Is it really that simple?
Sara Alonzi FEATURES EDITOR
Iulia Dragos OPINIONS EDITOR
Image: Grazia Daily
It’s no secret that as a society, there is a tendency to value external looks. In fact, whole industries run on this very premise. We not only value good looks, but we privilege and reward them with social prestige, which correlates to a certain economic benefit. This social prestige can also translate into political power. Overall, there is some sort of comfort derived from beauty — and we all contribute in some way, shape, or form to naturalizing this aspect.
Artists and philosophers have grappled and generated so much literature on this aspect. Beauty, in its purest form, has the hold it does because it generates a very powerful emotional and biological response which makes sense as to why it is often the first thing that occurs when encountering someone new.
The ugly side of beauty
The moment it got toxic was when looks began to be commercialized and tangled with the narrative of currency and exchange. There was the attachment of worth and value to external appearances. Another significant way that the concept of what is considered attractive is complicated is through discussions of race. Overall, society prizes features that are represented by white men and women. This materializes as favouring light features, such as skin, eyes, and hair. We have been taught and conditioned into thinking that beauty and attraction is defined by the standard ideals of Western beauty, and that this is what we subconsciously attach worth and value to. The consequences of this are dire as who we attach worth to, are those who we listen to. Those who we listen to are the ones who we give power to shape our world. Implicit in this is the fact that all this power is now wrapped up and reproduced in a problematic and racialized concept. For example, the fact that stars like the Kardashians are able to get away with so much, including racist and transphobic comments, while seemingly cashing in their empire because of their looks and consequently, the social prestige attached to them. It’s not to say that there isn’t a certain admiration in their business ethic and ambition, however, it is important to realize the huge expense that this comes at.
Where do we go from here?
Apparently, systematic discrimination can’t be dismantled overnight (crazy, no?). But the worth, privilege, and things we overlook as a result of hegemonic looks can be. At least not overnight — but still more manageable. While beauty seems objective, it can also be subjective — which is where the power comes from. We can desensitize our gaze from the type of beauty that industries have capitalized on, including on the notion of what is culturally dominant.
Movements operating on body positivity are a great example of this, since they are calling for a more inclusive take on what it means to be beautiful. Deconstructing this category is essential because showing that there is more to beauty than the objectivity of physical features, we can start reclaiming the power and prestige attached to it in all realms of our lives, such as politics, media, and society in general.
I took to the University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) campus to interview some students on this issue. I asked each of them the question: “Do you believe that attractive people receive more benefits?” All of them, after some hesitation, confirmed that they did believe the statement to be true. After this question was established, I began to engage in dialogue with the students to see what their own views were on the subject of “attractiveness” and what exactly made a person “attractive.” When deconstructing the definition of “attractiveness” and unpacking all of the connotations that go along with it, I discovered a few key points of focus.
Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder:
Many individuals stated that true beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Each individual has their own perception of what “attractiveness” means to them. Whether it be physical features, or personality, each individual has an ideal image of a person in their minds that they cling to. One student pointed out that, “to say that someone is attractive, is completely subjective to that person. My friend standing next to me might think that blue eyes are more attractive, and I may disagree and think that brown eyes are more appealing. That doesn’t mean that I think a person with blue eyes is ugly, I just have different preferences.” Another person I spoke with mentioned the term “halo effect.” According to verywellmind.com, the term refers to a state of mind where when one person has a feature we like, for example, a kind personality, our brains then register the rest of the person to be even more attractive than before. We may even assume that because of their kind personality, that they must also be intelligent, making this assumption without knowing anything about the person’s history. But, because of this judgement (unconsciously or consciously done), we set up a false perception of that person. If we like what we perceive of what that person is, then they can appear more attractive to us than before.
The second element of an attractive person to students around USMC had to do with the individual’s personality. I spoke with a student named Adelina* who told me that “it is hard not to immediately be drawn to an attractive person, however, if [she] finds someone less attractive in [her] eyes, but they have a captivating personality, then they become even more attractive to [her].” She also said that “over time, whether it be platonic relationships or romantic relationships, the person you spend a significant amount of time with will become more attractive than when you first met them.”
Many people I spoke with echoed her thoughts with a big emphasis on getting to really know and understand the person for who they are, rather than their appearance. One student stated that it is “unfair to set people up against society’s standards because the physical features someone has is what they were born with; some features fit society’s standards of beauty and some do not. Either way it is unfair to the person.”
