It seems like everyone wants to be beautiful. From the myriad of selfies found on just about every social media site, to the patronising way we’re taught to tell young women that they are ‘still beautiful’ despite their imperfections, it seems that conversation about women only ever revolves around one thing: image. In an age of social media, where identity can be manipulated and tweaked to the heart’s content, it’s easy to see the obsession fuelled by appearances.
Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr- you name it- are all centred on the creation of a personality, of projecting onto the world the image of the person you most want to be. The internet has provided multitudes of new platforms to judge and validate the appearances of girls and women. A new way to tell women the necessity of changing themselves to suit the desires of their demanding onlookers. It’s a vicious cycle really. Pervasive sexualised imagery tells women their bodies are their most important assets. Some capitalise on this, and use social media to display snaps of their anatomy. But then, of course, the woman is branded a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore’ and it is demanded that she show some ‘self-respect’ – despite merely trying to emulate the figures that the male dominated media says we have to be. No wonder we’re confused.
The selfie phenomenon shows us that the role of women is merely to tailor their identities and appearance to suit societal standards – while men are considered individuals, with likes and dislikes that must be catered for. Once again, social media and the crucial need for identity serves to put men’s identities on a pedestal, whilst women are limited to their appearances. It is largely being forgotten on social media that women are people too (radical, I know), with unique desires of their own- not just the sum of their body parts.
Even the hardiest of feminists, as The Vagenda puts it, have had ‘their brains encased in such a large volume of fluffy bullshit’, that even they have begun to seek aesthetic beauty, surpassing the need to focus on themselves as an individual. We’ve become so self-critical as a generation that swathes of Tweets/Tumblr posts/Instagram posts are teenage girls lamenting on the tiniest of imperfections. This is where we arrive at the other end of the sexist spectrum, with condescending boys putting on the ‘you’re beautiful to me’ façade – think Little Things by One Direction.
Whether it’s disgusting, misogynistic comments about a girl’s appearance, or merely a One Direction lyric, discourse on social media regarding woman is still hugely biased towards image and the quest for beauty. Even if you single-handedly ended world hunger, it would be your appearance that will circle the net; either to heralds of approval from men or troll-ish humiliation. Take Mary Beard; despite being a Cambridge academic and renknowned Classics scholar, she was absolutely ripped apart by Twitter trolls because of her appearance, without a single ounce of care given to her accolades or success.
It infuriates me, for example, when Audrey Hepburn is held up as an icon of beauty by men and women alike, while her noble humanitarian career and ability to speak six languages are at best, unacknowledged and at worst, unknown. What worries me most is how this obsession with appearance has really seeped into the mentality of teenage girls (of which I am one), who now only seem to have idols known for their beauty, rather than their academic achievements or contributions to society. It’s sad. Social media means women are taught now more than ever to pit themselves against other women in a war to gain men’s approval. This is undoubtedly pushing back the feminist cause. As Ariel Levy put it in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, women ‘internalise the male gaze’ and subsequently find the quest to appeal to men’s desires more than that of self-improvement and success.
This obsession with beauty is harmful to society as a whole. Imagine if all teen girls started idolising lawyers, or doctors, or philanthropists – instead of the likes of Cara Delevingne and Iggy Azalea. We could finally start rejecting the need to look pretty and work towards our own goals. The obsession with women’s image reinforces the idea that we need the ‘validation’ that comes with being sexually attractive. It reduces how we as individuals are perceived. The sooner the discourse can shift from image to achievement, the better. And the sooner teen girls can stop obsessing over image, the sooner adverts will stop targeting and exploiting our insecurities, perhaps forcing more media exposure on strong, empowered and successful women.