On the night of Halloween, I was without a costume. In desperation, I cobbled together a pair of cutoff jean shorts, a denim jacket, and a ripped t-shirt for a night as a 1980s zombie. This costume was augmented by eye shadow and a long blonde wig to fill out my late 20th century aesthetic. Throughout the night, my eyes were itchy from the makeup, and the wig wouldn’t stop waving in my face. When I removed the wig and the eye shadow at the end of the night, it was remarkably freeing. The ease associated with not wearing makeup and keeping my hair short, two actions tied into a cultural image of maleness, had been unconsciously enjoyed by me up until that night. Makeup is uncomfortable and its application is time-consuming. If long hair was a hassle to manage for a few hours, it is undoubtedly a hassle to manage day-in and day-out. Modern beauty standards, and their association with traditional female identity, are remarkably unfair.
Modern American beauty standards, while having evolved from many historical practices and trends, have their roots in patriarchal and capitalist practices. Beauty standards have often come from women changing appearance to satisfy the desires of men. Advertisements from the 1950s directed at women declared, “Men Wouldn’t Look At Me When I Was Skinny!” This ad was meant to influence women to conform to a certain body image to satisfy the desires of men. While this may be unimaginable in today’s somewhat more progressive society, it serves as an example of the ways in which male desires have unfairly influenced modern beauty standards.
Patriarchy and capitalism intersect in the practice of women shaving their entire bodies. Initially, men’s razor companies advertised to women about the benefits of shaving, all to increase revenue. Additionally, changing hemlines and the evolution of women’s fashion, often dictated by textile companies, informed the shaving of bodies. Makeup, while certainly not used exclusively to augment beauty, does place an unfair burden on those individuals who choose to apply it. It is expensive and time-consuming to apply. As a result of societal pressure and the expectation that a femme face should look a certain way, a burden is often placed on female-identifying individuals.
Beyond the unfair individual burden placed on people by modern beauty standards, many of the images used to perpetuate beauty standards are grossly unrealistic. Too often, thin, sculpted, and white people saturate makeup and clothing advertisements. Those same “beautiful” human subjects are in media and film, broadcasting to the nation that those images on the screen—perfect teeth, incredible fitness, just the right amount of makeup, expertly styled hair, and so on—are the images which many individuals strive to replicate in themselves. This ultimate “beauty,” though, is unattainable. This high standard unfairly conditions people to prefer one particular look over others. Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans could be considered two “beautiful” humans who inspire fervent desire. However, it is certain that a minority of the population looks similar to those two, which leads to unrealistic expectations in what is beautiful and what is not. This is not to say that these people are not attractive; they simply represent the unfair image that people have to contend with. The standards set by celebrities and models also set a benchmark of fitness for male- and female-identifying individuals: femme traits, such as being fit but not too fit and a flat stomach with all the right curves, and masculine traits, like highly defined abdominal muscles. This standard perpetuates the idea that only certain body types are attractive, when this is not the case. Certain body types are portrayed as the epitome of “beauty,” even though they represent an image of what a miniscule amount of people look like. Many people are attractive without resembling Scarlett Johansson.
I am not a regular wearer of makeup. My hair is kept relatively short. But the beauty standards in America and in some parts of the world compel individuals to wear makeup and have long hair. Modern beauty standards have their roots in oppressive systems, and are decidedly unrealistic for an everyday routine. This is not to say that beauty standards do not have a role in how an individual presents one’s identity, however, because they do and it is often an important one. There is no issue inherent in that. These standards are unjust because they place a burden on some people, while others do not have to put in as much effort to meet the standard they associate with their identity. The issue lies in the fact that beauty standards to which some individuals feel they must adhere are grossly unbalanced and unfair.