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The New Beauty Ideal

When I was growing up, skinny was in. That Kate Moss kind-of-skinny. 

A lot of girls I knew had eating disorders and aspired to be so thin that they ditched sportsand any other activity that required burning calories, for that matter—because they had no calories to spare and couldn’t stomach chowing them down just to keep up with a ball. 

The 'it girl’ back then (as we were told by movies and ads) was usually blonde, blue-eyed, very thin, and very white. That was how we ended the 20th century, with Barbie-like ambitions playing across our mirrors and consciousness. And this ideal held through for the next few years.

But then... something started to shift. 

Social Media exploded. 

And then, in 2007 the Kardashian’s came onto the scene. Namely, Kim Kardashian. 

 

The Kardashian Effect

Okay, so history is never quite as reductionist as this, but it does kind of feel like one minute, Paris Hilton—that very thin, blonde, blue-eyed, white girl—was really hot. And then she wasn’t. And suddenly, it’s dark haired, olive skinned, curvy girl Kim on everyone’s radar. 

To say that since debuting her family’s reality show Kim Kardashian has changed the face of beauty is an understatement. In just over a decade, the look of the ‘it girl’ has become so ubiquitously mirrored in her image (for better or worse) that there’s even a name for it: The Kardashian Effect. This is the very real and modern phenomenon of girls beautying themselves to look like Kim (even Kim’s own sisters have arguably fallen victim to this). Girls will contour. They will IG filter. Even plastic surgery their faces, butts, hips, and ribs just to look in some semblance like the Queen K.

If there’s any doubt that this ideal has become dominant, just look at the top 10 female accounts followed across two of the world’s largest Social Media platforms, Tik Tok and Instagram.


The top 10 most followed female accounts on social media: 

Ariana Grande

Kylie Jenner

Selena Gomez

Beyoncé

Dixie D’Amelio

Loren Gray

Kim Kardashian

Bella Poarch

Addison Rae

Charli D’Amelio 

 

Now, you may or may not have heard of all of those names. But if you were to really see the list, you'd notice that only two of these women are BIPOC. Only one of them is blonde, blue-eyed. The rest? All brunettes. Olive skinned/well bronzed. Thin… but still going for curvy. 

This is the ‘it’ look.

 

Narrow Beauty

According to psychotherapist Amanda Luterman, there’s something to be said about this shift in the beauty ideal that seems to purportedly represent more women globally. Indeed, more women are likely to tick the box of brown hair, curvy, olive skinned as compared to the Barbie ideal of before. And yet, and yet. The apparent democratization or globalization of beauty standards isn’t quite as benign as you would think, Luterman notes. Because realistically, the standard is still unattainable for most women who don’t ‘beauty’ as a job. Meaning, in order to keep up, you have to work damn hard to fit the bill. More about that in a minute, but first: an important footnote about Social Media. 

There’s a paradox here. That while The Kardashian effect has taken hold, at the same time Social Media has become a boon for other types of beauty to find their place. We see this most prominently in the #BodyPositivity and #SkinPositivity movements. From plus-sized models to women embracing skin conditions like vitiligo or acne, alt beauty is getting a moment. But there’s a crux here: one cannot come with the other. Meaning, if you’re plus-sized, you better be flawless in almost every other way. 

Beauty, it turns out, is a sort of negotiation between certain key markers. 

In her book Perfect Me, Heather Widdows says there is not one single model of beauty in terms of hair, eye colour, height or weight. But rather a broad range of acceptable requirements. Those key features are: young, thin, firm, and smooth. And if you don’t have one (like thinness), then you better have nailed the other requirements (like dewy, plump skin). 

 

“The beauty ideal is not a single model, but a (relatively narrow) range of acceptable models. For example, size can vary, you can be tall or short, petite or Amazonian, but you must be some version of slim; hair style and hair color can vary, but some evidence of grooming is required; breast size can vary, but pertness is desirable across sizes; and so the list goes on.”


According to Widdows, the supposed democratization of beauty thanks to Social Media isn’t really what it seems below the surface. In fact, she goes so far as to say that we are actually, by and large, conforming more than ever to specific beauty markers

“The range of what is acceptable is becoming narrower, increasingly homogenised, and globally aspired to.”

Oof. 

And, unsurprisingly we have our online lives to thank for that.

As Widows writes, “Life is one long catwalk.” The catwalk being our increasingly visual and online world, where keeping up our image and looking good has become more of a daily grind than ever. Where we must be camera-ready, always. And where in order to do so we have to do way more plucking and nipping and contouring and tinting and squatting than ever before. 

 

The Cost of Beauty

So I was curious, how has all this keeping up to this new beauty ideal affected our health as women? Both mentally and physically?

When I was growing up, the ideal beauty look had obvious ways of manifesting itself into certain dysmorphias and eating disorders like severe calorie restrictions and a general phobia of muffin tops. But today? Well, sure both of those issues are still prevalent, as Widdows says, being thin and slim is the primary feature of the dominant beauty idea, still. But with a new It Girl and evolved aesthetic values, what is the cost for us to keep up today? 

That’s what I was trying to find out. As I began digging into it, a clear picture started to emerge about the price of looking beautiful. That in order to keep up you have to: 1) exercise, a lot and/or, 2) undergo surgical procedures.

Most of us naturally (ironically, the Kardashians’ included) could never look like a Kardashian with mini waists and large butts and generous breasts and plump lips and bold eyebrows and bambi eyes. You need more than good genes to keep up. 

“Body work is required in one form or another: either by constant diet and exercise to build the right curves in the right places, or in the form of cosmetic surgery.” — Widdows

Psychotherapist Luterman echos the same sentiments. Her clients are ultra obsessed with working out. Staying fit. Squat, crunch, plank, repeat. And they’re also falling prey to all those new nip/tuck ads. Cool sculpting? Baby botox? These are becoming the new norm among women. 

So, back to my main question: How much time is too much time spent hating yourself?


Well, I asked Luterman in our latest podcast episode. Here are the bones of what she had to say...

First, that you should be aware of how often these kinds of negative thoughts about your body come into your mind on a daily basis. This will definitely help give you an idea of how much time you’re really exhausting on self-hate.

And secondly, that you should learn to then, ultimately, tune your body out by staying stimulated by other things that empower you, erotically, intellectually, or physically. In our podcast, Luterman offers some exercises and daily habits you can try out to get there. 


To listen to my conversation with Amanda and dive deeper into the question of rebelling against the new beauty norm, tune in to our podcast episode, The New Beauty Ideal.

 

“The most important rebellion you can have against your body is looking at it less and using it more.” — Amanda Luterman


 



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