When I was younger, I thought that to be beautiful you had to be white, thin, blonde and blue-eyed. That’s what my Barbies all looked like – Sindy, too (although, at least she had actual feet). Even my favourite cartoon character, Maxie’s World was worlds apart from my own dark hair, skin and eyes. From TV to magazines to the most popular kids at school, I was never going to look like what I saw around me and for much of my initial years of girlhood I had a misplaced sense of self. I wasn't sure if I was pretty or not.
I've seen those ideals of fair-skinned beauty affect my own Indian community too. I’ve marvelled as I watched women buy products to lighten their skin, conforming to the idea that pale skin is the only version of beautiful. And I struggled to cope with my naturally frizzy hair, which looked nothing like my friends’ at school or the models in magazines. I’d spend hours using huge straighteners to iron out every kink, in a bid to look like everyone else. It’s taken me decades – now aged 33 – to get to the point where I feel OK about how I look. I have realised that I was searching for something unattainable. And something I no longer want.
It’s taken me decades – now aged 33 – to get to the point where I feel OK about how I look. I have realised that I was searching for something unattainable. And something I no longer want
Now, as an adult, and especially in my career as a beauty editor, I’ve seen how false the idea of perfect beauty is. It is a construct, created by a small group of people that the rest of us are meant to follow it. Before it was magazines and advertising giving us perfection envy – now it’s social media and its manipulated, carefully arranged version of the truth that so many of us subscribe to. That’s why I’m not surprised that The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons have seen women younger than ever before having ‘work’ done from surgery through to injetctibles – something they attribute to the popularity of social media. Dr Yannis Alexandrides, a notable plastic surgeon, told me that he has patients who will bring him Instagram pictures of what they want to look like – a very dangerous trend because it’s so hard to know what’s real and what’s been filtered or Photoshopped.
That’s why we need to rethink what defines ‘perfect’ in beauty. Beauty, after all is in the eye of the beholder and this differs from culture to culture. For example, in India, elaborate henna and bold make-up prevails, whereas a pared-back version of beauty is the order in Sweden. In many Polynesian communities, tattoos mark a passage of time, yet in Korea and Japan, they’re still frowned upon. (In fact, you can’t go into a traditional Japanese onsen, or spa, and many hotels with tattoos, because of the historical links to the Japanese mafia.) Despite the fact we are more global than ever; skyping, jetting, living and working between so many time zones – we’re still poles apart when it comes to our ideas of perfect beauty.
There is major progress being made though. Models like Tess Holliday, Felicity Hayward, Ashley Graham and the rise of amazing plus-sized bloggers (I love Callie Thorpe, Louise O’Reilly, Danielle Vanier and Stephanie Yeboah) all show that beauty is an attitude, not a dress size and use their style and influence to encourage women to love themselves and enjoy fashion.
Beauty brands are starting to include male and transgender faces in their campaigns, presenting ideas of beauty outside of the traditional societal norms. And, while there’s still more work to be done to embrace all skin tones and ethnicities, the make-up world is steadily reaching a more inclusive place.
Having finally learnt to celebrate my own imperfections (i’ve ditched the hair straighteners) it’s my hope – and agenda – that, one day, beauty ideals and the concept of perfection will disappear entirely. Truthfully, perfect beauty is not only subjective, it just doesn’t exist.