When will we stop succumbing to paradoxical beauty ideals?
What is your favourite holiday memory? One of mine is from a trip last September. Last year, I was lucky to be in South Italy for our friends’ beautiful wedding. The day after the big event, everybody who attended came together for another evening of pizza, pasta, and dancing. Two local musicians played traditional music, and we all jumped across the room clapping and singing to ‘Bella Ciao’ (which had become somewhat of a holiday anthem for our group).
Like the wedding itself was too, this evening was one of those moments of euphoria and pure, simple joy. A point in time where you don’t think of anything other than that exact moment. It's memories like this one that I go back to frequently and replay in my head.
Maybe the reason that I hold on to the thought of that evening so much is because I had finally let myself just be. Days before, when I was sitting on the beach with a book - the setup I had been yearning for months - I found myself constantly rearranging how I was sitting, covering up my body, questioning every step I took between my lounger and the ocean, deleting pictures I had asked my partner to take because I did not like the way I looked. I pretty much did anything other than just enjoying the moment.
What’s even worse about it, is that this form of self sabotage began even before I got on to the plane. Instead of happily counting down the days to my trip, I was stressed about fitting in all the ‘prep’ I felt I needed to do to ‘look good’ for when I am there. Even worse is that - now I am about to go on holiday again - I am repeating these actions.
I have been thinking a lot about where my behaviour stems from and I have discovered a weird paradox in my thinking in terms of body image. On the one hand I don’t care - I don’t care too much about getting changed in a common changing room, for example. Part of that is maybe my upbringing. Us Germans do always seem to get a bit of a giggle and some stick for our more laissez-faire approach to such things.
It is not that I was raised particularly under the banner of always embracing ‘Freikörperkultur’ (free body culture) to an extreme. But I was never made to feel ashamed of my body when I was doing something as simple as changing into a swimsuit or having a shower in a room that was specifically designed for that purpose. My friends there and I all always felt comfortable around each other in that regard. That’s something I have noticed to be different here and where, perhaps, I am a bit more ‘free’ than others.
Yet, on the other hand, I have spent years of my life worrying excessively about how I look. So much of significance is happening around us all the time. The world could literally be ending and all I would be thinking about is the fact that I should have shaved my legs before wearing a dress - and what everyone will be thinking because, obviously, that is what everyone will be focusing on (rather than the world coming to an end).
I do think it started young. When I was a teen, prior to the ‘body positivity’ movement, there was a particular narrative that I remember most: Yes, you had to be thin - extremely thin sometimes. But you should also be ‘cool’ and eat burgers all the time. Your thin body should not be something curated, but something achieved effortlessly.
I don’t even want to list the absurd things I did to mould my body into what I thought it should be for years - mostly because none of these actions were smart or healthy and took me a long time to overcome.
One would think I would not willingly submit to a new form of torture, but here I am: Like thousands of others, embracing the newest craze which is wellness culture and celebrity skincare routines.This time it is not eating all the burgers while staying insanely thin, but spending money repeatedly on the newest trending products, often peddled by celebs promising all of us that, if we buy them, we can be just like them. That we too will effortlessly look good. It’s been draining - both for my bank account and mentally - and, unsurprisingly, the results never really happen.
Unfortunately, all of the above is something I know I am not alone with. The Mental Health Foundation in their Mind over Mirror report said that, for young people – faced with a stream of unattainable body ideals from social media and influencers, as well as stigmatising messaging from society and governments – “the pressure on their body image has never been greater.”
They found that body dissatisfaction is associated with ‘a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours’ and, sometimes, eating disorders.
For many this increased pressure is translating into taking drastic measures.
In March, The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) released figures showing that the number of cosmetic procedures in 2022 were higher than they were pre-pandemic, and that the year saw “the highest annual rise in procedures since the audit began in 2004.” Of those having procedures, 93% were women.
The thing is that, if you’d ask, most people would not want to keep up this exhausting chase to meet society’s (constantly changing) expectations of beauty. Even the rich and famous are now admitting to the downside of it all. Kylie Jenner, for example, recently talked about how she had plastic surgery, but would be heartbroken if her daughter did.
This outcry for change became even more apparent when the Barbie movie was released in July, when one particular scene was trending over and over. One of the main characters, played by America Ferrera, delivers a monologue starting with “It is literally impossible to be a woman” and ending it with “It's too hard! It's too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you.” Throughout it, she lists paradoxical expectations such as “You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin.”
Ferrera talked about the popularity of the monologue in the LA Times, saying: “There’s no woman in my life who those words aren’t true for. Not a single one”, adding: “And when we hear the truth, it hits in a certain way, and you can’t unhear it, right?”
So, it seems we have all had enough, but how do we stop and break the wheel of paradoxical beauty trends? I can’t say, but voicing their absurdity more openly seems a good place to start. One Twitter/ X user recently stated, in a post that was shared more than 10,000 times, that they are “reading America Ferrera’s monologue in Barbie before I go to bed every night like it’s my Bible.”
Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.
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