In southern China, where I grew up, the common standard for beauty was “thin.” To maintain the perfect weight, my aunt and cousin practice a diet mainly consisting of fruits, vegetables, nuts, a little bit of lean meat and virtually no carbs. In contrast, I love food. For as long as I can remember, I have received looks of shock and concern at mealtimes as I devoured more food than both of them combined.
I would be lying if I told you that this did not bother me at least a little bit. As a little girl, I had always admired my cousin in perfectly shaped dresses and thought to myself, “She looks so beautiful. I wish I could look just like her.”
We privilege the sense of sight to an enormous extent. Ninety percent of the information that comes to the brain is visual. The sense of vision is our primary mechanism in recognizing differences. Even in situations that do not involve our eyes, we still use expressions in our daily language that are associated with seeing, such as “Let’s see if that works out,” or “What’s your vision of the plan?”
Even just by the composition of the expression, body image is intimately related to what we perceive visually. However, it does go beyond a static visual statement. As a little girl and even sometimes as a more grown-up girl, being beautiful is not the endpoint. Rather, it is also seen as the pathway to a series of other privileges or experiences. We think beauty has its rewards, and this belief seems to be confirmed empirically. In his book “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful,” Dr Daniel Hamermesh, an economist from the University of Texas, actually shows that “beautiful people,” he judged beauty based on a series of different factors such as facial symmetry could earn as much as $230,000 more than others over a lifetime.
Am I arguing against the idea of beauty? No. But I am arguing against the construction of a universalized, commoditized, standardized and simplified image of beauty. Social media is never shy about feeding us with the most up-to-date information on popular standards of beauty: toned arms, flat abs, slim waists and perfectly curved hips. Don’t have those assets? Don’t worry, the multi-billion dollar dieting industry has your back.
Maybe beauty pays, but it also consumes. We all struggle with body image to some extent. It is an issue that affects people across age and gender precisely because of the idea of one single standard of beauty. Any deviation from that central image frightens us because we are afraid of being seen as imperfect and unsuccessful. We criticize our own bodies and compare them to the standard. We try to stumble our way to the center, sometimes with controlled diets, intense exercises and dieting pills.
But beauty has more nuance than a static image; it is the wholeness of a person inside and out. To solve the issue of body image, we need more than media literacy and advocating for loving our bodies. As the fox said to the little prince, “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” We need to advocate for a diversified, multi-dimensional and natural concept of beauty that does not stop at the static image but also includes the individual’s inner qualities.
Here’s hoping that, in the near future, when little girls see their cousins in perfectly shaped clothes, instead of “I wish I could look like her,” they will say, “I wish I could be as loving, caring and kind as she is.”