We often hear of ‘our society’s beauty standards,’ as if there were these standards that one could point to, consistent across all messaging. When in fact, women are presented with two mutually-exclusive possibilities of what ‘beautiful’ might consist of:
The first is from high fashion – an industry dead set on presenting exactly one vision of beauty, unattainable except to 0.001% of Estonian 15-year-olds, and even they will probably be asked to “sleekify” their hips in time for fashion week. (Cue the conundrum: is it progressive or the opposite when a slender man models women’s clothes? The short answer: both.) The presumption here is that this is a beauty ideal invented by some assembly of women (likely but not necessarily straight) and gay men – perhaps with the help of cold and calculating straight male businessmen who are thinking of what sells clothes, not what they personally would find attractive.
But there’s still this semblance of a more open-minded sphere – greater acceptance of androgyny, of straight-up-and-down physiques, of outrageous makeup and of not giving a damn what your boyfriend thinks of your outfit. It’s a kind of liberation, if you happen to have a flapper build. And if we’re talking fashion-broadly-defined, not just the runway, there’s a celebration of eccentricity. It’s not just designer denim and sneering at those who are so last season (she types, in her Old Navy lounge-pants).
The second is, of course, the male gaze. Straight men outside the fashion world will tell women not to worry about what that industry says – they like us despite our likely non-waifishness, no, because of this. (Although rest assured, the waifish have their male admirers.) This will be on the one hand appealing – the vast majority of even slender women are robust compared with high-fashion models, and that whole ‘breasts and hips are tacky and interrupt the line of the garment’ narrative is tiresome. While in certain definitions, what-men-want that basically amounts to runway models with breast implants and more conventionally sexy attire, in another, it’s a category that consists of all women, on account of, tastes vary.
On the other, it too is problematic for all the obvious reasons. Who’s to say female appearance is all about pleasing men? Most women are straight, however many more are bisexual, so yes, most women are sometimes interested in looking good for a man. But still. Even these women tend not to be into all the dudes, and will often bristle at remarks from men (perfect strangers, internet commenters, men they know and aren’t interested in) about what women generally should do with their clothes-and-makeup in order to most do it for them.
These two realms are mistakenly conflated, but they do have a good bit of overlap. Both tend to value youth, slimness, and expensive clothes. But it is outright impossible to be fashion-beautiful and male-gaze-beautiful at the same time. The same woman might manage it – think the crossover Victoria’s Secret models – but as a rule, one might well be neither, but one simply cannot be both.
Which means… a bunch of things. For one, it means that style and build have a way of getting mixed up, as though a woman chooses to have ‘curves’ on account of preferring to look sexy, or somehow magically scraps them if her preferred look is understated chic. But mostly, it means that no woman can lay claim to physical perfection. If she’s flawless in one arena, she’s somehow lacking in the other.
We can, then, interpret this in two ways. One is the bleak – how unfair, we can never win. The other, the one I prefer, is to say, look, since no woman could ever possibly measure up, this reminds us how ridiculous these standards are in the first place, and how pointless it is to beat one’s self up over failing to meet them.