How social media is redefining our narrow representation of beauty

This article was published by The Vocal on November 18, 2015.

Do you have brown eyes? Wild, curly dark hair? A wide nose, brown skin or small eyes? Do you feel there’s something about you that makes you different? Do you live in the West but look like you come from somewhere else? Then you may never have seen someone with similar features advertise beauty products, adorn the cover of magazines, flaunt the latest couture, or be the object of desire for hormonal teens across the land.

Who or what is the cause of this narrow representation of beauty? And what is being done to put all types of faces and bodies in the spotlight?

Culture-tinted glasses

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but eyes see what culture socialises, psychology of race and ethnicity lecturer Mikhail Lyubansky says.

Beyond individual assessments of beauty, he says, are “cultural messages about what is and is not attractive”. Lyubansky was writing in response to the controversial evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa’s article ‘Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?’. Kanazawa drew on a study that rated the physical attractiveness of subjects, concluding the data proved black women were considered the least desirable of all the races. Lyubansky criticised Kanazawa for failing to consider the backgrounds of respondents.

“Standards of beauty, like most other beliefs, are socialised and change not only from place to place but also over time,” he said. “In both the United States and England, (where Kanazawa lives and works), standards of beauty are essentially ‘White’ standards, because whites comprise the majority of the population and have disproportional [sic] control over both media and fashion.”

Those who control the media, then, have greater cultural control over the versions of beauty we see.

Enter social media

Criticised by many – most recently Instagram starlet Essena O’Neill – for presenting a distorted view of reality, others are using social media as a way of changing the messages of what is beautiful. Far from being a tool that promotes one version of beauty, social media provides alternate versions which, to the surprise of the mainstream, are proving wildly popular.

In September, four girls living in North America created a hashtag that trended across the world.

“Growing up I never saw a woman who looked like me on TV, and because of that I felt like I wasn’t beautiful,” Palestinian-American Sara Mahmoud, 17, said.

“I felt that my looks weren’t normal and weren’t okay because all the girls on TV would be pretty, blonde, thin girls with blue eyes. Middle Easterns and North Africans don’t get enough representation in American pop culture and American media.” Co-creator Maryam Alhajebi said the tag helped display and appreciate different versions of beauty around the world. “It showed us that it’s okay to not all look the same, it’s okay for us to be different,” she said. “We need to come together as one to break stereotypes.”

Not fair, but still beautiful

Skin colour prejudices don’t just exist in the West. About six years ago Indian group Women of Worth launched Dark is Beautiful, to campaign “against the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin”. Several prominent Bollywood actors have joined them, including Nandita Das, who spearheaded the group’s 2013 ‘Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful’ campaign.

In a recent blog post, The Times of India senior journalist Shuma Raha praised the success of the campaign. “We need more public interest movements like that,” she said. Raha railed against the pan-Indian preference for fairness as “our ancient and atavistic intolerance towards dark skin, an intolerance that’s spawned a [$635 million] skin-lightening cream industry”.

Raha says the skin-whitening product industry kicked off in 1975 with Hindustan Lever’s Fair and Lovely cream, and has been breeding brands and fans ever since. “Notice,” says Raha, “the racism implicit in the nomenclature too — these are skin ‘whitening’ creams, promising to turn us brown skins into the superior white variety.” Women, especially, are susceptible to the pressure of cultural beauty ideals. “In India, they have to deal with a double whammy – they must not only be beautiful, they must also be fair,” Raha said. “Indeed, society conditions us to believe that the one is impossible without the other.”

“I would say that regardless of what the media says, you define your beauty. There’s a whole community out here on social media ready to help you embrace said beauty.” – Sara Mahmoud

The new normal The social media community was discussed in the recent Women in the World panel Selfie: The High Cost of Low Confidence. Renowned psychoanalyst Susie Orbach argued social media was having a negative impact on girls’ self-esteem because it had “democratised beauty”. In the pursuit of ‘likes’, girls’ self-portraits had become carbon copies, Orbach said, because looking the same as everyone else was a requirement to belong in society. But fellow panellist and selfie academic Terri Senft argued social media gave people control over their images and how they were portrayed. Senft said girls understood that when it came to social media, “body image” was “about 88 per cent ‘image’”.


Chantelle “Winnie” Brown-Young’s modelling career began when she was ‘discovered’ on social media after featuring in a news story on YouTube. Winnie has the rare skin condition vitiligo, which causes pigments to lose colour. Last year she was chosen to compete in America’s Next Top Model and is now “redefining the global definition of beauty”. Women in the World mediator Laverne Antrobus asked Winnie how looking different was being discussed in the modelling industry. “I think it’s kind of new, to be honest, so I don’t know if it’s quite a discussion yet, or it’s history being made,” Winnie said. “I think it’s probably something that will be spoken about in the future, but it’s something that is new.”

The result is an increasingly diverse array of looks

Swedish designer Iman Aldebe is using fashion as her method of countering prejudices against non-mainstream beauty. Aldebe, born to Jordanian parents, is pushing both Islamic and Western boundaries with her range of designer turbans and modest couture. While Lyubansky says cultural definitions of beauty change over time, Aldebe isn’t prepared for society to catch up. “I could not wait for another 100 years until things changed in Sweden,” she said. “I realised very early on that it would take a long time to solve problems and come up with solutions via political means … I felt that via fashion we can solve many issues and become more accepted in society.” And Aldebe is succeeding: her one-off turbans are proving popular with non-Muslims and conventionalising head coverings.

Rather than being a force for evil, the “democratisation of beauty” is offering the spotlight to those traditionally overlooked. Madeline Stuart has become the face of a cosmetics company, walked the catwalk at New York Fashion Week – and is considered the first professional adult model with Down’s Syndrome. She has half a million Facebook followers from across the world. The 18-year-old is “changing society’s perceptions of beauty – one photo shoot at a time”. Madeline’s mum says her daughter’s success is not just about modelling. “[T]his is about changing the world, this is about creating inclusion, stopping discrimination and breaking down those walls of confinement”.

In the world of social media, the walls that hide the non-conventional are circumventable. Diversity is on display. The democratic nature of social media means when a hashtag trends or a community becomes active enough, the mainstream takes notice. Cultural fashions and preferences aren’t stagnant, but they can take time to change. But social media offers people the opportunity to, quite literally, be the change they want to see.

Read the full article here


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