The Double Standards of Beauty Standards

By: Elise Le Sage

After you read this paragraph, take a moment to close your eyes and put a face to the word beauty. Try this out for beauty’s synonyms. What faces do you attach to sexy, stunning, hot, and appealing?

This task should be easy. Perhaps you recalled the faces of beautiful celebrities. Or, maybe you stitched together a conglomeration of your favorite features: big lips, striking eyes, etc. Our lives are steeped in images of beautiful people. They act on-screen, they pose for ads, they pout on boxes of hair dye and promote products on Instagram. These images are inescapable and have become so ingrained in our society that, even after we escape their barrage in drug store aisles and magazines, we carry the impression of these images home, where, in front our bathroom mirrors, we size ourselves up against their standards.

Most of us fail to compare to movie stars and couture models. The discrepancy between how we look and how we want to look can leave us feeling disillusioned. Most everybody has experienced these self-image issues; however, although these feelings are as universal as beauty standards are ubiquitous, their weight does not fall proportionally across all groups. This is especially true in regards to gender. While men, like women, experience pressure to conform to beauty standards, there is relatively little culturally imposed association between their attractiveness and personal identities. Women, meanwhile, live in a world that bases their worth as people on their physical appearances. So, men, if you see the logic in posts like this:

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I’ve got some things to break down for you. Here are 3 reasons that the fight against normative beauty standards belongs to women.

Objects of Desire

Though society is on its way to recognizing women as agents, there is a long history of objectifying them. Our culture’s tendency to judge women by their looks— and then capitalize on their insecurities— is a consequence of this objectification. Men were (and arguably still are) seen as the ones who worked and created. Therefore, they were able to construct their identities around their skills and creative capabilities. In contrast, women— stripped of their ability to lead, work, and participate in politics— were valued not for what they did, but for what they looked like.

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Even the culture surrounding beauty denied women agency. Many older cosmetics ads stressed the importance of men’s approval, detracting from make-up’s potential to promote self-expression.

These rigid gender roles have been fading away in recent decades, but their impact on the way we see beauty is still very prominent. Therefore, while it is important to recognize that standards of beauty are pernicious to the self-images of both men and women, we should not judge the scope of this detriment in equal measures. For men, attractiveness an advantage. For women, it is expected.

The Proof is in the Language

What sort of face did the instructions in the opening paragraph bring to mind? I did my best not to sway your imagination with gendered terms. Unfortunately, most of the words in our language that relate to human attractiveness are associated with femininity Beauty itself is used more typically to refer to women and nature than to men. In fact, a study examining a collection of texts combed through over 50 million words to find that terms relating to physical attractiveness (think sexy or glamorous) were used most frequently as descriptors of women while words concerning height, personality, and ability were used in reference to men*.  Did the face you imagined happen to belong to a woman? Don’t feel bad if it did— your choice is expected. Linguistically, at least, beauty is more concerned with women than it is with men.

On the surface, this fact appears harmless. Scratch deeper, though, and you’ll see that the relationship between woman and titles like beautiful, glamorous, and sexy are more insidious than flattering. Think about the words we use when we describe the bodies of men and women. Men have physiques, a term suggesting size, strength, and athleticism, while women have figures, which connotes a more passive shapeliness or sexual attractiveness. Men are deemed hunks when they are toned and strong— attributes associated with dominance and power. Meanwhile, the desirable female form is either thin— a stature valued for its ability to take up little space— or buxom and voluptuous in ways that would facilitate child-rearing.

Now, there is nothing wrong with being a thin or curvy woman just like there is nothing wrong with being a strong and muscular man. However, it is important to question the levels of power and agency implicitly allowed by these idealized human forms. Similarly, it is wise to consider the ways our culture uses languages to discuss gender and beauty. Is it any wonder that “male model” is one of the few occupational titles that begs a masculine antecedent to distinguish it from its traditionally female counterpart, whereas most job titles— firefighter, congresswomen— have been shifted to do the reverse? It is almost guaranteed that a billboard advertising something SEXY will use the term in reference to a female model just like it is more likely that textual descriptors for personal attributes like height and intelligence are more likely to describe men.

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The automatic association of women with beauty and sex is evident in clickbait advertisements which, despite showing up for all internet users, specifically target men through their use of “sexy” (female) bodies.

As On-Screen, so Below

Speaking of the charming, brave hero and his saucy female companion, on-screen couples often exemplify the disproportionate pressure women feel to fit the criteria of conventional beauty. It is not uncommon for films to pair their average-looking male leads with younger, gorgeous romantic interests. We’ve seen Nicolas Cage matched with Angelina Jolie, Will Ferrell with Zooey Deschanel, and Sean Penn with Emma Stone to name a few. Although Hollywood films do have a certain beauty threshold, major movies have a noticeable habit of shunning older, average-looking actresses while awarding homely, 50-something-year-old guys with leading roles. This too is a product of historical objectification. Many roles for leading-ladies lack character depth, rendering women on-screen as little more than pretty props in the story arcs of male leads. These beautiful women are often doomed to fall in love with the male protagonists, and, enamored by his courage, humor, kindness, etc., are more than happy to overlook his potential plainness.

It is also important to mention that the actresses who fill these roles are almost invariably white or light-skinned, thin, and under thirty (a criteria that is more lax when applied to their male counterparts). The representation of women in most major Hollywood films is extremely insidious to the self-images of female viewers because it not only asserts that women are valued for their beauty over their interior traits, but defines this beauty by measures that exclude the majority of viewers on racist and ageist principles.

Like it or not, media shapes the world around us. The beauty standards enforced in movies— complete with their colorism and disproportionate couples— affect the attitude of audiences. When these aforementioned on-screen tropes seep into our cultural consciousness, they not only evoke self-image issues, but normalize sexism and body-shaming.

At the end of the day,

Almost all of us are hurt by beauty standards for a plethora reasons. I’ve not had the chance to cover intersectional issues like the pressure put on trans individuals “pass,” or the intricacies of colorism and Eurocentrism, but topics like these only stands to prove that normative beauty does not, by nature, cut as deeply into men (particularly those of the white/hetero variety) as it does other groups. Beauty standards and body positivity are still by and large issues that target women and people on the feminine spectrum, and it is time to stop going out of our way to include men in this narrative.

*Herriman, J. (1998) Descriptions of woman and man in Present-Day English. Moderna Språk 92: 136–42.