Near flawless beauty is supposedly an achievable and worthwhile goal for women. Women are buying in, and many are desperate. A SELF survey of 4,000 women found that 75% have disordered food habits. It starts early, with girls starting to express weight and beauty concerns at around 6 years old.
So when people try to convince women and girls that they are beautiful just how they are, my first reaction is relief. Yet ultimately, I find the effort short-sighted. I’m not trashing body positivity; it has an important part to play in challenging the status quo and helping people. But the continual focus on women’s bodies and how women are supposed to feel about them has some severe limits.
First of all, millions of women aren’t irrationally body -focused. They’re picking up on existing biases. One study showed that being as little as 13 pounds overweight affects women’s job and salary prospects. In my personal experience, the closer I’ve cleaved to expected beauty standards the better I’ve been treated by family and strangers alike. Saying that all women are beautiful and that they just need to feel good about themselves does little when society doles out the same crappy treatment as usual.
Furthermore, the concept of beauty has become enmeshed with other ideas and values. We equate a certain look with self-control, confidence, self-esteem, and moral worth. Just look at any women’s magazine cover. Those who aren’t considered physically attractive are often judged as lazy, weak-willed, and self-hating. Just look at Reddit. *shudder* When women are encouraged to feel beautiful, it changes the goal posts, but not the game.
Focusing on whether or not you measure up to an aesthetic standard in order to be happy and treated well, even if you meet it, breeds anxiety. This method of determining human value leads to hyper vigilance about looks as women to try to eke out as much respect and self-respect as possible, with mixed results that are largely up to chance. It leads to a society where women look in the mirror to determine how much they’re worth today. Reassuring a woman that she is beautiful, and hence still valuable, does not dismantle this dynamic.
As much as I’ve been sold (emphasis on sold) the idea that men only want supermodels and are part of the problem, men aren’t collectively responsible for this stuff. Most guys don’t want a blindingly beautiful princess any more than most women want a prince who slays dragons. Women love dragons, obviously.
Men, however, can be part of the solution. Simply by treating women like people and not like decoration pushes back against this messed-up beauty culture. It’s hard to list everything that entails, but it includes giving complements that aren’t just image based, not falling back on looks-based insults, and ultimately finding human value beyond aesthetic value.
Even if body image issues weren’t on the rise for men, and they certainly are, men still have something to gain from pushing back. You lose out when you believe women’s looks are the most important thing about them, as Dustin Hoffman explains: