Is Understanding Enough?: Translating Thought into Action through a Real Beauty Manifesto

08 Jun

Maybe it’s because I’ve been explaining the central questions of this class to many friends who aren’t in it, or maybe it’s because our blackboard mapping the other day got me thinking in a more big-picture way, but what I keep coming back to as this class wraps up is a desire for synthesis, for some answers in the midst of all our questions. I know that this blog is all about zooming in close on cultural artifacts, but I can’t help zooming out in an effort to find patterns amidst all the intersecting threads.

In class on Wednesday, someone asked if awareness of all the beauty issues we’ve been discussing over the course of the term is “enough.” Is understanding the way our society constructs beauty around the axes of race, gender, and power a satisfying end in itself, or does this understanding demand action? It’s a continual question for anyone who loves learning and who also feels driven toward social change: where do the two meet? Where do we newly-beauty-and-race-conscious people go from here? I don’t exactly know; the link is undeniable but difficult to trace in a neat way.

What I do know, however, is that any successful movement for social change seems to start with a concrete set of goals. Before this class, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate the goals of a feminist, anti-racist, adipositive beauty movement beyond a vague statement like, “Women shouldn’t be objectified.” After ten weeks of thinking about the role of beauty in our society, I’d say I’m still pretty far from having a concrete plan of action towards beauty justice; as our class discussions have illustrated, questions about beauty tend to lead to at least as many new questions as answers. Though I’m still puzzling over things, I think I do have enough (still-in-progress) answers to articulate a preliminary, non-comprehensive draft of the actions I’d want to see come out of all this thinking. I think of this as the abbreviated, go-getter version of this class, in a size that’s good for sharing with friends and family. Here goes:

Manifesto for a Real Beauty Revolution [1]:

Action Steps for a More Humane, More Healthy Social Attitude toward Beauty

1. Work towards a media landscape that is more representative of real women with diverse skin colors, body types, hairstyles, fashion choices, etc. Our beauty norms are almost entirely socially constructed, and mass media is an enormous echo chamber perpetuating the dominant, monolithic beauty norm. The idea of beauty is also constructed by families, peers, and biology, but over the course of this term, the pervasiveness of mass media in the creation of beauty standards has been astounding. To change beauty standards, we must change the media, including marketing by the mainstream beauty industry. When all people can view their bodies as “normal”— when they can see themselves reflected in advertisements, films, music videos, toys, and magazines—beauty can become more personally defined rather than defined by a single (privileged) voice.


As much as possible, support advertising campaigns that represent the true range of human bodies (two examples that have come up in class are Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty and Debenhams’s recent ad campaign featuring people of all ages, races, and body types). Resist campaigns that actively obscure that diversity, equating the idea of beauty with a single look. Point out instances of silent or not-so-silent racism to as many people as you can. Of course, supporting “good” campaigns isn’t as easy as it sounds, as evidenced by the various controversies (this one from 2011 and this one from spring 2013 surrounding the Dove advertising strategies. But in general, even if they are imperfect, ads that help shift the definition of “normal” by representing diverse beauties are doing important work, and we need more of them.

2. In personal interactions with others, treat beauty as neither frivolous nor all-defining. A person’s choices about her appearance can have very real consequences for her personal and professional success. Despite the way we often frame beauty routines as vain and inconsequential (think of the word “primping”), beauty matters, and most women are acutely aware of this. As Kathy Davis argues, people who take matters into their own hands through fashion, makeup, cosmetic surgery, or dieting are generally not “cultural dopes” fooled by society’s messages about appearance, but rather conscious and active agents in shaping how they are perceived by others [2]. Beauty practices are rarely adopted unthinkingly, and we should never summarily dismiss anyone’s beauty choices as superficial or self-absorbed.

Value thoughts, actions, and creativity above appearance. Strive for a personal definition of beauty.

While we recognize the power of beauty in our society, however, we also need to fight the monopoly of appearance and place a greater emphasis on the non-visual elements of a person’s worth. If we let ourselves be forever trapped by the idea that “men act and women appear” [3], women cannot escape the role of visual, often sexualized objects to be seen as respected actors in the areas of research, scholarship, politics, service, or creativity. Beauty matters, and acting on that knowledge can be an enormous source of personal power. But if “beautiful” is all a woman can aspire to, beauty becomes a constraint rather than a tool. In this way, beauty is both empowering and disempowering, or if you like, empowering but limited.

