Being ‘unconventionally attractive’ is something that many people describe themselves as these days. With the rise of TikTok users, there have been thousands of videos about this topic and shared views of how they would describe their attractiveness, their types and how they are treated in society because of their appearance. Not everyone enjoys having their beauty referred to as unconventional, which is understandable because globally there isn’t one standard of beauty and it doesn’t seem necessary to section beauty in two parts.
On a general basis, beauty can be defined by how ‘easy looking’ someone may be, how symmetrical their face and bodily features are, how able-bodied someone is and their physique or build. Many people would disagree and say that those things aren’t as important, although society itself says otherwise. Throughout human history, beauty ideals have changed but now it’s moving at such a fast pace. Beauty trends are ever-changing and becoming unrealistic for some to live up to in this present day. There has been a steady increase over the past 5 years of surgical and non-surgical procedures globally, combined with how our technology is evolving with filters and photoshop that is accessible to most people. It is quite concerning to think where we will progress from this.
It is more celebrated nowadays to look different and stand beyond normality, which is amazing for those who may have felt excluded or bullied before for how they looked. But it is frightening to know that there is another side that falls deep into the pressures of becoming perfect and is increasingly worse. After all, beauty is subjective and the perspective changes from person to person and decade to decade. For some of us, we don’t care all that much about what others think, but sometimes we can be in denial and not realise how much of an effect this is having on societies warped perception of body image and social status, and how the younger generations are becoming obsessed with it.
In reality, certain features are celebrated outside of the West, the same way that female body hair is more accepted in other continents compared to how it is badly received in some parts of Europe or North America. Beauty is undoubtedly based on geography because different cultures and environments have different visual desires and forms of self-expression. But Western beauty ideals have trickled down to other parts of the world, which causes harm to other communities. For example, the skin bleaching industry is worth billions, with companies like Nivea who market their products at those with darker skin tones in Africa and Asia, but it is widely used internationally and on light skin tones as well. These harmful products sell by supporting colourism and the belief that lighter skin is more beautiful, which is even more damaging for those with dark skin who are trying to advocate for their beauty. This is why representation from modern media is important because it isn’t just being promoted in the West.
The media, advertising and how we see others in public presenting themselves or being spoken about has a massive effect on how we define beauty. There are still major disparities in the kinds of people that are at the forefront of the beauty industry. There are so many negative elements to the beauty world that are highlighted often, but rarely or slowly, things change. Over the past 10 years, we have seen a gradual movement of larger sized, darker skin, disabled, culturally diverse, queer and non-binary bodies feature in campaigns. But it is yet to be an equal number or accurate representation of many of the bodies that promote true self-love and body positivity for others who look like them. Some people would argue that they want to continue seeing the same kind of bodies because they are traditionally attractive and easy on the eye, but we need to be asking the question of what kinds of people are requiring the beauty standards to stay stagnant and why they find it so offensive to see real-life, honest depictions and variations of the human body. Why is their perception of beauty so limited and oppressive?
Fatphobia is something that many of us have, it is internalized behaviour and we often base our value on our weight. This doesn’t just create problems for yourself but hateful behaviour towards fat people. Being larger can mean that some people won’t hesitate to tell you that you’re unhealthy, unattractive or not worthy of the same treatment as a skinny person. This has been made even clearer since the rise in body positivity online and having more plus-size models in campaigns. There seems to be an unsettling trend of people angry at the promotion and acceptance of ‘obesity’. Except, there isn’t half as much outrage at the fact that millions live with eating disorders that include starvation, the brainwashing from early on that skinny equates to perfection, the weight-loss tactics and products shown everywhere, the promotion of diet culture every time you go online and how almost everyone responds to skinnier people with more respect or lust than those who are fat. It’s almost as if people being fat and proud is not the issue but instead, the ones who shove skinniness down our throats as a means to comply with desirability, all in the name of caring about that person’s health. It doesn’t seem to have much relevance to their argument, if you cared about people’s bodies and health, you wouldn’t just need to advise fat people on how to live. A lot of the inspirational quotes I see online about changing your life with going to the gym are mostly ableist and blasé phrases that not everyone can live up to or afford.
It seems though, that only a select few models will make it to campaigns or model for bigger sizes. They firstly have to fit into the beauty standard one way or another and the majority of the time, plus-sized models aren’t that fat. There are different levels of fatness and what we see as a ‘big girl model’ is usually a skinny-fat model between a size 12-16 with curves and fewer skin folds. I’ve also noticed how it’s more common to see women than it is to see bigger male models, this might be because it is more likely that women will demand seeing different types of female bodies represented from agencies and in social-political discussions than it would be for men to rally round publicly for fat men to model and because women are generally more sexualised than men, no matter how they show up. It’s disheartening when someone is classed as ‘brave’ and ‘inspiring’ for being a size 14 model when it is perfectly normal for someone to be that size and be okay with it.
