By Deborah Wee
“Life must be easy when you look that way.”
This thought used to cross my mind while watching the willowy, impossibly stunning bombshells of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show strutting across the runway and swaying their hips with confidence.
I was aware that it was physically impossible for the vast majority of women to ever achieve that tall, hourglass frame. But I had always assumed that the 5 per cent who were blessed with the type of body glorified by the media would have nothing to be insecure about.
Little did I know how wrong I was.
According to a 2007 study by the City University in London, it turns out that fashion models are more likely to have lower self-esteem than people who are not models.
American model Cameron Russell made a similar revelation on TED Talks in 2013, when she confessed to being insecure about her body. “I’m insecure because I have to think about what I look like everyday,” she revealed, adding that models are possibly the most physically insecure women on the planet.
I used to think that women like Russell never worried about looking “inadequate” because they already had that “ideal” image.
But it seems as if even the most conventionally beautiful women in society are not spared the intense scrutiny that women often face about their looks, and dealing with this scrutiny is a never-ending battle that chips away at their self-confidence. The message seemed clear: when it comes to women’s bodies, “perfect” isn’t perfect enough. There is always some “flaw” that everyone else is eager to point out.
In other cases, body types perceived as “ideal” or “desirable” still end up becoming associated with negative stereotypes. Last month, American actress Ariel Winter spoke out on Refinery29 against body shaming after enduring a long history of social media backlash for – you guessed it – her body. Running a quick Google Image search, I quickly concluded that the Modern Family star fulfilled mainstream standards of physical attractiveness – she’s voluptuous, shapely and simply sexy. Didn’t society favour that kind of body, epitomised by the iconic fictional character Jessica Rabbit, whose desirability is consistently highlighted in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Yet, it seems that society still finds ways to shame women who have been encouraged by the media to show off their curves. That was the case for Winter, who does not shy away from posting pictures of herself in bikinis and small dresses. “When I first got my curves I was so excited, but then people on the internet made me feel bad about it,” she told Us Weekly last October. Her large bust size has continued to draw negative attention – when Winter wore the same bathing suit alongside a thinner and lankier friend, she was still singled out and branded a “slut”.
It is already problematic that women are pressured to conform to narrow standards of physical attractiveness. I barely need to illustrate what such beauty standards do to the majority of women who cannot attain them. In fact, it has been found that women with normal body mass indexes and overweight women have lower self-esteem after looking at comparatively thinner models.
But what is baffling is that for the women who do meet such standards, “sexy” is still considered “slutty”, and willowy models are still judged for the smallest imperfection every time they step out in public.
The pursuit of the “ideal” female body is an impossible fight.
Feminist scholar Sandra Lee Bartky pointed this out in 1990 when she argued that prescribed and “ideal” standards of femininity are a “set-up” in which every woman will fail in some way. She argues that this is because the bodily transformations women must go through to achieve the “ideal” female body are too “radical and extensive”.
But, it seems that failure is also inevitable because it has long been determined that a woman’s body will never be free of criticism. When it comes to beauty standards, women can never win. The only way we can triumph is to reject such beauty standards and scrutiny altogether.
I understand that this is easier said than done; the peer pressure to conform to such standards is high, even without the media shoving them down our throats. But I realised not long ago that attempting to battle an unwinnable fight is just not worth it.
In the past, when someone commented on a physical “flaw” that I needed to cover up with cosmetics, I did as I was told. But when I returned with my supposedly “improved” self, they would quickly point out another flaw. Approval never came, and I’ve realised that it never will. So, I decided that I would no longer alter myself for someone else’s approval, and I’ve been happier since.
There is, of course, the grander and more onerous project of changing the general attitude that women’s bodies are eternally flawed and deserving of criticism. But until then, if society is always determined to find physical “flaws” in us, then why not just reject their criticisms and learn to see the beauty in who we are? If you no longer see your individual physical attributes as inadequacies, then you cannot lose.
About the author: Deborah is a popular culture-obsessed political science major who swoons over 1990s boy bands and holds solo jam sessions covering pre-2012 Taylor Swift songs. She is an advocate for gender equality and wants to promote a world where no one is or feels limited by their gender. She also gets a tad bit over-excited when given a keyboard and a blank Microsoft Word document, or when asked to share her opinion on, well, anything.