Proud2Bme | Beauty Ideals Around the World

Beauty Ideals Around the World

By Annie Stewart--I have been learning so much during my semester in Thailand. One of the most impacting lessons has been that of beauty, body image & how they relate to a woman’s identity.

We all come from different cultures. We may have different beliefs and cultural norms, but we are all human. We all experience loss and heartbreak, as well as happiness and joy. We all have hopes and dreams for the future. We all have this need to be loved, to be seen as valuable. Certainly in my own life I have tried to fill this need in unhealthy ways. When will people realize that too much time has been wasted trying to reach an impossible goal? When will we realize that striving to change how you look will do more harm than good? Not thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough, good enough…Why does this seem to be such a common theme in the female experience? No, I have not been in every culture so I can’t say it’s EVERYWHERE, but from what I have experienced, what I have read and from the classes I have taken, it is as if every woman has this in common, this feeling of shame and guilt for not meeting the fleeting standards of her society.

In America, the ideal could easily be described as white, skinny and blonde. I feel that in recent years, people have slowly started to accept that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes and very slowly, I think change has started to happen, especially as individuals have started to realize the effect of our media. It’s everywhere you go—you can’t even buy groceries without being bombarded with unrealistic, negative messages about what beauty is and what must be attained to reach this state of ideal beauty. These messages are on billboards, on TV, in movies, in coffee shops, in gyms—they are literally everywhere.

I reached a point several years ago when I became sick and tired of seeing countless girls (including myself) lose themselves in the process of trying to meet these unattainable standards. Finally, I realized  that enough was enough and I wasn't going to take part in this: the self-loathing and body bashing that is so common among young women, as if it’s normal and expected to hate your body because society has told us that’s how we are supposed to feel. The thing is, the messages that the media sends about what you have to buy, what you have to eat, what you have to wear—this is not about clothes or food at all. It really comes down to love and acceptance….or lack thereof. Obviously to the magazines, to the modeling companies, to movie directors, it’s about money. However, to impressionable young girls, it’s about feeling like you don’t measure up, feeling like you are not loved or accepted because you do not fit into the narrow standards that society has set up.

I do not subscribe to magazines, I do not participate in negative body talk, and I live my life to the fullest. I do not abide by the beauty and body rules so many women adhere to. I listen to my body’s needs and celebrate my body for the gift that it is. It is hard to listen to your body in our fast-paced culture, but I have learned that if we take the time to listen, our bodies have many messages to send us. How amazing is it that our bodies tell us when we are hungry and full? How beautiful is it when our bodies tell us we are tired or energized? Learn to listen to your body—this is one of the most wonderful lessons I have learned in recovery.

I also do enjoy fashion. Clothes are a way to express one’s individuality and creativity. When I go shopping, I do not pay attention to sizes of clothes. I buy what feels comfortable and I look for items that allow me to express my personality.

Here in Thailand, I have learned about the beauty ideal and it has been very enlightening, even life-changing. The beauty ideal here is pale skin and the body ideal is very, very thin. Sound familiar? Apparently this has to do with social class. The lighter skin you have, the more money you have because that means you don’t have to work in the sun all day. There are lightening creams in all the stores, which I find a little amusing because in my hometown, thousands of girls flock to every beach and lay out in the sun so their skin will be darker. Here, the lighter your skin is, the better and more beautiful you are.

I may be living in another country with different customs and different social and cultural norms. However, the pressure for perfection is still the same. I remember one particular encounter I had with two girls (they were 15 and 16, I think) in a small village in the northern part of Thailand. When I met them, we introduced ourselves and they then sat down next to me and they pointed at my skin and said: “beautiful, you…” What really got me was what they said after that. They asked me if they went to America if they would have skin like mine. That’s when it really hit me that the body image issue at its core is an issue of identity. It is about who you are, who you are not, and who you are striving to be. Issues of beauty, of the body are about deep needs that cannot be fixed by changing your outward appearance. They are issues of the heart and the mind above all else. Really, these concerns are about how you see yourself and how your perception of yourself has been so affected by our cultures, our families, and of course our society. And most of all, the solution is about coming to a place where you love and accept yourself just the way you are.

This week I have started to realize just how universal the struggle of identity is, especially pertaining to beauty. I can’t speak for every country and I certainly will not try, but being here has made me more passionate about the issue of female empowerment. I have seen the shame associated with not measuring up to the ideal of what a woman has to look like in order to be seen as beautiful.

We are not meant to live in shame. We are meant to live in freedom. This freedom must start with first accepting ourselves exactly the way we are. But it is very hard to accept yourself when you are constantly told, directly and indirectly, that you are not okay the way you are. But it always comes back to the individual. If you want to change anything, you have to first change yourself. You can’t love anyone if you don’t first love yourself. Likewise, you cannot bring any good into the world if you don’t know how to be good to yourself.

Of course I know my own culture best when it comes to beauty and body image issues. Yet I have found it so heartbreaking to experience firsthand the beauty ideals in another country and to look into the eyes of the women. I can just feel it—this deep, deep sense of shame.

As a body image activist, I am fighting for a just, complete world, a world where a woman is not defined by the size of her waist or the shade of her skin, but by the words that she speaks and by how she lives her life. I look forward to the day when a woman can run for highest office in the land and she will actually be judged for the words that she says, rather than how ‘hot’ she looked. I look forward to the day when I can watch professional women’s tennis (a favorite of mine—I started playing tennis when I was three) on the TV at the gym and hear people talking about incredible athleticism rather than about how short the skirts are. These are just a few of the many, many reasons why I am a body image activist. I’ve always had this passion, but the experiences I have had in Thailand have fueled this passion within me even more.

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Proud2Bme is an online community created by and for teens. We cover everything from fashion and beauty to news, culture, and entertainment—all with the goal of promoting positive body image and encouraging healthy attitudes about food and weight.

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