Defying the Beauty Myth

“She wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her.” ― Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth 

Would you rather be surrounded by beauty in all of its natural forms  — or be considered conventionally beautiful? Whether they are willing to admit it openly or even to themselves, countless women the world over would choose the latter. The beauty myth is well-documented in the Western world, where conventions of beauty — perpetuated in media and marketing  — are becoming ever more unattainable and unnatural.

Of course, we’re not the only culture to augment our natural selves in the pursuit of physical beauty. Witness the “long-neck” women of the Kayan Tribe in Thailand, who fit their necks with brass rings to elongate them. Or the women of Mauritania, who practice gavage (force-feeding) from a young age to reach the Rubanesque proportions that signify wealth and prestige in their culture. Or still yet, the women of the Karo Tribe in Ethiopia, who make deep cuts into their chests and torsos and rub them with ash, creating a raised effect over time and thereby enhancing sexual beauty.

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To the “long-neck” women of the Kayan Tribe in Thailand, beauty means an elongated neck adorned with brass rings

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In Mauritania, an overweight wife is a sign of wealth, so its women practice gavage (force-feeding) from a young age

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To the women of the Karo Tribe in Ethiopia, scarring is way to enhance sexual beauty

Sometimes, adornment and augmentation are a mask for deeper issues. When we sacrifice our health in our relentless pursuit of beauty, a rather ugly truth is revealed. As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth: “Sadly, the signals that allow men and women to find the partners who most please them are scrambled by the sexual insecurity initiated by beauty thinking. A woman who is self-conscious can’t relax to let her sensuality come into play. If she is hungry, she will be tense. If she is ‘done up,’ she will be on the alert for her reflection in his eyes. If she is ashamed of her body, its movement will be stilled. If she does not feel entitled to claim attention, she will not demand that airspace to shine in. If his field of vision has been boxed in by ‘beauty’ — a box continually shrinking — he simply will not see her, his real love, standing right before him.”

In my not-so-distant past, I once wore cosmetics and clothes as a soldier might wear a suit of armour. In projecting a surface image to the world, and hiding behind that shield, I held myself back from the deeper connections that risk heart and hurt. Turns out, I hadn’t spent enough time cultivating the kind of beauty that is recognized by the soul, not the eyes. Then I met a man who demanded to see the real me, not the image I projected to protect myself. The thought of revealing my true self terrified me, but the thought of subsisting on superficial connections terrified me more. So I broke down my emotional wall, brick by brick — and in recognizing my own worth, I became worthy of him. It took a lot of introspection, emotional healing and hard work to get to “I love you.” I fell in love with myself as I fell in love with him. I rediscovered myself as I discovered all that he is. There’s true beauty in that.

In direct opposition to the images we are force-fed in a commercialized Western society, modern women are embarking on similar self-exporatory odysseys, and challenging the world to see and celebrate beauty in all its myriad forms. And in so doing, they are collectively becoming a juggernaut that the fashion and beauty industries can no longer ignore. It’s been 10 years since Dove launched its game-changing Campaign for Real Beauty, and lately I’ve been witnessing more brands begin to get real. Take, for instance, UK retailer Debenham’s, which fearlessly featured women of all sizes, ages, and ethnicities in its 2013 High Summer Look Book. Or American Eagle Outfitters, which eschewed Photoshop in favour of showing the badges of true beauty – stretch marks, dimples, beauty marks, tattoos and softly rounded bellies – in a recent campaign. Then there’s American Apparel, which featured 62-year-old actress Jacky O’Shaughnessy in a lingerie ad. And for companies wanting to leverage authentic imagery in their marketing efforts, Getty Images has partnered with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to create a new series of stock photographs showing women in what they consider to be less stereotypical roles.

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Images from Debenham’s 2013 High Summer Look Book

As a marketer, some small, cynical part of me wonders if brands are truly being bold and brave in getting ‘real’ – or if they’re really after the PR value such moves inarguably generate. After all, positive press and social media endorsement drive consideration and customer acquisition.While any move by a major brand to recognise the need for diversity and authenticity in the images it puts out is undoubtedly a positive one, it will take a larger number of them to create the kind of groundswell that drives a sea change in industry and society.

62-year-old actress Jacky O’Shaughnessy for American Apparel

In the meantime, women everywhere must continue putting in the hard work and introspection required to both love and celebrate their true selves. Only then will make-up and fashion cease to be a mask for insecurities and self-doubt and become what they can and should be – one expression of our individual styles and multifaceted personalities.

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