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Tackling Eurocentric Beauty Standards one failed photoshop at a time

Written By Hannah Burfield

As individuals, we experience a fundamental sense of alienation and isolation when we feel that we don’t ‘fit’ into the contours of the society that we are surrounded by. These sentiments of exclusion can manifest themselves into feelings of inadequacy and even a desire to adapt to the expectations of those around us.

This is a common and distressing phenomenon among people with different ethnicities or with physical handicaps who feel repressed by the confines of beauty standards – frequently referred to as Eurocentric standards of beauty – that are perpetually endorsed by a variety of media outlets. This, in turn, is exacerbated further by prominent and influential brands that make use of models who conform further to these ideals.

Yet, ironically, the influential figures who shape these elevated ideals also fail to meet them, such was the case in Kim Kardashian’s ‘Skims’ advert in which viewers quickly noticed it had been photoshopped as her finger was deformed. One of these viewers was Charlotte Pierce, an advocate for body positivity, was quick to point out the photoshop flaw and the potentially detrimental damage that it could have on impressionable young people. The rapid growth of the dominance of the US, in terms of the military, economy and international relations, and their far-reaching control has resulted in the expansion of their society’s repressive standards of ‘beauty’. These Eurocentric standards of beauty have been revered around the world as the ‘ideal’, and this perspective has proven to be challenging to dislodge throughout recent years.

Eurocentricity encompasses Western beauty ideals which are perceived favourably, such as having a thin and tall physique, long and straight hair, light skin and a small nose. What this produces is an inherent bias against the cultures of non-Western civilisations whose individuals, particularly females, feel unattractive and ferments a desire to replicate these often unattainable standards of ‘beauty’.

Women, arguably much more than men, are taught by society that our value is solely reliant on our attractiveness. These unfeasible ideals are promoted by the beauty industry as they make a profit from the manipulation of young, innocent females who are forced to grow up much quicker than they should.

What’s deeply disturbing is the fact that the women who we find on the campaigns for these cosmetic products are almost exclusively white. Whilst this is beginning to change and cosmetic brands are, thankfully, becoming more inclusive and embracing diversity, it remains difficult to find a woman of colour who is heavily featured in these campaigns without just being placed there in order to tick a box. In fact, models of colour have even opened up about the fact that makeup artists do not have the appropriate training to work with their skin when they feature in fashion shows. This was the case for Leomie Anderson, a black model and activist, who, in 2016, called out a makeup artist for only having a single brown shade of foundation that was clearly incompatible with her skin tone.

These standards of beauty have, throughout history, been forced onto both women and men. One key example of the influence on women is society’s quite perplexing focus on the state of women’s body hair, with many external forces urging women to maintain a ‘clean’ and trimmed look. This can be seen right back in the 1400s where Renaissance painters and sculptures flocked to their canvases to depict women without any trace of body hair. These paintings, that became immense successes, have consequently influenced the way in which women perceive their own bodies and the way in which they present themselves.

Yet, even before these artistic depictions, men and women have had a negative outlook on hair. For just one example, in 3000 BC, Ancient Egyptians made use of existing resources to achieve a very smooth appearance. These methods included sharp shells and sugar wax to constantly remove all body hair yet choosing to retain the eyebrows. What spurred this behaviour? Why have we always been opposed to body hair and will it ever be possible to overcome this attitude?

For the Ancient Egyptians, the removal of body hair connoted social superiority, with the presence of visible body hair being inextricably linked with those of the lower classes. Yet, over time, this justification has become outdated and increasingly challenged. In 1955, the well-known Italian actress Sophia Loren consciously defied these Eurocentric standards of beauty by proudly showcasing her unshaven armpits, something many modern women are beginning to welcome.

Marilyn Monroe is a woman who needs no introduction. As a figure who dominated the 20th century, she rapidly became the symbol of the sexual revolution that was taking hold at the time. Her hourglass curves and wide hips were deemed desirable by the society of the time. Yet, in spite of the legacy that she left behind, Love magazine caused outrage when, in 2017, they enlisted the support of Kendall Jenner to impersonate her in a short video. Kendall Jenner – the supermodel known for being tall and slim – is certainly not the ideal person for the job. Aside from their level of success, Kendall Jenner and Marilyn Monroe have virtually no resembling qualities.

The evident miscalculation from Love magazine drew my attention to the ever-changing attitude of society towards the standardized ‘acceptable’ figure for a woman. From curvy to slim, women’s bodies are incessantly dictated by society’s – and, subsequently, men’s – fetishized ideals of beauty. However, despite this continual change, society continues to exclude those who are confined to a wheelchair or an amputee. Will they ever see themselves sufficiently represented in mainstream media?

Whilst it is possible to find characters with amputations in popular culture, the way in which they are represented is often offensive and does more harm than good. Captain Hook, as just one example, is a villainous character whose wickedness is apparently outwardly expressed by his physical deformity. Even when amputee characters have a major role and turn out to be a heroic figure, they often have far-fetched and unrealistic prostheses which could perpetuate misunderstandings about the reality of life for people who are not able-bodied. Furthermore, the main love interests in films are typically able-bodied, and this could have a damaging impact for handicaps who feel underrepresented by the media, ultimately contributing to that inherent feeling of exclusion and inadequacy.

Yet, there remains hope for the future as experts have agreed that Eurocentric standards of beauty are no longer dominant. These standards that previously only encompassed light skin, straight hair and exclusively white facial features are gradually becoming much more inclusive.

Dermatologists themselves have spoken out on this improvement and the progressive dismantling of previous standards of beauty. Previously, a large proportion of their patients have consulted their services in order to modify, and ultimately deemphasize, their ethnic features. Fortunately, these professionals have noticed a rise in patients requesting cosmetic enhancements in order to highlight and accentuate their ethnic features. This is of upmost importance as it alludes to a change in attitude and provides hope for the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, social media can also have a positive impact and help challenge these attitudes by sharing images of all types of bodies, skin, hair and facial features. Eurocentricity is entrenched in global society but remains something that we are only vaguely conscious of. For me, the majority of society seems to be quite unaware of the way in which we are constantly encircled by these societal pressures. This could signify how many of us have grown accustomed to these standards and now find it difficult to distinguish them.

Ultimately, every individual should have complete autonomy over their body and be able to oppose societal expectations and fight against outdated, conventional standards in order to achieve a society in which everyone – no matter their gender, ethnicity, handicap or any other distinguishing factor – feels accepted and loved.

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