What Defines Beauty

“O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem, / By that sweet ornament which truth doth give! / The rose looks fair, but fairer we deem / For that sweet odour which doth it live”

-William Shakespeare

The standards that define the singular but ambiguous word “beauty” have been contemplated and debated innumerable times. The aspects attributed to the term have transcended history and differ from place to place. Perhaps, the beauty standard for aristocratic Europe might have been corseted waists and huge headdresses dichotomous to the more inclusive body types that apply nowadays. So what actually, historically and as of the present, has decided the preposterous standards of beauty by which we perceive the world? The popular proverb “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” looks faultless on paper but in theory, how often do we practice it?

The typical dictionary definition of the term Beautiful is “something which pleases the mind and senses aesthetically”. What we deem beautiful is thus a reflection of what our brain has been accustomed to based on our temperament and the society which we were brought up in. Our culture and how we were taught to think has a pivotal role, perhaps more than we would like to admit, on what we consider beautiful and what we don’t. This can reason the shifting tides of cultural beauty as progressively, the term is more inclusive than ever.

Although historical accuracy is mostly questionable, certain aspects are inherently facts which have probably ingrained themselves in the minds of people as much as these coveted unattainable standards have themselves. Slavery, apartheid and many other evil practices are not to be disregarded as having a role in the way we see modern beauty. This can also serve as a defence to the fact that most labels of beauty are termed European standards to this day, from a time when all other races and body types akin to those of black people were alien-like to the supposedly civilized and modern men from Europe. It was not just Europe who had a hand in this archaic perspective, as the Chinese used to popularize the act of foot binding which significantly alters the bone structure of the feet in women and South America which placed importance on painful piercings all through the body.

Much like science itself, the pursuit for who should be held accountable for creating these ideals and mores does not lead to answers, but to deeper and more difficult questions. The effect the weight of a person or how tall they are has on their self esteem is nothing short of admirable, for all the negative reasons. The weight people lay on their physical appearance has become synonymous with their inner confidence and how bravely they present themselves in the public. Perhaps we will be able to trace the map on who is responsible, for excess weight being a perversity and lack of height, something perfectly genetic, a shortcoming to their appearance. This is why we can shift a lot of the accountability for these thoughts to culture. The fascination people have with fair western skin of the abusers and exploiters in a former victim of colonialism like India is ironical, because we are striving to be a replica of the very thing we swore to destroy.

Pertaining to the tumultuous set of events involving the killing of several black people which has led to a massive public outrage that the world, let alone America, hasn’t been laid witnesses to probably ever since the collapse of the Soviet stronghold, Unilever corporation, the multinational company which manages a plethora of products like the infamous “Fair & Lovely” cosmetic cream has vowed to change the name of the brand to be more inclusive and not revolving around the concept of fairness. In hindsight, this can be broken down as performative change in a capitalist world, where doing the bare minimum is considered revolutionary. Changing the name whilst marketing the same product which concentrates on whitening your natural skin colour, apparently has a big marketing scope in a country like India, where the majority of the population are disguised racism perpetrators, nothing less or more than that. The toxic obsession people here have with fairness has orchestrated many young girls into insecurities and make them feel inadequate in the body they were born into by nature, with advertisements of the aforementioned products solidifying the mindset that ‘white is desirable, black is unappreciative’.

The pursuit for the societal standard of explicit beauty is harmful for the mind as much as it is for the body. The rapid growth and the reliance we have on cosmetics and surgery substantiate the modern idea of changing your natural self to fit what is seen as the ideal type, which in turn is deeply rooted by age old volatile mindsets. Studies have shown the presence of harmful contents like Mercury in cosmetic products which can lead to irreversible skin damage. The artificiality of these practices is said to enhance the way we think of ourselves and to shed all that we are by birth, may it be a slight ridge on your nose or a conspicuous birthmark in a very discernible area of your body.

In the story The Rattrap, the author Selma Lagerlof depicts the world as a rattrap, a ruse filled with enticements and once someone falls for the temptation, they get stuck, unable to find a way out. Perhaps the bait of the trap all along, might not be money or comfort, but validation from the people around you that can only be attained if you’re physically attractive and desirable.

The conviction we have against something so natural and common in everyone like body hair is a prime epitome of the way we are being molded to derogate ourselves. Young girls are accustomed to playing with Barbie dolls, a perfectly symmetrical and traditionally accurate toy model of a desirable woman, which drills the idea of the ideal woman into the child’s mind at a developing age. Afterall, the apt type of femininity for a woman is of perfectly waxed legs and a body type that resemble an hourglass, and that of a masculinity comprises of ripped muscles and a tall stature which supposedly exudes a tough and strong figure. Our modern day heroes are buffed up men with arms more rigid than iron and unhealthily thin supermodels who are no less of implants, fillers and injections.

Objectively speaking, it’s probably implausible to purge these fallacies from the minds of the society and the predicament it has brought which control the very things that make people feel unfit in their own skin. Come hell or high water, we are definitely moving in the direction of inclusiveness to all sections of people and envision an environment where everyone is beautiful, no matter their creed, weight, height or imperfections as more plus size models and people that don’t fit into the traditional definition of beauty are coming up front. We can only condemn the times we are inadvertent victims to these unsolicited thoughts and see people for who they truly are, taking off the discriminatory lenses our flawed culture has taught us to look the world with hitherto. Is it wrong to assume that together, we have progressed past a time in history where people not fitting into what was previously termed ideal was frowned upon, to a time where we accommodate more than one body type, more than one skin complexion, more than one archetype of what defines beauty? Probably, the only pragmatic conclusion that we can come to is that beauty is something which words can’t suffice, something that is as abstract as love, pain or euphoria. Beauty is what we want it to be, it is what we feel comfortable in.

-Harishankar M (First Prize Winner of Article Writing Competition 2020 in the 13-24 Years Age Group)

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