Discussion: The Cultural Obsession With “Every Body Is Beautiful”

A friend of mine recently made an interesting argument, in light of seeing an article displaying (objectively) obese women and declaring that they, too, should be considered physically “beautiful.”

I do not present this in the context of being right or wrong, just something I think should be discussed, because I have a feeling that many people hold the opinions that my friend does, though they may not be able to express them. I do ask that you read the entirety of the argument before you develop an opinion, though that may be asking a lot of the Internet. ;)

(I was, of course, given permission to write about this.)

They said: “I just don’t understand our growing cultural obsession with the idea that everyone gets to be beautiful.

Not everyone gets to be smart, athletic, charismatic, whatever. Not everyone has a nice singing voice. There are some things that you just have to accept about yourself as shortcomings, and everyone has some.

Why is physical beauty any different? The world doesn’t owe it to you to find you attractive, no more than Boeing owes it to you to hire you as a design engineer for the sake of your self esteem.”

The counter-argument here, of course, is that beauty is subjective, and only one way of being beautiful is being presented in the media, and that idea of beauty is what cultivates how we perceive attractiveness.

Their response, (and I am paraphrasing here), was essentially that the concept of “beauty,” when it’s physical, is definitive. It is linked to our biological and genetic desires to reproduce.

We’re always going to find a certain thing “beautiful.” (Symmetry, youth, softness, healthful appearance, etc.) This isn’t subjective, this is nature.

There’s a reason that media presents a certain type of woman (we’re discussing women here): because it works. It sells clothes, makeup, whatever. It’s idealistic in a way that (most) people consciously or subconsciously want to be. That’s why it propels the machine of consumerism.

Trying to change representation in the media would require a shift in collective thinking; if the products stopped selling, they’d change who they put on the ads. But because so much of it is micro-subconscious messaging, it’s unlikely that will ever happen.

So the problem isn’t what’s beautiful.

The problem is that we only define beauty as being physical.

The problem is not what we define as beautiful, it’s that we only define women’s beauty and worth on what’s physical, and so unlike any other trait or characteristic, physical or not, we have an obsession with everybody needing to feel acceptable, because beautiful, to us, is the most important thing you can be.

Here’s word-for-word what my friend said: “If you take it [what it means to be beautiful] in a broader sense, to include non-aesthetic characteristics, then why are these people focusing so much on the physical? [Why aren’t we] claiming to have beautiful minds, personalities, or souls — which could be a very credible claim?”

We’re trying to redefine beauty in physical terms, when what we’re really aiming for is acceptance as people. 

If you don’t want beauty standards to matter, make something matter more.

When being “curvy” is the new standard, another group of thinner women are made to feel as though they aren’t good enough. (You hear it all the time: “real women have curves.”) And unfortunately, when we push for acceptance no matter what you look like, we’ll never reach a productive end, because the media will always be presenting something someone doesn’t like. We’re always going to find a certain thing beautiful. Not everybody is physically beautiful and the world does not owe it to you to convince you that you are by creating an image in the media that reflects what will soothe the ego. We don’t portray less-intelligent neuroscientists to convince people that their level of intelligence is also acceptable and desirable.

Everybody should be able to feel beautiful for who they are. They should be able to know they are smart even if their test scores don’t reflect what society would say is “intelligent.” But we can’t change standardized tests to soothe egos, we can’t admit med school students based on the fact that they just want to go and they think they’re good at it. We’re not going to listen to singers and performers that we don’t enjoy. If it’s a matter of people wanting to feel better about themselves, why don’t we stop focusing on physical beauty, and start focusing on what matters more than that?

It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and gathering my opinions on. So I’m wondering, what do you guys think?

image – Merra Marie


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