Chasing perfection and losing our identity

June 13, 2019

Photograph by Monica Esposito

Niamh Haran explores the impact of pursuing beauty standards on our sense of individuality

Sometimes I look in the mirror while applying a highlighter to my cheekbones, and I think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I don’t even enjoy wearing make-up. The counter argument in my head wins every time. Because I want to look pretty like everybody else. Because I want people to say, ‘She’s attractive.’

There is some truth in the phrase, ‘I wear make-up for myself’ which is currently blowing up in my Twitter feed. Well… good for you. If make-up helps you express your identity and makes you feel more comfortable with yourself, then great. If you feel better without it, that’s fine too.

But even that statement is usually a defensive response to other people’s prejudices — which is that a young woman who wears lots of make-up is a “slut”, or she’s “insecure”, or maybe both.

Where are the facts? We assess intrinsic characteristics simply on what we can see. And among our social media-obsessed generation, it’s easier than ever to make quick judgements based on what’s visible.

How are we expected to feel beautiful if we compare ourselves to something that isn’t even real?

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, they say, but it doesn’t really feel like that to me, especially since different parts of the world have different conventions of beauty, and women everywhere feel pressured to conform to these. You can see what I’m talking about if you read this awesome review on one of the best electric shaver on sale right now!

A social experiment by journalist Esther Honig demonstrated this by sending the image of a model to designers in 18 countries, asking them to adapt it according to what their culture considers attractive.

In Mexico, Photoshop was used to add a tan and more curves, in the US a thigh gap, and in Egypt, dark hair. In Britain, beautiful means flawless skin, a slim body and a tan. Why? Because that’s the image we see everywhere.

I see it across social media, TV adverts, my Netflix account. It’s draining, tedious, relentless. Researchers estimate that we are exposed to over 3,500 advertisements a day. In many of these ads, women are objectified and sexualised. It’s difficult not to see such images as the only ideal of beauty. How are we expected to feel beautiful if we compare ourselves to something that isn’t even real?

And while it might be nice to hear someone say, ‘You look very pretty today!’, it adds to the pressure; you looked pretty once, now you have to look pretty again… and again. As actor Emma Watson put it, ‘We have these unbelievably high expectations of ourselves… we say that the pressure is coming from men, but actually it’s from each other.’

By conforming to these standards, by wanting to be like everyone else — what is it doing to our identity?

When I look in the mirror, I acknowledge that I may not fit society’s beauty standards, but I embrace my uniqueness

The conventions of beauty, of others’ expectations turn us into puppets, and then — that’s it: your individuality is gone. Watson reminds us, “In the end you have to accept yourself for who you are.”

To me, that’s the most important point, our identity is our own beauty and our individuality, not somebody else’s.

So when I look in the mirror, I know I might not have a perfectly symmetrical face, or ‘perfectly’ arched eyebrows as dictated by the beauty standards. But what I do know is I am unique. And I shouldn’t let beauty standards not determine my opinion of myself.

The real issue should be the imperfection inside us; our unhappiness. We did not choose our bodies, but what we can choose is how happy our bodies make us feel. I know I still conform to expectations and still care how others see me. Deep down, though, I think I was brought onto this earth for more than just applying some mascara.

Others may categorise you in a certain way but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is how you define yourself. After all, if you can’t believe in your own personal identity, how do you expect anyone else to?

Niamh is a first year English Undergraduate at King’s College London. She is also part of the Roundhouse Poetry Collective.

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