Tarnished Gold: The Problems With Current Beauty Standards

by: Mariann Devlin

“Is this the world’s most beautiful woman?” asks a Gawker headline from last week. “Science suggests 18-year-old Florence Colgate just might be.”

A barely post-pubescent blonde girl from Britain is considered the most beautiful woman in the world? Color me surprised.

It’s obviously a mistake to think that the preferences of a country which is 90 percent white is any indication of worldwide beauty standards, but less obvious is that that we regularly universalize all sorts of values. When I griped about this on Facebook, some of my friends asked “Who cares?”  But I wouldn’t be doing my feminist duty if I didn’t, every now and then, harp on something seemingly trivial in the hopes that other people will finally get it already, geez!

I say this was a joking smile, but that’s where, I believe, the radical feminist project lies- in exploring the roots of essentialization of all kinds- gender and sexual norms, beauty standards, racial discrimination. What I think this particular headline invites is a discussion about our methods of proclaiming certain values as universal. In the case of a nation-wide beauty contest- in which the winner is measured and tested according to a “golden ratio” of female facial beauty, we have to ask ourselves how we can make such claims over something so arbitrary.

Feminist scientists and feminist postmodernists alike ask the important question, “How do we come to know what we know? How is our knowledge tainted by our prejudices?” whether its differences between men or women that we think are based on common sense, or the trusted empirical methods that justify those “common sense” differences. While some insist that feminist empiricism and feminist postmodernism are at odds, I think both camps can agree that to use science to back up what we already believe to be true is a pretty bad way of “knowing.” In this case, that we find certain women beautiful because their physical features indicate highly-valued reproductive traits.

Who is this “we”? Given that I’m a straight-identified woman, the female beauty standards which I hold have nothing to do with my desire to copulate. Those involved in “golden ratio” facial studies need to speak for themselves- and stop trying to convince me (and female researchers) that the beauty preferences of straight men throughout history are also mine. If there’s any consensus about what’s beautiful, it’s not simply because our standards of beauty perfectly mirror the reproductive needs of the species- its also because straight men have always had the power to rationalize their preferences at the exclusion of others’.

That came off a bit hostile, I admit. But we must have with a healthy amount of skepticism toward these self-evident truths about beauty- and race, gender, sexuality, and faith- or we risk devaluing the alternative ways in which people live and are.

But what of consensus? Isn’t part of the feminist project to reach some kind of common ground? Consensus is important when lives are at stake, like the lives of innocent civilians in occupied countries, and yes- the lives of the unborn. But the inalterable essence of feminine beauty? I think not.

Going back to the “golden ratio,” there’s a strong tradition in the West, stemming from ancient Greek philosophy, that the things which belong to the realm of ethics and aesthetics can be essentialized. That is, we can all come to a neat consensus about how ideal Beauty and Goodness and Justice exists in our world, through reason, logic, and especially since the Enlightenment, empirical science. Fortunately, postmodernism has taken this tradition to task, by insisting that moral and aesthetic values are socially-contingent, and thus alterable. Good news for those of us who fall outside the straight white male category. Gender, sexuality, and our ways of determining what is beautiful are all fluid. They’re all subject to change. We still have a long way to go, though.

I don’t think anyone who looks at the photos of Florence Colgate actually believes her to be the most beautiful woman in the world, whether its due to the exclusion of other standards of beauty or whether its because they can simply think of women who are more beautiful. Either way, let’s continue to keep our minds open to those instances, including the trivial news headlines, where attempts are made to essentialize the values and preferences of those who have the power to disseminate them. Because its those attempts which restrict our freedom to feel good about ourselves, and our ability to embrace the attributes which make us different. Or, in the case of a “golden ratio” standard of facial beauty (one that doesn’t apply to most women) an embrace of the things that actually make us the same.

Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.

3 responses to “Tarnished Gold: The Problems With Current Beauty Standards

  1. I agree that Florence Colgate’s beauty is situated in culture – there are lots of different types of beauty. We live in a society obsessed by beauty, at least at the media level. Luckily for people who don’t look much like Florence, on the ground, nobody much cares.

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