I was in line to fill my bottle at the water fountain, standing behind a girl in the grade below me. When she finally moved over, I told her:
“Oh my gosh, I just have to say that you’re so gorgeous. Like, I see you all the time and just, wow.”
She was flustered, but immediately started beaming. “Thank you so much! You just made my day.” She left a little surprised and with a glow that wasn’t quite there before.
My friends joke about my ability to find beauty in almost everyone. I’m not talking about cliché inner beauty, but rather pure physical attractiveness—the kind that makes me stop and stare. Growing up across different cultures, I never really understood why a specific sort of girl was always deemed the most desirable, and I guess this left me with a broad view of the countless ways beauty can manifest. I also love giving compliments.
Yet, after spending a little too much time on social media, I got thinking about our perceptions of beauty and why they actually hold any weight. On Instagram, TikTok, and even YouTube, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the people with the most lucrative careers tend to be closest to the Western beauty standard (read: white, cis, and thin). Somehow, our culture has reached a point where physical attractiveness feels like a prerequisite for success, and anyone aligned with these ideals is placed at an economic advantage.
Consider the reality-stars-turned-businesswomen that form a huge chunk of most social media platforms. You know, the ones with hourglass figures and paid partnerships with fast-fashion houses. Consider the few female rappers that manage to battle their way into the mainstream conscience, and the very specific, sexualized aesthetic many of them share. Consider the countless self-proclaimed artists, creatives, and influencers who aren’t really known for anything, yet boast millions of followers and steady incomes just for being pretty.
There’s undoubtedly power in reclaiming an asset that’s historically been used to objectify us, and making bank while doing it is an impressive feat. Still, it makes me uncomfortable that the most omnipresent forms of “feminism” in our culture imply that we have to be conventionally beautiful in order to access social and financial autonomy. As writer Sheena Holt interestingly puts it, “the problem…is that this female sexuality isn’t actually about female sexual power. For hetero women, it’s about taking what men idealize sexually, and pretending that it was our idea all along.”
Women have always been at the whim of arbitrary beauty standards, but as the internet narrows the line between aesthetic ideals and reality, my generation is suffocated by these expectations in an unprecedented way. I mean, they’re literally in our faces for hours a day.
In a video essay, scholar and YouTuber Kimberly Nicole Foster makes two seemingly contradictory statements: beauty is “a bad investment” and “a form of social capital.” She’s right on both counts. In a world that defines women’s worth by their ranking on a man-made scale, it’s both absurd and imperative that we subscribe to these standards—pretty privilege can shape the trajectory of your life. It’s why 77% of Nigerian women risk mercury poisoning, dermatitis, and miscarriages to bleach their skin with toxic creams; they know that if they can just make themselves beautiful, even temporarily, the world might perceive them in a different light. “Beautiful” meaning closer to whiteness, of course.
And this reasoning makes sense—attractive people benefit from their looks in tangible ways. Over a lifetime, conventionally attractive people earn 3-4% more than their unattractive counterparts and are significantly less likely to be incarcerated. Companies with attractive CEOs typically have better stock market performance after mergers and acquisitions, and studies have shown that even infants prefer more symmetrical and “average-looking” faces as they suggest a healthier set of genes. So these biases are already hardwired into our DNA. The real issue stems from the fact that learned beauty standards, which are markedly Eurocentric across the world, capitalize on problematic notions of “standard vs. other” to amplify the importance of physical looks.
Intersectionality within beauty standards is fascinating to unpack because even the so-called trailblazers for diversity tend to fit certain molds. When Black female artists and influencers gain traction, nine times out of ten they’re light-skinned with loose curls and small noses. The plus-sized models featured in campaigns and editorial spreads are typically white women with defined faces, flat stomachs, and hourglass figures. In the infrequent occasions when disabled people are acknowledged by the media, they’re typically thin and cis-passing, and their conditions don’t make us too uncomfortable when we look at them. The list goes on. It’s interesting because even our pinnacles of beauty don’t measure up to the standard they set. Cindy Crawford said it best: “Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.”
See, there’s an unspoken rule on social media that we are to present the best parts of our lives, even if we’re reinforcing the very standards that cause us grief. If I take bikini pics on the beach, I’m meant to post the ones where my waist looks the tiniest and my booty looks the biggest, even if I don’t really look like that and have nothing against my natural shape. Straying from the ever-changing ideal is a political statement, and as a normal person with limited windows to shape the world’s perception of you, it feels like a waste to try to subvert standards when you can just show people how cute you are. Still, there’s a reason why when celebrities post pictures of their rolls and bloating stomachs, or even selfies that aren’t completely Facetuned, they tend to go viral. If today, Kylie Jenner posted an unedited picture with her stretch marks and cellulite on full display (because she obviously has them, duh), she’d undoubtedly break the internet. Though no one wants to admit it, we all relate far more to these images than the perfectly-curated personas we double-tap on the daily. But since we want to be part of the unattainable, we simultaneously uphold and allow ourselves to be crushed by impossible ideals. It’s almost comical.
So having come to all of these realizations, it’s curious that I still love giving and getting compliments. I feel the most confident when I think I look beautiful, and I like to look pretty in my Instagram posts. And I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. As a cis, straight, dark-skinned Black girl, there’s a lot I’ve learned to love about myself and a lot I haven’t had to, and I take pride in my potential to nudge people toward their own version of beauty. Most importantly, though, I’m working to reject the notion that I can infer anything of value from what people look like, including myself. Pretty is a wonderful adjective, but a million more can fill in the blank.
Illustration by Damien Jeon