At around nine, I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art. A fountain stood in the middle of the halls, carved from cold white granite. The light that shone on it awoke a spiritual sentiment in me. My mother handed me a penny and I grasped it tightly — so tightly — and for so long that sweat began to pool at the crevices of my knuckles. I then tossed it into the pool of water, a breath releasing from me. The light seemingly intensified, God must have heard my anguish.
My wish was simple: to be prettier and skinnier. As an afterthought, I included an end to world hunger. God would appreciate my selflessness.
At that point, no one had told me that I needed to make any drastic changes to my appearance. But I had begun to notice some alarmingly substantial connections between beauty and social approval. It seemed to me that the more attractive you were the more leeway you got. I couldn’t afford to talk about my affinity for frogs because I was busy trying to compensate for my unibrow. I wanted that leeway. It was exhausting relying solely on my personality to be liked, and thus far it hadn’t worked.
Our preoccupation with appearances is most obviously a byproduct of the culture surrounding beauty to which we have been subjected. That culture has been created and recreated, evolved and devolved — from child-bearing hips in the renaissance to waifish Kate Moss and to whatever conglomeration of restrictions and additions to our bodies the internet has fed us. That culture has seeped into every aspect of our lives from the products we buy to the way we talk and think.
That is to say, the internet is not the problem for modern-day insecurities. Women have been convinced their value is equated to the visual enjoyment of others before AOL.com. But it is certainly a vehicle. Pre-social media you might have walked into a Stop N Shop and picked up a Vogue that documented all the ways you could look like Brooke Shields. Now you can sit on your couch and scroll through thousands of girls who look nothing like you and then proceed to scroll through thousands of comments telling them they are some synonym to perfection. The sentiment is consistent. Technology has just made inadequacy more accessible.
This accessibility is the issue. Already it has taken recent years to unlearn the ideology that the more beautiful I am the more worthy I am of love and respect. And I didn’t grow up in the age of TikTok: where new trends involving beauty standards surface every week, from showcasing how perfectly your nose slopes to how flat your stomach gets in the morning. The videos are all synthesized with trendy music to distract you from the implications. This isn’t surprising considering TikTok’s algorithm was initially programmed to promote more conventionally attractive people.
Because social media is new, so is the research involving the ramifications. But viewing a constant influx of reverence for women who check certain standards inevitably creates insecurity in those who don’t — especially in young, impressionable girls who are a large portion of the demographic viewing these videos.
State attorneys have recently opened an investigation into the app and its effects on mental health. With megastars who are commended solely for their beauty, it is not hard to see the correlation. One thing is certain, people are fascinated by beauty. Clear skin, sharp cheekbones, big eyes, small nose — all these God-given features can result in early retirement for popular TikTokers. That doesn’t even touch on how painfully eurocentric these standards are.
But to claim women taking advantage of their beauty is inherently wrong is placing blame on the prairie, not the fire. Our importance is embedded in our beauty. It is a commodifiable asset. As a gender, we simply picked up on our civilization’s demands — a form of social evolution.
If we can’t change the source, because we weren’t in power in the first place, then we can change the way we respond to our role. We can take full ownership of it.
So what now? How do we distance ourselves from the jarring imposition that beauty culture has had on our psyche? Is it even possible to do so given society itself?
Deleting social media doesn’t erase the culture. But it can help slow the impact. Spending less time on my phone and more time in my immediate, physical world doesn’t miraculously cure me of all insecurities, but it can help wean me off the rabbit hole that is comparison.
As for the world beyond the screen? An erasure of the importance of beauty would involve a cultural revolution — or an eternal mask mandate. However, on a more feasible note, we can consciously try to outweigh external factors with internal ones: on a personal level, and in the broader community.
We can try to dissociate ourselves from the worth we place on the body and exert that effort on mind and soul. We might be unable to compromise with the demands society has of women, but we can attempt to process the aftermath reflected in the demands we have of ourselves.
Priyanka Vasavan is a freshman studying marketing and finance. Do you agree that social media perpetuates harmful beauty standards on young girls? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.