and a lot of exclamation marks.
This is an example of Seventeen magazine, which I practically read every month through my adolescent years. I read it for fun, and never took any of their ‘advice’ seriously. Looking back now, though, and as I google ‘Seventeen cover’, I am struck by how superficial their preoccupations are, but at the same time how important they make these issues seem. You can’t see your abs yet? You should totally do these exercises. You’re not the owner of a skater dress? Gosh, which season of antiquity are you still frolicking around in. They don’t say these things out loud, but implying that the opposite is better is basically saying the same thing. There is an entire section devoted to relationship advice – practically every ‘female magazine’ that money can buy does – including tips like how to flirt so your crush takes notice, or, even better, texts you. Because of course that’s all seventeen year olds should have as goals. Sure, they’ve got some solid good encouragement about how to ‘be yourself‘ and not let anyone dictate who you are or what you should be, but perhaps there’s just a slight bit of irony when you say things like ‘ALL YOU!‘ on the cover and proceed to link a reader’s individuality to her hair, make up and clothes. I’m not arrowing Seventeen in particular – I’m using it as an example to illustrate the silly expectations hidden behind all the magazines out there that try to tell a person how they should look, dress and behave. It’s just that I grew up reading these so they strike a deeper chord with me than those that I’ve read sporadically or half-heartedly.
It’s ridiculous that I should be judged by the way I look, or that my primary goal should be to win the interest and adoration of someone else. That is not what it means to revel in your individuality. Standards are important; society cannot function without some sort of structure of evaluation set in place. There needs to be a high standard in food handling, for example; it is never cool to be picking hair out of your food. I dance, and I know that setting a standard makes you work harder to become a better dancer each time the music comes on, which is always positive as long as not taken too far. You need high standards in education to make sure children and young adults are taught in the best and most creative ways. You need to dress respectably and presentably when, say, attending a job interview, because that’s a way of showing respect to the people in authority. Standards are so important! We need to set these benchmarks all over different aspects of our lives – but if you tell me I need one in the area of ‘looking beautiful’, I disagree.
Firstly, ‘beautiful’ itself is purely a manmade construct. When Cara Delavingne first burst onto the scene (and proceeded to grace the cover of endless magazines and the surface of endless billboards), thick, full, eyebrows suddenly became all the rage. Before, we used to laugh at people who had thick eyebrows – quite possibly how brow-shaping became all the rage in the first place. As part of essay research I once read an article that traced fashion through the ages. The younger generation may not even believe this, but there was a period when full-bodied women were considered attractive. Yes, boobs, butts, curves and thighs. Then there was the period when boobs and butts were in, but waists were not, so: corsets. It used to be beautiful when a woman wore a long, flowing skirt; these days it seems the less women wear, the more beautiful some consider them to be. These opinions change, and these standards waver. If we try and keep up with them, we will forever be chasing an impossible fantasy that will slip through our fingers every time we think we’ve grasped it tight.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it’s impossible for beauty to exist: I know when I’m looking at someone who is naturally good looking. I think Cara Delevingne is absolutely gorgeous and models really well. The thing is, just because I think she is beautiful doesn’t mean I think I am any less beautiful. We appreciate the beautiful things in life; it’s human nature. But when I look at someone who I consider pretty or attractive, it doesn’t make me feel like I should improve myself to meet an invisible standard that he or she has set. She is beautiful, but so am I! There are days when I too love putting on some make up and nice clothes, but that’s something I do for myself, not for anyone else. It’s nice to dress up every now and then. Even without all that, I’ll still be happy and I’ll still go out and enjoy my day.
We do not exist for the sake of anyone else, and our bodies and faces are not mere objects to be looked upon and judged. The quality of my body isn’t decided by the thinness of my waist or the shape of my face or whatever – it’s decided by the beating of my heart, and the strength of my lungs, and the ability of my muscles to let me do everything I want to. The blood coursing through my veins is a great deal more important than the shade of pastel I paint my nails. I find it truly devastating when I see the people I love and care for get torn apart and their light diminished by the misconception that how they look equates to how good they are. We all know someone like that, and I think in some way, whether big or small, we are all a little bit like that too.
I am not my face, or my hair, or my thighs or the wobble of my arms and tummy. I am not the colour of my face, or that one pimple that won’t go away, or that soft down of body hair that appears on my limbs. I am not a decorative piece on your mantel, or a piece of jewellery to be looked at and admired for a shine that is superficial and surface. So stop telling me to tone up my body; tell me how to be healthy. By this I mean tell me how to take care of myself for the sake of being healthy, not so I look healthy or fit. Stop telling me what product I should use to make my skin look like the photoshopped images on magazine covers. Stop telling me I should wax my skin hairless. And for goodness sakes STOP telling me that how a potential suitor looks at me is more important than my health, happiness or wellbeing.
Would you look at the vastness of the sea, and go, hmm, the waves are kinda too choppy and messy – ugly? Or look at a tree and think, gee, that one leaf right there is just a shade too dark? Or even stand in the shadow of a towering mountain and grimace at how the ridges seem just a bit too jagged? No! We appreciate nature for it’s oddness and inconsistencies, and how no one plant, mountain, or body of water, is quite the same. So why can’t we think of other human beings in the same way? Human beings that, unlike plants, have feelings, thoughts, ideas, dreams, goals, aspirations, hopes, fears. Human beings that, like plants, can be fragile and needing of care. It is not loving, or caring, to ask someone to change themselves purely because their image does not meet a standard that, frankly, I don’t think anyone is even sure of. If I went around asking every person I knew to list down 5 points to answer the question ‘What does it mean to be beautiful?’ I can tell you straight up that no 5 answers would be the same. We all know what it means to care unconditionally for a baby, a pet, or even the plant on our windowsill – so why not other people too?
We are all innately judgmental; I know this because sometimes I myself can be crude, critical and frankly, downright mean. At the same time I’ve also been on the receiving end of such judgment; though innocently offered, comments can still be unnecessarily and ridiculously critical (Hey Heather, you know, I think you’ll be the prettiest girl in class IF you didn’t have so many pimples! Hey Heather, your complexion is so bad your face looks like the world map! Hey Heather, why you gained weight ah?) It’s not feasible to hope for perfection, which I think is basically what I’m trying to say with all the other things I’ve written. What’s important is that we try, and that we look into the mirror and at least try to see someone beautiful, and whole, and wonderful, and also that we take our eyes off the mirror and see how much more there is to the world than how we look on the outside; this fleeting image that will one day turn to dust.
Me Thinks: I am not the most eloquent person, and I know that what I’m saying might just be a rehash of things that other people have already proclaimed with gusto and, probably, to a much wider audience, but I still think that these things should be said whenever, wherever and as much as possible. I hope that you reading this, whoever you are, have at least been slightly convinced by my words. I hope that the next time you pick up a magazine, or scroll through a website, or watch a make up tutorial, you will think about what is really necessary and care for yourself before you care about the gaze of others, and of a cold, calculating and critical media. I hope you wake up each day and feel wonderful and blessed and happy, because truthfully, each breath we take is a blessing far greater than any ring we can wear or dress we can put on. I hope this hasn’t offended anyone: I know it’s easy to proclaim great things while simultaneously creating a whole other undesirable minority, and to perpetuate this cycle of selfish expectations. I have the best of intentions in everything I’ve said, and at the end of the day, I want to be respectful to everyone and the decisions they make, in the same way that I would want others to be respectful of me.
Special shoutout to Shu An: I don’t know you personally, but you inspire me, and I admire what you’re doing for the tangled mess that is the beauty construct we carry around in our heads all the time.
Cheers (to being happy, healthy, and beautiful!) x