The Genteel
February 24, 2021


That je ne sçai quoi

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Victoria's Secret Models. Source:

When I'm scrambling around for my mascara or wishing my skin was better, one thing always strikes me - how little we really understand about beauty; why we worship it, why we fight for it, try anything to get it - and keep it - even going under the knife to achieve it.

When I read in The Independent this January that 15-year-old Renata from the US was given free cosmetic surgery - worth USD $7000 - after being bullied for the size of her nose, I was horrified. Believing that her nose made her ugly and self-conscious, she corrected it. 

Debenhams' 2013 models

Debenhams' 2013 models.

Having struggled with my looks all through school, I can sympathise. Having freckles and red hair was somehow wrong of me. I was told I could dye it. But one day it occurred to me - who are you to say that my freckles aren't beautiful?

It's because they are not the standard that people comment. That doesn't mean they are not beautiful, just that they don't fit into that category of flawless beauty that we see gracing our screens and magazines.

How we interpret beauty is based on our education and our education dictates that beauty is flawless with a tick list of desirable characteristics to go with it. Every day we are met with images of beautiful bodies - whether they are supermodels, celebrities, or television adverts and shop windows - all of which fill our minds with what could have been if we were that kind of beautiful.

And if we subscribe to the view that there is a process of making someone more beautiful - with cosmetics or even surgery - then there must be a standard of beauty supporting this; one that we can adjust our bodies to reach. It could be argued that we are living in a superficial time.

Or perhaps it is actually just that there are now an increasing array of possibilities - not only cosmetic but surgical as well - that are available at our convenience and allow us to perfect our physical image to this often highly unattainable standard.

An increasing number of us are going under the knife in the name of beauty, despite the well-known dangers. Plastic surgery may seem extreme, but who is to say where we draw the line between putting on a few cosmetic products and going under the knife to be beautiful? There are clearly standards of beauty at work with every decision made, and these are making an impact on most of our lives, whether it's just a few cosmetics or more extreme measures.

It's undeniable that beauty is important to us. It informs our ideas of attraction, youth, love, confidence and even success. It is a means of valuing and understanding not only our physical body, but also our character, emotions and self-confidence. It can even earn us up to 10% more money in our careers than plainer-looking people, according to Daniel S. Hamermesh's 2011 study for So is it really any wonder that we all want to fit that beautiful stereotype?

Who is to say where we draw the line between putting on a few cosmetic products and going under the knife to be beautiful?

With the release of the plastic surgery iPhone app, BodyPlastika, which allows you to upload your photo and manipulate the image as a surgeon would, the possibilities that were once limited to expensive Harley Street consulting rooms are now available from the comfort of your sofa.

The 2013 UK cosmetic surgery statistics from The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) show a dramatic increase in cosmetic procedures. "There were 50,122 cosmetic procedures in 2013 - a rise of 17% on the previous year," the BBC reported earlier this month.

The top cosmetic surgeries in the BAAPS report show that breast augmentation, eyelid surgery, face-lifts, straighter noses, fuller lips, brow lifts and liposuction - which saw a massive 41% increase on last year - are amongst the most popular procedures. 90.5% of these were carried out on women. It seems that now, more than ever, cosmetic surgery has become the answer to our physical insecurities.

Look at any beauty magazine and most of the models will fit the same profile: young, tall, slim, beautifully proportioned and flawless. The standard of beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that eye is continually bombarded with this very specific type of beauty. Celebrities, designers, fashion models are often perceived to fit the bill - especially given that we don't often see our nurses, bus drivers, businesswomen or teachers gracing the front covers of Vogue.

The aesthetic we perceive as beautiful is limited because we are conditioned with these flawless images. We are sold a standard of beauty that most of us would never be able to reach, but we are repeatedly persuaded to buy the products that promise to help us look like that, and so the cycle continues. Putting on foundation, removing unwanted hair and covering the odd blemish might be normal to most, but its part of a multi-billion pound industry that profits from our insecurities and perpetuates a standard of beauty.

No one is born hating the way they look. We may be able to judge beauty quite naturally - we've all had those 'wow' moments when we see someone striking - but its cultural significance and power is all part of our social education. We can't stop ourselves from experiencing beauty, but we can try to change the way we think about it, and the importance we give to it. The 'perfect' standard of beauty is getting scarily consistent and more extreme - we need to branch out. Women need to realise that they can be beautiful - even if, like me, they are convinced they don’t fit that 'look'.

Harley Medical Group "inspiring confidence in women through surgery since  1983

Harley Medical Group
"inspiring confidence in women through surgery since

There are several campaigns attempting to change our minds as well. Dove's Real Beauty advertisements attempt to tackle our unhealthy relationship with ageing and 'wobbly bits'; New York magazine Verily promises to never use Photoshopped images.

UK department store Debenhams has also taken big steps by banning airbrushing in their advertising campaigns, introducing size 16 mannequins and including non-stereotypical models in its Spring 2013 look book. Meanwhile, Women of Worth, an Indian women's network, launched their 'Dark is Beautiful' awareness campaign in 2009 to try and dispel the fair-skinned beauty myth.

I think it is fair to say that we are not going to change our minds overnight about what we determine as beautiful. Although, at the very least, if we could see some different body shapes gracing our magazine covers and store windows, they will remind us that there are plenty of other types of beauty out there - there should never be a standard. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

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