I recently saw a magazine cover displaying an image of a curvy woman in a bikini with a large, bold headline reading “Sexy Size 16 Cover Model.” While I am more than happy to see that society is slowly crawling away from sexy being the equivalent of a skin and bones white girl with perfect hair and large amounts of makeup, I think the overall message of this image is off-point.
The model is in a bikini, her skin is marvelously sun-kissed, and she’s lying in a very suggestive position. Her belly is flat, albeit thicker than “traditional" models, and her overall shape is aesthetically curved with no cellulite. Everything is perfect (and probably photoshopped). So here’s my beef: our obsession with ideal physical appearance remains. Weight aside, most women don’t look like that. We have dry patches of skin, our tummy rolls when we bend at the waist, our proportions are divvied out in an incredible variety of ways, our hair frizzes, and our skin doesn’t constantly glow like we just got home from a week’s vacation at the beach.
There’s no question that in our society the idea of physical beauty is both warped and severely overrated. We say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but we still try and define it everyday. This doesn’t just result in hurt feelings, it creates ridiculous standards that cause real problems.
As a white woman, it never occurred to me growing up that I had a lot of similar characteristics to the “beautiful people” on the television and in magazines. I never took note that my dolls were designed to look like me. Years later it dawned on me that African-American, Indian, Mexican, and other non-white girls didn’t necessarily have dolls that looked like them. They were aware that they were different from a malleable young age. They were aware that society presented white as desirable and beautiful.
Beyond race there are other labels that play a big part in our unhealthy emphasis on appearance. Words like “fat” and “ugly” are terrible descriptors that are used far too often. Those two words just need to go. These “descriptors” for physical appearance generally aren’t helpful in successfully describing someone and are hurtful, so why use them at all?
Most of us are guilty (myself included) of buying into societal ideas of beauty. It’s a painful realization that I’ve allowed myself to get so completely and thoroughly duped all these years. In this case, ignorance does not equal bliss. Ignorance leads to continued bad habits that affect our own image along with our image of others.
We place too much emphasis on appearance. Period. What we need to be pushing for is a new focus that doesn’t involve appearance, a focus that isn’t relative.
Kindness isn’t relative. Neither are acceptance or empathy. If all of us were kind, accepted one another, and showed empathy towards each other, there would be no room for judgment of appearance. We wouldn’t have so many tragic eating disorder cases. We wouldn’t have youth brainwashed into thinking success means looking like a person on a magazine cover. We wouldn’t have snap judgements based on the color of someone’s skin leading to violence.
The next time you’re describing someone challenge yourself to describe them as a person, focusing on who they are instead of how their looks would be described by a negative and shallow social construct. If you don’t know the person well, challenge yourself not to add negative assumptions to the story. It’s so easy to ad-lib when describing a stranger. But why do it?
Anything we can do to move away from criticism and judgment and move toward acceptance and empathy is worth it, even if it means telling a less compelling story or not telling a story at all. What we have to gain is so much more than anything we might lose.
To the editors who chose the sexy size 16 cover model, I’m glad you’re branching out, but we’ve still got a ways to go. Redefining physical beauty isn’t going to solve the problem. Shifting our focus away from appearance, that will actually get us somewhere.
Kind is the new beautiful. Let’s focus on that.