What is beauty? It’s a question we ask every day; we ask it of ourselves, our loved ones, our search engines. It’s a loaded question with little-known answers, but we keep trying to find them.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines beauty as: “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit”. And if that doesn’t help you, you’re not alone. Many of us are on a lifelong quest to find the answer, whether we know it or not.
When we were younger, we would spend hours playing with toys, dressing up Barbie dolls with figures that didn’t correlate to the female bodies that surrounded us. We would watch fairy tales where good was rosy cheeks and a flattering rouge lip, and bad was dull skin, warts and bizarrely shaped faces. When we outgrew that we turned to celebrities; taping posters of teenagers posing suggestively to our bedroom walls. We were given unsolicited advice: “smile”, “you don’t need to wear so much makeup”, or “that’s not very ladylike”. We were expected to conform to an image others held up as beautiful. Has anything changed?
It seems we’ve swapped Barbie dolls for Instagram scrolls, spending hours thumbing through social media feeds, downloading the visual details of strangers on social media. In fact, it has become a crucial part of the day for many of us. There are an estimated 800 million Instagram users, with 68% of those users being female. We are frequently being told by the media that a woman's value is measured by their appearance. We would like to think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in the age of Instagram, where a telescopic lens has been created for us to look through and analyse even the most obscure of beauty standards, is that still true?
With Youtube and Instagram personalities hailed the new beauty trendsetters, are we being led along a path of swellheadness and self-loathing? We are all familiar with the hours of self-doubt and scrutiny over which selfie we should upload. We are now perceived as a generation of narcissists as a result, but perhaps behind the filter we are masking a neurotic need to be liked. Watching the likes mount after uploading a selfie has real-life effects on our brains. The reward molecule dopamine is released when we register the validity we receive; likes online equate to being liked, accepted and even enamoured in real life. But as with anything that has the potential to make us feel so good, or so bad, the potential for it to get out of control is high. The compulsion to pick up the phone throughout the day can very quickly lead to a downward spiral of envious despair. It’s a carousel that never stops spinning.
But can we take back control? Since the beginning of humankind, there have been definitions of beauty. Idols, film stars, influencers, goddesses; perhaps social media shouldn’t take all the blame.
Perhaps the problem is that we try to define beauty at all. It’s a mentality that already has traction; social media is just lighting the way. We have seen some encouraging movements come from body positivity bloggers who have begun to break down stereotypes and boundaries when it comes to beauty. From @the.vulva.gallery celebrating vulvas of all shapes and sizes, to skin positivity on @mypaleskinblog, more often we are seeing reality marry the screen. @arewenearlybareyet is a quirky, colourful statement that all bodies are beautiful, and @zenteta uses body art to promote body positivity. We are in need of accounts that are conducive to change societies overarching view of beauty. Beauty is only skin deep, and the sooner we realise and celebrate it, the better.
The road ahead is long, and the terrain is steep. Deconstructing the entrenched belief that being ‘beautiful’ is a prerequisite for acceptance is a good starting point. Scrolling through your instagram feed and seeing posts that recognise all shapes, colours and quirks as beautiful is a great step towards self-confidence. So, is beauty in the eye of the beholder? That’s for you to decide.