“Beauty comes in many forms.” It’s a line many of us have heard from our parents as children, or even later, as adults. It is a sentiment that is evident in Disney movies, Pixar films, and a clear majority of modern children’s fables. Despite this, the idea of beauty has become ever more stringent. This is perhaps due to ubiquitous reality television, with shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians promoting a diluted and false conception of what beauty is, putting an emphasis on the external. Beauty through this lens is more about “what we look like” than the merits of our intellect, or the depths and complexity of our personalities.
I think the idea of being ‘beautiful’ is a pressing issue in the queer community, particularly for gay men. We often feel the stress associated with ‘looking good’ and the scrutiny we impose upon ourselves as a result, and there are new external factors influencing how we feel.
Take Instagram, for instance, which has become a breeding ground for young, attractive, gay men to exhibit their bodies for a large audience. Of course, the argument could be made that this is a healthy promotion of ‘body positivity’, and I absolutely agree that for many, Instagram is a space where the exhibition of the body can be freeing, enjoyable and safe.
But the other side of that coin is that it can become a type of fetishism, in which the body becomes a commodity, up for exchange. The transaction here is the selling (not literally) of the body for ‘likes’, in a transaction that is in many ways unstable. I say unstable because there is no way to predict the outcome of posting a photo on social media. There is no guaranteed way to assess how many likes your body photo will get. You can of course look at past data and assess the pose needed, the amount of skin to show, from there, but then, doesn’t the post become more calculated, more insipid, and in a lot of ways, fake?
Social Media Misrepresentation
Social media, can promote a false sense of what it means to be beautiful. It is often apparent that those who get the most likes, or have the most followers, have followed some convention to get there. Take Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian for example. Both women represent a version of modern female beauty that many aspire to emulate – long hair, contoured cheekbones, and razor thin waists have in some ways made them global superstars.
But, why? Well, society is beauty obsessed and it’s hardly a new fad. Look back at Elizabethan times, when women were so consumed with looking conventionally beautiful that they would dab their skin with a toxic foundation called Ceruse to have fairer skin, which was coveted at the time. This often had disastrous consequences, ending in fatality. Women would quite literally die to look more attractive.
In more modern times, we see this with the spike in plastic surgery and body alternation. How many people have seen adds for lip-fillers pop up on their social media channels? I have, and it’s scary to think that large companies are collecting data that plays on our insecurities. It’s a false conception to believe that the more beautiful you become, the happier you will be. It’s a lie espoused by advertising companies, marketers, and beauty companies, to make us buy more.
But, what’s really revolutionary is the idea that beauty can’t be bought. In 2014, Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o gave an incredible speech on beauty at the Essence Awards. In it, she spoke of a young black girl who had written to her outlining her insecurity about the blackness of her skin. In the speech Nyong’o said that beauty is something that cannot be acquired or consumed and that you couldn’t “rely on how you look to sustain you.” It was a simple yet powerful message that showed the transient nature of external appearance, as something that will fade, pass, and ultimately deteriorate.
Imagine a world where Kim Kardashian gained eight million followers on Instagram for completing her master’s degree. Or think about a society where Kylie Jenner was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work on the paralyzing effects of body dysmorphia. Wouldn’t that be far more interesting than a nude selfie? I think so.
Within the gay community, beauty is a similarly divisive concept. Often it is youthful, ripped men that are coveted as most beautiful. If you look on Instagram, you come across multitudes of semi-nude posts, of six-packs, gym progression photos, and that all too coveted “thirsty” selfie. You know, the one of a cute guy being all cute and thirsty?
It all feeds in to a climate of false appearances. We don’t know how many weeks or tries it took to get that selfie just right, and we certainly don’t know what the person is thinking about before, during, or after they post it. Maybe they’re all living happy, fulfilled lives, but my hunch is that many are not.
For me, beauty is introspective. It comes from a multitude of sources, is folded into many layers, and does not have a strict definition, as those Disney films espouse. We know this as children, but we lose sight of it as we grow up.
I look back at those films like Beauty and the Beast or Edward Scissorhands and what I love about them is their unconventional approach to the idea of beauty. The Beast is misunderstood and Edward, well he’s the purest example of an outcast I can think of. However, both characters are beloved and highly redemptive.
This is because others were able to look past their physical forms and see the complicated layers of beauty that made them who they were. We understand this truth about real beauty as children, but most of us lose this understanding as we grow up. My hope would be that some of this might translate into our adult lives, despite the pressures of Kardashians and Instagram.
What makes you beautiful? And, are you really willing to let others define that for you?
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