What makes a girl beautiful

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Young smiling dark-skinned girlEarlier this year, an image doing the rounds on social media sites whipped users into a frenzy of indignation. It was a diptych of a little girl of four or five, her hair askew, her dress slipping charmingly off her shoulder, her face radiating joy. The accompanying text read: 'The person who shared this with me said "This would never go viral, she's the wrong colour", and I wanted to punch something.'

The reverse psychology employed by whoever it was who launched this communique worked, for enraged viewers liked and reposted it in such numbers few social media users would have missed it. Actor Blair Underwood's own posting of the image on his official Facebook page received more than half a million likes, 300,000 shares and 33,000 comments.

The girl in the photograph was black, with sharp cheekbones and bright eyes the likes of which Somali models Waris Diri and Iman would no doubt have also possessed at a similar age. The original poster's implicitly racist comment was quite obviously aimed at stirring debate. But there was something deeply worrying about the response it provoked, for those tens of thousands of commentators were focusing their collective ire not on the child's skin colour, but on her looks.

'Stunning!', 'Beautiful!', 'She could be a model!', 'Gorgeous little stunner her parents must be so proud', 'Such a rare beauty', they exclaimed, falling over themselves in an effort to fulfil the poster's mischievousness intention of making the post go viral.

It was as though the child had been called ugly rather than black. And so appearance-obsessed is our society that responders countered this racist jibe with an unintentionally ironic, unselfconsciously sexist response.

Their comments reinforced the fact that beauty is a currency which — as People magazine demonstrated when it declared Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o its most beautiful person for 2014 — has finally caught up with the times and is now measurable and tradable and worthy of appraisal in any female, no matter her race, no matter if she is a little girl barely out of nappies.

And it's not only women 'of colour' who are now being recognised for their physical attributes: 'plus-size' role-models are lionised for their curvaceous deliciousness (think Adele and model Robyn Lawson); women who post make-up-free selfies in the name of cancer research are declared 'stunning' by their social media followers; and new mothers with their misshapen bellies and drooping breasts are stripping off to approving audiences.

There's certainly something satisfying about subverting society's idea of what constitutes beautiful: female-led campaigns that flood the media with images of representative faces and bodies reinforce the absurdity of current 'beauty' standards and the narrow definition they endorse.

But this democratisation of beauty — the notion that all woman are beautiful, that they should all be focused on unleashing their inner sexiness, that they should be flinging off clothes/make-up/insecurities for all the world to see — isn't really liberating. It's a form of self-sabotage in which women have co-opted their own subjugation and reshaped it into a more accommodating and indiscriminate form.

No longer is it only the physically exquisite who can pose naked; the plain and the imperfect must be welcomed, too, into the sacred circle of female objectification.

This is an acutely worrying phenomenon, for it keeps women distracted from the intellectual and creative pursuits in which their male counterparts are romping ahead, free from the cultural expectation that their first priority is to look good. It gives them the perception that they've taken charge of their faces and bodies when in fact they've just wrested their own suppression from the hands of the powerful and turned it upon themselves.

It's a mindset to which the little girl in the viral image unwittingly fell victim: she might well be articulate, intelligent, sensitive, caring, kind, perceptive, brave, outgoing, wilful and strong. But the world focused instead on the only thing that matters, since she is a girl: her looks.

This habit of judging females on their outwards appearance, and the trend that encourages all women to market themselves as decorative objects, is a boon for marketers struggling to sell products to Photoshop-savvy consumers. Having spent decades undermining their self-esteem with images of women airbrushed to perfection, advertisers are now telling them what they intuitively know: that they are in fact good enough.

Serial offender Dove has established a Movement for Self-Esteem which holds as its most precious aim the celebration of 'real beauty'. It scolds women for adopting the very self-loathing it has spent years profiting from, and promises — through its products — to deliver them into bodies that are truly, universally beautiful.

But as long as women fall for this ploy, internalise the belief that they are the sum of their physical parts, and pursue the grand yet transitory prize of being declared 'beautiful', they will not free themselves from the scourge of gender inequality.

Like Meryl Streep, who said in a recent speech that she didn't feel 'beautiful enough' to be an actress, they will be plagued by their physicality and the fear that this overvalued currency — a mere façade which conceals the essence of their being — will forever be in short supply.


 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. Follow her on Twitter @zizzyballord

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, feminism, body image

 

 

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Existing comments

This is a minefield of a subject, so I'll tread carefully. Well written, Catherine. I empathised with Janis Ian's "At Seventeen", I closed my eyes against Germaine Greer's rage in "The Female Eunuch", I felt Kate Jennings' pain in "Trouble". Dunno about the boys!!
Pam | 25 July 2014


While ever we keep lowering the standards of education and have superficial entertainment programs flooding our society, is it any wonder that this becomes the norm. All the house improvement programs - it's the same thing. It will ever continue until we all learn to value wisdom, knowledge and ideas. There is nothing wrong with admiring physical beauty, it's like looking at any object of beauty, but if that is all there is, then we are becoming an impoverished race.
Jane | 25 July 2014


Doesn't the fact that the diptych of the little girl tell us something more about social media than it does about the concept of beauty and racism? Or modern advertising? Catherine Marshall has teased out some of the more obvious tricks - in this case reverse psychology. I of course am glad that my two daughters are beautiful - one is brown eyed, raven-haired and dark-skinned, the other is blue-eyed blond and fair-skinned. Admittedly they look after their appearance but as far as I am aware they are both happy with the genes they have inherited from hazel-eyed, mousey-haired and freckly skinned parents. Am I tempted to put images of them on facebook? to say good looks can be seen as the result of a spin on the roulette wheel of genetic inheritance? No,because their beauty is not the first thing I love about my daughters, it is their innate goodness as mothers that gives joy to my heart and that is very personal.
Uncle Pat | 25 July 2014


Excellent piece, Catherine. Only through such commentary can the superficial and pernicious nature of female objectification be exposed.
Errol Jones | 25 July 2014


Thank you for your thoughtful and considered response. Let's hope its subtlety is not lost on the antifeminist push.
Ann Troup | 25 July 2014


One thing that gets forgotten in this whole debate is the difference between beautiful and photogenic. A person can be one without being the other. The images that we see from the advertisers etc are of the photogenic ones (either men or women), people who look good when photographed. The irony is that the flattened image on the page does not carry the full picture. Many people could say, 'I am beautiful but I'm not photogenic - I don't always look at my best in a photo'.
Kim Miller | 25 July 2014


Thanks for writing this intelligent articulate piece Catherine.
Maha Melhem | 28 July 2014


This article is based off the argument that people are focusing on making ads that feature all types of women and that women think that it is liberating and freeing them from society's influence when in fact it is keeping them concerned about their looks - but the way to stop making people be so concerned about their looks is by showing the world all different types of bodies with the goal that all types of bodies will be beautiful because there's no unrealistic expectations of a "good looking body". At the same time there also needs to be a push on furthering women's minds and education. I don't think they're mutually exclusive - there's always going to be advertising and there's always going to be a need for bodies to be in the advertisements. we can still be pushing for having different types of bodies in ads and furthering women's minds at the same time. It's not a bad thing for a woman's body to be in an ad its a bad thing when the body is objectified.
Rina | 28 August 2014


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