Photo of a woman seeing a distorted image of herself in the mirror
What do you see when you look in the mirror? And how much is this influenced by unattainable and unrealisitc images of one-size-fits-all 'beauty'?

Down with the beauty monoculture!

25 July, 2013

Beauty is a journey, not a destination. But when the sun is out, when layers of clothing drop like veils and there is nowhere to hide, that’s not always easy to remember.

As much as I love swimming, and walking and climbing, my own inner ‘beauty critic’ is never entirely silent, even when I am immersed in the beauty of nature.  The birds in my beloved local park don’t care that my hair is dirty, or that my bottom seems to be taking on a life of its own. But, to my eternal frustration, I still do.

I know I’m not the only one.  Global research shows that for most females the inner beauty critic has already arrived by the time she is 14 years old and continues to erode her self-esteem as she ages.

The research, the Real Truth About Beauty, was commissioned by Dove the brand behind the famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Real Beauty Campaign, launched in 2004.

The campaign featured lots of women of different shapes and sizes (within a popularly ‘acceptable‘ range of course, and with not an ounce of cellulite or a ‘bingo wing’ in sight) in their impossibly white undies. When I first saw it I can remember thinking it was an ad for laundry detergent!

It came as close to cause marketing as any conventional beauty company has ever come, and pioneered the use of ‘real women’ in advertising. Critics said it was likely to be counter-productive because the marketing messages in the beauty industry are supposed to be aspirational and the images it gives us to aspire to unobtainable.

Some cruelly suggested the campaign would define the brand as being for plain, fat girls. But not only did the brand’s sales increase, the campaign started a global conversation about what constituted a beautiful body. The momentum of that conversation continues and has even reached fashion industry.

In 2006 Spain outlawed size zero models on its cat walks. In 2009 Glamour magazine twice featured ‘plus size’ model Lizzi Miller; 5’11” 185lbs and proud of her little paunch. Miller is actually a size 12-14 – and only in Glamour would this be considered a ‘plus size’. Still, it’s a start.

In her recent book, The Vogue Factor, former editor of Australian Vogue Kirstie Clements, trashes the mystique of the size zero model as being a life of cigarettes, eating tissue paper, drinking diet sodas, bulimia, hospitalisation and if the body still fails to behave, surgery. And, of course, for some death.

Disturbingly she uses the word ‘grooming’ – more usually associated with paedophiles – to describe what fashion magazines can do to young girls’ psyches.

What is beauty?

My grandmother would have said beauty is as beauty does. Indeed this phrase has long served as an inspiration to women – and a warning that no matter how lovely you might be on the outside, you can never be beautiful if you are cruel, or crude, if you harm others, or are filled with greed, envy and (self)hatred on the inside.

Less than a century ago, in 1913, Webster’s dictionary defined beauty as “properties pleasing the eye, the ear, the intellect, the aesthetic faculty or the moral sense.” Today the default definition of beauty has narrowed to a shocking degree, the result of decades of focusing only on what is pleasing to the eye.

The Real Truth About Beauty survey wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last to show that from a very early age girls and women show a high level of dissatisfaction with their bodies and their looks. This dissatisfaction comes largely as a result of the fact that, for a very long time, what it is to be beautiful, even naturally beautiful, has been defined by the media, by Hollywood and by the globalised beauty industry.

On an emotional/psychological level, to be beautiful is to have the power to provoke profound feelings in others – and how many of us can say we feel naturally confident of our powers in this regard? So we look for something we can buy to give us that power.

We also look for external cues that tell us what is beautiful and desirable, what qualities will make us admired and loved, what attributes will give us the power to seduce and enchant. But these cues are constantly changing because the industries that provide them rely on the unrequited desires of average people to achieve an idealised form of beauty to stay in business. The resulting frustration and dissatisfaction – the feeling that we are never  good enough – is what absolutely drives conventional beauty products sales.

Natural beauty – working with nature

But things are shifting. For women in particular there is a slow evolution that seeks to redefine beauty in a way that is more natural and holistic, and more reflective of our needs, emotions and perceptions. One that leaves behind static, one-size-fits-all philosophy and embraces a broader appreciation of beauty that includes a world of diverse human beings of all ages and cultures mixing together.