Many students also highlighted the fact that confidence plays a key role in determining whether or not someone is attractive. A student named Sam* told me that “it really doesn’t matter what the person looks like on the outside, if they carry themselves with confidence and they believe that they are the most beautiful human being on the planet, then others will believe it too.” Sam’s statement is nothing we haven’t seen before. To give an example from history, Cleopatra is famed over the world and is written in history books to have been charismatic and powerful. Many people believe this was because of her beauty, but in fact, it was the opposite. Cleopatra was exceedingly intelligent and educated. She carried herself with charisma and could captivate a room with her speech rather than her beautiful features.
It is her magnetism that made her a memorable figure in history. However, due to different interpretations of her character through the media and fictional books, television, and movies, the world has resorted to believing her to be an Elizabeth Taylor-esque figure who exuded sexuality and patriarchal feminine charm. She became a figure more famed for her sexual conquests rather than her great mind. So why is it that we as a society tend to twist around a female’s charismatic personality and intelligence into something interconnected with beauty? Perhaps it has something to do with the halo effect mentioned before, and how if a person is intelligent and charismatic, then that person surely must also be outwardly beautiful. The question then must be asked if a woman can be both beautiful and intelligent, or is she forever restrained to one of these categories?
Beauty and Race:
I also spoke with a number of students to get their ideas on how beauty and race have a role to play within our society. Many individuals looked at me with hesitation on such a controversial topic of conversation, but after some coaxing, I received their thoughts. I spoke with Shanzeh, a USMC Don and fourth-year student. She told me that “although there have been recent efforts to show more people of colour on-screen, there is still a long way to go before significant change.” This made me wonder why Westernized television, movies, and music favour a more mono-racial image and do not openly show people of different races, countries, and ethnicities. For many years, white individuals have dominated Western media, and as another student points out, “can have negative impacts on a person’s mind.”
I spoke with a first-year student who had grown up in Canada but whose family is ethnically Chinese. She told me that when she was growing up, she never saw any Asian leading actresses, singers, or characters in television or movies that resembled her and her life. She grew up watching television shown in Canada that featured white teens living an everyday life. This left her feeling out of place, with no one to relate to, and even wishing she could change her ethnicity to be more like the girls on TV. The student states that “this was a particularly dark time in [her] life and [she] wishes [she] could have seen more Asian representation on television so she could have someone to relate to, instead of feeling distanced and alienated.”
Many of the students I spoke to had similar thoughts, and some were angered at the lack of representation of people of colour in the media. An international student from Pakistan argued that “we, as a society, have marginalized people of colour and have given them stereotypical roles instead of treating them like the complex characters that all human beings are.” She also argued that due to colonialism and the mess it had caused in many countries including her own, there had been many instances where she still feels the backlash and pressure to change her physical appearance to look “whiter” with skin lightening creams and various other beauty techniques. She also stated that whenever her family goes to a wedding, later on in conversation they would compliment the bride on her wonderful clothing and pale skin. The remark of the bride’s paleness is one that persists in finding its way into every wedding conversation that the student can remember having.
Similarly, another student named Ji-Hye*, who identifies as Korean, explained that when she visits her family members in Korea, they all take turns explaining why she should undergo double-eyelid surgery to achieve a more defined eye crease. She emphasized that before these concerns had been brought to her attention, she had never thought that having a monolid was a bad thing. Having been brought up in Canada, she never had to think about changing her eye shape or any other part of her body in order to look different. But in Korea, beauty standards are different and because her family cares about her, she thought there must have been some medical reason behind why she should have the procedure done (rather than it being purely aesthetical). Another student explained that if people of colour received equal representation in the media, it would lead to younger generations being able to relate to the celebrities they see on television, and beauty standards would change. It would lead to more people feeling comfortable with who they are no matter their ethnicity, attractiveness, or gender.
Although highly controversial, this is a topic that needs to be spoken about. We are entering a new phase in time where we are slowly beginning to show people of colour on television in roles other than the ones the media and society limits them to. Praising individuals for their differences while also admiring your own is what can lead to body positivity that was never before seen. Once you acknowledge the beauty in other people for how they are different, that is when you can acknowledge the beauty in yourself. We as a community need to come together and stand proud of the people we are and unapologetically claim our own narratives whatever they may be. The media can only portray half the story, and it is our duty as human beings on this Earth to tell the full story. Change will only happen if you allow it to.
All names with an asterisk* beside them have been changed to protect the anonymity of the individual.