‘Instagram face’ is a new term that is being used to describe a typical look that appears on the app. It can usually be related to smooth edited skin, plump lips, small nose, perfect makeup and hair application all whilst having a conventionally attractive face that can now be achieved through surgeries and procedures. Now this doesn’t seem so harmless to all, but there is a trend that is taking place that aligns with rootless exoticism; people attempting or being successful at looking like a race or a combination of ethnicities that they don’t belong to. Taking part in cultural appropriation instead of just appreciating it. This cannot be justified and is harmful behaviour. There is no telling what race some white people online are and many are black-fishing. This is an uncomfortable situation, considering people are treated badly for looking this way of being from other parts of the world and here we have an unaffected white woman, who can cosplay as another race for the day. There seems to be a lack of awareness or care in the white community about how damaging this can be to marginalised groups and the hypocrisy that comes with being in a racist society that simultaneously steals and profits off of other cultures in a white-washed, palatable fashion. This is different from skin bleaching because the beauty standard does direct itself towards whiteness and white people aren’t discriminated against because of how they look. Kardashians and Jenner’s are the most known example of casual black-fishing, if you see their transformations, nothing about them looks remotely the same and they often tell their fans they haven’t had any surgeries, this is even worse for those young women who look up to them and think that they naturally achieved this look.
The next topic I would like to focus on is gender-based appearance rules. We know that misogyny and sexism play a huge part in how we present ourselves because we have built a social construct of gender-role norms that many of us do live up to. This doesn’t mean that everyone feels that it is necessary to live that way, of course, we have many who would say that living up to the constricted expectations set out for your biological sex is not desired or attainable. When you identify as either a man, woman or other gender identity, there are basic, well-known ways in which we are expected to present. The reason that these are misogynistic and sexist is that these ideals aren’t organically grown from women’s choices, many of the procedures or practices women do to look more beautiful come from a place of oppression, exclusion and to satisfy the desires of men over their own. There are beauty standards for men, like being tall, strong and muscular, facial hair and a strong facial structure. But generally, men deemed ‘unattractive’ are still treated greater and hold more power than ‘unattractive’ women. Women also have more beauty standards to live up to that are not as easy and were enforced originally by men, not other women. Most women are aware of ‘pretty privilege’ which is essentially where you can move through life more pleasantly than unattractive women, but sexual harassment doesn’t go away with pretty privilege and sometimes can be exacerbated. It also doesn’t mean to say that every woman who alters her appearance is doing it for a man or is intending to cause harm to other women by ‘competing’. It just means that we do have cultural practices in the West that originated from seeking comfort and validation from men by being desirable to them and regardless of how we feel, our habits and behaviours are learnt from generations of complicity. This cycle usually continues because not only are many of us socialized to further value the opinions of men from an extremely young age but also because it can make living through the patriarchal system, that is living amongst misogynistic men and women, easier (getting jobs, friends, partners, less discrimination and bullying).
In most of Europe, North America and Australasia, it is common that you wouldn’t see women walking around with thick hair on their legs or armpits. As much as we have grown to accept this as normal, it isn’t. Shaving of legs and armpits only became popular after World War 2 when there was a shortage of nylon tights as the material was being rationed for parachutes. Fashion was changing with sleeveless dresses and gowns that were higher on the leg and these were introduced around the same time as the first women’s shaver was invented. But now, we still have to live up to this beauty standard even though it came from a place of over-sexualization and policing of women’s bodies to please the male gaze… and a shortage of nylon. This is also not the beauty standard globally and it is mainly Western countries that find women being natural, disgusting. This is just one of the countless and uncomfortable ways in which the patriarchy capitalizes on women’s insecurities that they invented. By putting in restrictions of what is deemed acceptable for women and then going into the modern world and never rectifying the sexist expectations, objectifies women and gives us another reason to feel unworthy if we decide to make our own choices for our bodies. The beauty industry is mainly run by men, so the money women are spending on a never-ending route to perfection, are more often than not, going into billionaire’s bank, who is a man, that solely relies on us feeding into the narrative that we need to buy these products to be valuable. If society told us that we were beautiful as we are, they wouldn’t make much money out of us.
If I had to conclude all of what I have taken from YouTube, Reddit, TikTok and a few articles, I would say that being conventionally attractive in the West still prioritises Eurocentric standards of beauty as the blueprint, include others if they’re palatable to the audience and then recognizes any other beauty outside of that as ‘unconventional’. But even when you Google search unconventional beauty, most of them in my eyes are conventionally attractive. It leaves me wondering how much room do we make for people to be considered beautiful? Unconventional beauty is less conforming to the typical standards and instead embraces the beauty in features that are outside of the constricted box of normalised attractiveness and unapologetically reveals all elements of their true self.
I hope that by having more of these conversations about traditional beauty standards that we can unravel the tight rope that holds society back from being ourselves, seeking individualism on a greater scale and finds beauty in more than just what we are sold. Over time, I believe we are going to live in a more androgynous society that allows for gender-neutral bodies to be normalised, that isn’t restricted to small sizes or one type of body and is consistently inclusive to other skin tones. We can all help to alleviate body shaming and negative self-image by being kinder and open to more than just what you’ve been taught is beautiful.