3. Treat all individual choices people make about their appearance as valid expressions of their personal identity, made up of their gender expression, their cultural identity, religious/ethical beliefs, professional aspirations, and more. Whether a person chooses to wear her hair “natural” or permed, whether she wears dramatic eyeliner or none at all, validate those choices as external manifestations of a person’s inner self. By the same token, try as much as possible to express yourself honestly through your appearance. You will always be a product of your society (there’s no such thing as a “pure” identity untouched by social influences), but as much as possible, make beauty decisions based on what feels beautiful to you rather than what you imagine others think is beautiful. Just as a more diverse media landscape will allow people to form more personalized visions of beauty, more visual diversity among the people we see every day will cause people to question formerly unassailable beauty norms.

4. Share these ideas with as many people as possible. Pay special attention to young people, who 1) may have never thought critically about how media shapes their self-image and 2) may be more likely to change their views on beauty than someone who is more firmly entrenched in the system.

As I stated, this is only the beginning of my imagined manifesto. It’s interesting how much detail disappears when things are framed by a list of actions (how to turn “historical power structures around nation and race have fundamentally shaped mainstream beauty norms” into something we can do? Besides the action of noticing and sharing; we can (and should) always do that). With everything we’ve read and discussed, what else would you add to this concise statement of action? How else have you synthesized all the ideas we’ve talked about into concrete changes in the way you treat yourself and the way you interact with others?

[1] This revolutionary language has been used by some fairly mainstream-looking cosmetics companies (here and here) and a defunct tumblr, but in the true spirit of change, I’m reclaiming it.

[2] Kathy Davis, “Remaking the She-Devil: A Critical Look at Feminist Approaches to Beauty,” Hypatia 6.2 (1991).

[3] John Berger, Ways of Seeing. (BBC Books, 1972), quoted in Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 118.


Posted by on June 8, 2013 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “Is Understanding Enough?: Translating Thought into Action through a Real Beauty Manifesto

  1. laurenkchow

    June 8, 2013 at 9:12 am

    This is WONDERFUL!! So much agreement with each and every point.

    Can I add: 5. Work to come to see yourself as beautiful (or reclaim ‘ugly’ if you so choose, or whatever), which can sometimes be the hardest part. Loving yourself will allow you to love others and value their beauty more. If you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see, that is okay and normal. But know that you ARE beautiful – and I hope you can realize it someday.

  2. emilypatriciamarie

    June 8, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    I like this a lot! However, I’m a little confused–2 and 3 seem to be contradictory. Should we treat others’ appearance as “neither frivolous nor all-defining” and based on the balancing act we all have to play with the pros and cons of (non-)normative appearance, or should we treat all beauty choices as a political statement? If one must buy in to oppressive beauty norms to survive, that does not mean that they also support those beauty norms.

    On a personal level, I’d say this is one of the least resolvable points we talked about. Some people do make political statements with their appearance, others do not wish to, or cannot (being able to rebel from the norm is, after all, a sign of privilege in a world where such important things as one’s job security can be based on one’s appearance).

    Perhaps we should not come to conclusions about others’ beauty practices, but we should definitely appreciate diverse beauty and respect others’ beauty practices as you suggest.

    • leafelhai

      June 8, 2013 at 11:04 pm

      I don’t think 2 and 3 are contradictory– we can recognize beauty choices as valid expressions of a person’s identity without treating a person’s appearance as their most valuable feature.

      Emily, you raise the question of whether we should treat all beauty decisions as “political statements”– as we discussed in class, there’s no such thing as an apolitical appearance (whether the person is aware of the political implications of their choices or not), but I don’t think that this idea is in opposition to the “balancing act” strategy you suggest. Presenting an appearance that balances social norms and personal preference is just as “political” as sporting a bright pink mohawk or a full-body tattoo; it’s just that we typically just label the first one “normal.” In reality, however, there’s no such thing as an apolitical norm.


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