Representation matters. When beauty is a standard and the only standards of beauty are Eurocentric — and aggressively mired in sexist, cissexist restrictions of the gender binary — we all lose, especially those of us who do not, cannot, and will not conform. It breeds a culture of toxicity, other-hatred, and self-hatred that we must fight. We can fight it with radical self-love, inclusivity, a conscious celebration of difference, and respect.
There is nothing wrong with looking like the so-called norm, if you do — as long as you don’t perceive it as a badge of superiority, or expect others to conform and validate you. And if you don’t feel comfortable with the incessant restrictive images of a limited standard of beauty — skinny, white, muscled/curvy, abled, gender conforming — you’re not alone. These toxic standards didn’t begin with eugenics, but they didn’t end there either.
Here are seven steps to move away from Eurocentric beauty standards, and towards radical self-love.
Note: I am a US citizen. I am mixed-race and descended from immigrants, so I have some understanding of non-US contexts, but my experiences are from the US. I cannot speak with authority to how this manifests specifically in other countries. If you have an informed perspective on that issue, we welcome it.
1. Identify the history of toxic, limited beauty standards.
It’s still noteworthy every time we feature a TV show, movie, or ad campaign that isn’t cishet, white, gender conforming, and abled. Some folks think that us queer/nonwhite/nonconforming folks are everywhere now, but that’s only because their own representation is such a norm to them, any deviation feels like a conscious affront. Cishet, white, gender-conforming, and abled is not the default human. We must recognize that representation of non-normative folks in media and politics does not actively actually represent a significant percentage of our humanity.
History is filled with white-washing: the erasure of non-Western cultures and identities and the Westernization or Western-centricity of media, politics, beauty, and societal standards; whiteness as an emblem of purity, class, and validity. America was forged with genocides, physical and cultural. From the forced cultural assimilation of the Indigenous peoples to the dehumanization of Black lives in the slave trade to the respectability politics that emerged from Jim Crow through today, the standard of “civilization” has been defined by the white colonizer. So has the standard of “beauty.”
Those descended from non-white cultures are emasculated, assimilated, disrespected, or fetishized, often all at once.
Patriarchal, Eurocentric standards capitalize on beauty and its perceived relationship to value. Standards of attraction are created, centering the cis-het, white, abled, upper-class conforming body, and hatred and anxiety are bred against those which cannot conform. This is rooted in racism and ableism. This is rooted in xenophobia, imperialism, and white supremacy — the ingrained understanding of “us vs. them,” who is civil and valid vs. who is savage and lesser. Capitalism and white supremacy exploits this anxiety, extorts money for products that promise, not just that you will look “better,” but that you will finally fit in.
You don’t have to.
2. Question beauty.
What is beauty, honestly? What does it mean? Now that we’ve addressed the toxic, patriarchal underpinnings of Eurocentric beauty standards, it’s time to recognize that there are so many different forms of beauty. True beauty is not, of course, inherently evil or dangerous — only the limited, oppressive Western standards.
Recognize where beauty is and is not a valid vehicle for your soul, your goals, your heart, your mission. Beauty can be a reclamation, it can be a degradation, it can be a reduction. Recognize the intersectional privileges of facial symmetry — account for class and physical and mental ability when it comes to style and presentation.
3. Redefine what beauty can mean.
Investigate beauty standards around the world. Have you seen the videos where someone asks artists from all over the world to “make them beautiful,” and they come back different from each country, or where someone depicts how beauty standards change over the decades?
To some, beauty means comfort. To others, it means showing off what they love most about themselves, or performing their identity in a way that makes them feel most whole.
Recognize the mutability and ever-changing process of beauty.
And recognize the ever-changing standards of “the most attractive.” Recognize capitalism’s role in that process — if there was an actual finite standard, they wouldn’t be able to keep profiting off of new products and trends!
