“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Growing up, I have heard this saying many times, mostly by adults aiming to help kids love themselves and understand that we all come in different shapes and sizes. This quote was presented as a reminder that beauty is subjective, and what one may find beautiful is not necessarily what will appeal to another.
While re-analyzing this saying, I questioned myself. How often are we the beholders of ourselves? How often do we look into the mirror and see ourselves through our own eyes and not through the filters of society? Oftentimes, we are not the beholders. Instead, we seek to transform ourselves into the idea of beauty presented by society.
So who is then the beholder that we strive to appease?
First, we must define beauty. For something that is very vague, it is given so much importance in our world. Beauty has been defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.’ The beauty standard is the ideal qualities that are deemed visibly pleasing. Beauty standards change based on location, culture, time – and most importantly – politics
Politics and history play a big role in the creation of beauty standards across the world due to colonization. Colonization began in the 15 centuries when European countries sent settlers to other countries in order to gain political control over land beyond Europe. The political power allows countries to use their colonies’ resources, population and land for their benefit. The countries with the most colonies were the UK, France, Spain, and colonies were typically countries in Africa and Asia. Just from that bit of information, anyone can understand that the colonizers were essentially taking over countries that spoke different languages, practiced different traditions, wore different clothes, and celebrated different festivals. But in the eyes of ancient colonizers, differences were looked down upon as they were aiming to create a home away from home. Hence, the European colonizers used their power to create new ideals and assimilate the native population into European culture. Sadly, once countries are colonized, many changes were made in the lives of the natives – including the induction of Eurocentric beauty standards.
One of the biggest stories of colonization in history is when Britain established their rule over India in 1858. The British had installed a systematic prejudice of skin colour in the Indian population through their belief that they were the more ‘superior’ race due to their fair skin. The fairer skinned Indians were given better treatment and were considered to be allies, finding it a little easier to find a job. On the other hand, the darker skinned Indians were labelled as the “blacks” and were given menial jobs under the supervision of British administration. Segregation based on skin colour became more common when the East India Company named their settlement “white town” and named the Indian settlement “black town”. Hence, it became ingrained in the Indian psyche that fair skin is better.
Even after independence from British rule, the beauty standard of having fair skin prevails. Young women and men try all sorts of methods in order to whiten their complexion. The Indian media heavily influences the beauty standard by advertising skin whitening creams (which can cause skin cancer) and casting fair actors and actresses in movies. This leaves many Indian youth feeling like they are below the beauty standard and hopeless. The craze for fair skin has impacted many aspects of modern-day Indian life. For example, in an interview by AsianBoss, Indian youth spoke about how they are pressured to bleach their skin in order to get married, be accepted by society and find a good job. There have even been extreme cases where a woman hung herself in 2014 after being relentlessly bullied by her husband about her dark skin.
Many previously colonized countries, such as Nigeria, Malaysia, Philippines are in a similar situation where fairer complexions are deemed ‘beautiful’. The desire to achieve Eurocentric features has caused many people grief in their lives. To name a few examples, double eyelids in South Korea are preferred over mono eyelids. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, double eyelid surgery was the third most performed procedure in 2018. The desire to look more American with rounder eyes has created a society that focuses on physical appearance. Many youth feel that they must be physically attractive in order to succeed in life. Another example is the African American. After slavery was abolished in America, African Americans still deal with extreme racism. The need to fit in with mainstream society was great as standing out would garner unwanted discrimination. Hence, many women started to straighten their naturally curly hair using various products. Aaryn Lynch, an exhibition producer, has said, “Black people felt compelled to smoothen their hair and texture to fit in easier, and to move in society better and in camouflage, almost.
Going back to the beginning where I mentioned that we are not always the beholder, it is important to recognize the origin of some of these beauty standards. They stem from racism, prejudice, and cause division amongst people. The sooner we realize and accept this, the sooner we can break out of this cycle of self-hate that is propagated to each generation. People from different parts of the world all have their unique features, and that is what makes them special. As humanity, we can only progress once we accept that true beauty is in one’s character.