Women are relentlessly bombarded with marketing for beauty, skin, diet, and hair products which promote unrealistic beauty standards to drive sales.
This objectification of women’s bodies contributes to health issues like eating disorders and poor body image, and is associated with higher rates of violence against women.
The goal of these marketing messages is to get women to spend money “fixing” problems with their appearance – money that, given the gender wage gap, could be far better used elsewhere.
As many as 80 per cent of Australian women report dissatisfaction with their body, with many of those experiencing problematic dieting or disordered eating behaviours.
Clearly, there is significant profit to be made from women’s pursuit of beauty by exploiting appearance-based insecurities.
Aside from needless spending, these capitalist-driven beauty standards have a range of detrimental impacts on women’s lives and wellbeing.
Comparison and the thief of joy
From an early age, women receive subliminal messages from friends, family, and the media about the importance of their appearance, with research suggesting those with traditional “good looks” enjoy better relationships and improved career prospects.
Most women acknowledge that their worth is not based on their appearance, yet on a subconscious level, exposure to images that idealise beauty standards like youth and thinness negatively impacts body image, self-worth and eating habits.
Women frequently compare themselves to images of other women in the media, with increased social media use often linked with greater levels of body dissatisfaction.
Comparing your reality to a highlight reel of airbrushed images of celebrities, models, and influencers –for whom looking flawless is a full-time job – can wreak havoc on your mental health.
The beauty niche rabbit hole
The ‘ideal’ feminine body type was once primarily dictated by male desire and marriageability traits, such as an hourglass figure which was thought to indicate fertility.
Since then, diet, beauty, and fitness industries have realised the huge profit potential in creating an unattainable physical ‘ideal’ then designing products that promise to bridge the gap between that ideal and reality.
There has never been a broader spectrum of niche beauty products and procedures, from ‘vampire’ facials to labiaplasty, all reliant on the notion that beauty and youth are paramount to women’s happiness and self-worth.
These products often fail to deliver the promised results, serving only to create social pressure for women to manipulate and change their looks from head to toe.
Attractiveness as a social currency
Historically, women were locked out of domains of power, including politics and the workforce, making their bodies the only source of influence available.
Using corsetry to create an hourglass shape and attract a suitable husband is the Victorian-age version of using modern tools like makeup, shapewear or eyelash extensions to feel confident, be that in the dating world or the boardroom.
It’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with enjoying certain grooming habits or pursuing a certain aesthetic. You may, however, wish to start questioning your reasons for purchasing products or undergoing cosmetic procedures.
If you genuinely enjoy the process of applying makeup or love the way you feel after a facial, then you should continue to do so. However, if you are spending your valuable time, money, and energy changing your appearance to meet a social norm or to ‘keep up’ with the ever-shifting goal posts of beauty, it may be time to reevaluate.
Internalised fatphobia and misogynoir
For generations, white, thin, wealthy people in positions of privilege have dictated what is and isn’t desirable.
Fatphobia, or weight discrimination, helps explain why people in larger bodies are treated more poorly in social, professional and healthcare settings, whilst misogynoir describes the connection between sexism and racism, and the intersectionality of discrimination faced by women of colour.
These come through strongly in the Eurocentric ideals of beauty, which are deeply rooted in racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and homophobia.
Until recently, faces on the covers of magazines were almost exclusively white, thin, and young. People with disability have historically been locked out of industries such as media, fashion and beauty, and even the rise of the body positivity movement has been hijacked by beauty companies to sell more products.
Fighting unrealistic beauty standards
Detaching and subverting from traditional beauty ideals is not easy, however a rising movement of people are doing just that, and embracing a more diverse, vibrant spectrum of beauty.
Start by acknowledging that there is nothing wrong with you, and that the image you may have strived after for years is constantly changing and deliberately unattainable.
This makes for an expensive and emotionally exhausting lifelong pursuit, which is bad news for you, but great news for anyone wanting to sell skin creams or fat burning pills.
Movements like body neutrality and body acceptance are increasing in popularity, fostering strong, supportive communities banding together to start healing the wounds inflicted upon women’s self-esteem and body image, and empowering them to finally find peace and contentment in their own skin.
You can find more practical tips on how to fight against unrealistic beauty standards here.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on February 28, 2021 but has since been updated to include new content.