This is also taking us away from synthetic, mass produced beauty products which rely on ingredients made from polluting and increasingly scarce petrochemicals, to those made from safer and more sustainable natural substances. Indeed, many moons and several dress sizes ago, it was an interest in such things that sucked me into the world of environment and sustainability.

Our increasing interest in natural beauty, which is mirroring an increased sensitivity to our environment, seems a positive even inspiring cultural shift for women; a valuable alternative to the plastic beauty which so many of us have grown up with.

Concern for what we put in our bodies, and the corresponding shift towards diets of more natural and wholesome foods has spilled over into concern for what we put on our bodies too. It is hard to feel healthy when one subsists on a diet of refined and highly processed ‘junk’ food.

Saying ‘no’ to junk beauty products

It is just as hard to feel beautiful when one uses ‘junk’ beauty products, made with petrochemicals or synthetic fragrances that are known to disrupt the body’s hormonal or nervous systems, cause cancer, provoke allergies or damage your nervous system, or be harmful to your unborn baby. Indeed this is one of the driving principles of the work we do and the unique formulations we produce at Neal’s Yard Remedies.

Our own published research, in collaboration with scientists at London’s Kingston University, has shown that you just don’t need these kinds of dangerous chemicals in beauty products and that natural ingredients like white tea, witch hazel and the simple rose are powerful anti-inflammatories that help fight premature skin ageing.

Many of the chemicals in conventional products – such as hormone disrupting parabens also harm the planet either through unsustainable sourcing, or in their manufacture or when they are washed down the drain and into our water supplies.

As we become more aware of the damage than humankind has done to the planet, it has become clear that trashing the planet in the name of vanity simply isn’t beautiful.

From the inside out

There are also signs that our increased identification with and awareness of the natural world is influencing the future of beauty in a more positive way.

An earlier survey found many women wanted to see the idea of beauty expanded from the narrow physical aspects of beauty that currently dominate popular culture, to include emotional qualities, character and individuality.

Indeed it is our personalities, our character, the individual lives we have led, and the depth of our relationships that may form the most important component of a new understanding of beauty.

According to the authors of one study, interconnectedness and co-operation – examples of which can be found in abundance in most nature systems – play a vital role in what attracts us to each other: “The value of potential social partners depends at least as much on non-physical traits – whether they are cooperative, dependable, brave, hardworking, intelligent and so on – as physical factors, such as smooth skin and symmetrical features”

At the end of their paper, the scientists offer this beauty tip: “If you want to enhance your physical attractiveness, become a valuable social partner.”

Mind, body, beauty

Although ignored by academia for many decades, recent studies into body image and attractiveness confirm that our perceptions of beauty are complex and also have a profound effect on our health and well being.

For instance, there is data to show that people who can accept their bodies and natural features live happier and healthier lives. In one 2008 study of 150,000 US adults, scientists found that negative body image resulted in chronic stress, which caused a decline in mental and physical health.

Likewise the notion that youth equates to beauty can no longer be sustained in a world where the population is ageing.

Industry data shows that interest in youth potions and invasive surgeries falls off after the age of 45. Older women, it seems, are more interested in looking good for their age than looking eternally young. They also seek beauty care – for instance through massage or having a facial – as therapy for the inner self, to promote a sense of well-being, and not just for their appearance.

The sum total of all these cultural shifts is that we can begin to envisage a future where beauty is perceived as a life long journey, rather than destination. As an act of becoming that mirrors the slow, natural process of creating the mountains, valleys and forests from which so many of us draw such inspiration.

It’s an uphill battle, I know, but one we must engage with because, the beauty monoculture is a cultural poison that is plainly, and quite literally, driving women crazy. And really, there is some truth in the belief that no nation can rise above the health – emotional, mental or physical – of its women.

Now and in the future older women will have a vital role to play as examples to help younger women to feel confident in who they are and how they look, and to respond less to societal expectations of beauty and femininity.  It is this kind of mentoring that could help young girls silence their own inner beauty critic.