When it comes to human beauty, perfect is a meaningless word. Let these beauty positive messages remind you that realness is what’s truly beautiful.
- A version of this article previously appeared on The Note Passer.
Women have been held to impossible, shifting beauty standards for centuries. It’s difficult to understand unless you are a woman—though men are subjected to a less heavy-handed version with hyper-masculinity. These narrow standards are social and cultural constructs (if you think of someone who is “beautiful” they probably have certain characteristics prized in your culture). Just to get it out of the way, yes, there’s evolutionary purpose in the symmetry of traditional beauty, but if we’re evolved enough to figure this out, we’re evolved enough to look past it. Sometimes I think we’re getting there, but then I read the comments on YouTube. In reality, the gap between the average woman and the (Photoshopped) ideal continues to widen—so it’s like women are all Thelma and Louise-ing it into the yawning gap together, at least.
Knowing all of this doesn’t make it any easier to endure. Even on a good day, Beyonce’s Pretty Hurts will leave me sobbing on the floor. The media is to blame for much of the perpetuation, reinforced by the beauty, fashion, and toy industries, and our own learned behaviors. So ethical beauty to me means not only using healthy and non-toxic products but also encouraging counter-narratives to the traditional definition of beauty. (Note: I’ve taken the phrase “body positive” and applied it to beauty, that is, showing different kinds of beauty outside of what is conventional.) The internet can help—it’s a virtual catalog of diversity (just don’t read the YouTube comments). And it’s important to see different kinds of beauty because seeing only one version is how we got here.
Below are beauty positive messages created by artists and writers and activists, not Dove Beauty or Mattel (who finally got the memo in 2016). Perfect beauty is boring and I choose reality, diversity, and humanity instead.
South African photographer Justin Dingwall worked with lawyer Thando Hopa and model Sanele Xaba on Albus, a photo series exploring the role albinism plays in societies today. Dingwall plays with the religious and secular iconography projected onto people with albinism, subverting the notion of beauty within his work.
2. American Beauty
Photographer Carey Fruth challenges American beauty standards with her fantastical photo series with 14 differently shaped women.
3. Brock Elbank
Brock Elbank has a series of photographs that celebrate heavily freckled humans. The portraits feature people of of a diverse range of skin colors and ages and highlight their freckles in a most earnest way.
4. Harnaam Kaur
Self-proclaimed bearded lady and body confidence and anti-bullying activist, Harnaam Kaur, was not always so confident. She was relentlessly teased about her hirsute face (caused by polycystic ovarian syndrome) to the point of almost committing suicide. After being baptized Sikh, a religion that forbids cutting body hair, she embraced her body as it is. Kaur is now more visible and famous than she ever would have been by conforming, so joke’s on the bullies.
5. Lilly Valasquez
Born with an extremely rare condition, Lizzie Velasquez was bullied in school and online but perseveres with humor and positivity. In drawing on her experiences she asks the question, “How do you define yourself?”
6. My Pale Skin
Em Ford, aka My Pale Skin, began sharing images of herself both with and without makeup in her tutorials on social media. In July 2015, she created a video called “You Look Disgusting” detailing some of the comments she’d received about her appearance. Even though she is skillful with makeup and covering her imperfections, she’s chosen to draw attention to the unrealistic standards we hold ourselves to and prove it’s what is underneath that makes us real.
7. Raw Beauty Talks
Raw Beauty Talks promotes the mental and physical health of girls and young women by increasing their self-confidence and cultivating positive body image through education in schools, public events, and through media. Check out the site for more resources.
What beauty-positive messages have inspired you?
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Photos: Elizabeth Stilwell, Justin Dingwall, Carey Fruth, Brock Elbank, Harnaam Kaur, Tedx Austin Women, My Pale Skin, Raw Beauty Talks