Seek for something deeper than beauty — or don’t! Sometimes, and in some cases, and especially right now, when there is actual evil openly designing destructive policy, beauty doesn’t matter. At least when you define it narrowly in terms of “aesthetically pleasing.” Seek what makes you feel like your best self. This can change. It can change daily. Do what you can to get yourself out of bed in the mornings and keep fighting. Value the beauty in yourself where you find it. Is it in how you love what you do? How you excel at a sport, or can create with your hands? Is it in how you cook for your loved ones, or in your patience towards your child when they’ve painted the kitchen wall with spaghetti sauce again? Is it in the hormones you take, the clothes you choose to wear how you wear them? Is it in your courage, your perseverance, and/or how you love yourself enough to take a break and sleep in sometimes? Is it in how you fight — in your self-defense gym, for your own human rights, in a courtroom towards justice? Where is beauty for you? If beauty is value, what do you value in yourself? Investigate your unique beauty. Define it for yourself. That is conscious, radical self-love.
4. Celebrate what you find.
Actively and enthusiastically encourage other forms of beauty, outside of the limited scope of facial symmetry and paleness. Recognize the fullness of personhood. Recognize how silly and painful it is to judge yourself or others by the width of your nose or the texture of your hair. Recognize that others may have different standards of beauty than you, and as long as they’re not oppressive, that’s not just okay — it’s healthy, and standing up for them means you’re standing up for all of us. Recognize that others value themselves, their bodies, and their hearts differently than you might. Listen to them. Respect them. Reach outside narrow norms, and encourage other forms of definition.
More Radical Reads: 10 Ways the Beauty Industry Tells You Being Beautiful Means Being White
5. Encourage transformative definitions of beauty in your life.
Day to day, every day. Undoing ingrained, toxic stereotypes and replacing them with openness and understanding is a process, and it requires presence. It will get lighter, and it will make you fuller. Be conscious about how Eurocentric standards of beauty are influencing your assumptions of other people and your dynamics with them. Do you make assumptions about people based on the shape of their body, the size of their body, the color of their skin, their visible differences, the way they speak your language? Even if you think you may not, be conscious. Pay attention to language, to how you interact with others. Recognize implicit biases in perceptions of celebrities, major figures, and each other.
Encourage a perspective of healthy-self love with your children and your parents and your loved ones. When it comes to significant others, love yourself enough to not settle for less. If they’re not receptive, move on.
6. Encourage a broader definition of beauty with your purchases.
Put your money where your heart is, where the truth is. Support businesses that actively try to create products for a diverse set of humans, and for non-normative businesses. Avoid giving your money to businesses that reinforce toxic, unhealthy standards. That’s how we’ll get there. Shape the market. As best as you can, within your means. If your budget doesn’t permit for radical support, get the word out.
Go out and make art. Go out and speak truth. Create work that redefines beauty. Create work that challenges standards. Create work that is unapologetically defiant, unapologetically ugly, unapologetically yours, and consider where the value lies. Check your personal privilege — and use it. Remember that Eurocentric beauty standards have been a tool for destruction and dehumanization throughout history, and you refuse to be a part of that tool. Destroy internalized misogyny, ingrained racism. Put forth a startling asymmetry that encompasses a deeper poignancy towards the complexities of existence than any stale advert could. Revel in the unbalanced. Stand up for those who suffer because they don’t fit the cookie cutter style of the minute. Call out how foolish it is to value these human lives less in an era that is always battling fascism and hate, which is every era. Celebrate what matters.
Choose to look how you want to look. Choose to respect and consciously support those who look different than you. Choose to understand. Choose to have no patience for a value system that asks you to conform to a standard you do not believe in, that you had no hand in creating.
That is beautiful. And so, so much more, at exactly the same time.
The body is not an apology. We take up different spaces on this earth. We each have different values, different gifts to offer, different parts of our souls we call our own. We do not all look alike. We do not believe alike. We do not need to. Do not ask for an apology when someone else’s body does not look like yours. And do not apologize for yours.