Beauty standards and their presentation in media have become controversial topics in health discussions recently due to their relationship with the modern culture. One side claims that they are harmful, as they enforce unrealistic stereotypes and make people feel bad about themselves. They argue that current presentations of attractive people in media are not organic but enforced by sellers of cosmetics and other beauty products. On the other hand, some people claim that beauty standards are beneficial, at least in theory, because their depiction of beauty implies or directly promotes health. In the context of contemporary issues such as obesity, companies other than cosmetics manufacturers can use beauty standards to promote products that enhance people’s well-being. This essay aims to investigate both sides of the issue and discuss the primary arguments presented in the debate in additional detail.
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Opposition to Beauty Standards
The primary claim presented by those who dislike the promotion of beauty standards in media is that they are unrealistic and impossible to achieve. Muraveva describes the task of measuring up to the qualities exhibited in various commercials as infinite due to the intrinsic lack of specific qualities in people (128). The media employs models who are naturally capable of matching a specific standard, one that often would not be considered beautiful by the average person. It also contributes to the idea further by depicting these people in extremely positive contexts and associating the person with beauty by implication. By depicting the life of these people as better than the viewer’s, the advertisements create a desire to be like them in every way. As such, people feel compelled to follow these unrealistic standards and attempt to change themselves to match a standard they cannot attain.
However, the person’s frequent inability to become as beautiful as what is shown in the promotions can be seen as a personal failing. Muraveva cites research that states that women feel bad about themselves after viewing media depictions of beauty and can become vulnerable to further exposure, manifesting depression, shame, and anxiety (134). The emergence of accessible image editing tools has made the phenomenon worse, as people can now pretend to be more beautiful than they are on social media and pressure their peers. The movement proposes the idea of body positivity as a counterpoint, suggesting that everyone would be happy and healthy if they were satisfied with their bodies. The implementation of the idea would imply the elimination of beauty standards altogether in favor of assessing the person’s identity and judging it before considering befriending the person or entering a relationship with them.
The third point, and the last one that will be discussed in this essay, is that current beauty standards do not contribute to improving people’s beauty. According to Muraveva, beauty industries profit off of people who have a negative body image, and they would collapse if those people succeeded in achieving their goals (134). As such, they keep the depictions they promote impossible on purpose, and even if a practical method of achieving these targets emerged, they would shift the goalposts so that the new standard was still unachievable. Thus, there are no positive connotations associated with popular depictions of beauty, as they exist solely to extract money from consumers with no regard for their health or well-being. However, while many of the points put forward by people who oppose the practice are valid, there exists opposition that claims that beauty standards can help people.
Arguments for Beauty Standards
The primary argument for the existence and use of beauty standards is that beauty is not a recent construct and has emerged because it had considerable evolutionary benefits. Various works, going back as far as Greek mythology with Helen of Troy and further, discuss the topic of beauty, both in men and in women, and its close association with desirability. As such, the argument is that beauty is natural and cannot be removed from people’s minds without intense psychological conditioning. Therefore, even if specific standards were no longer promoted in media, some people would still feel or be ostracized based on their failure to adhere to some set of norms, whether intentionally or not. While current unrealistic depictions are not desirable, they do not match public beauty standards in the first place and should be amended to reflect reality.
The second argument is that beauty implies good health, something almost all people can achieve by applying an active effort and improve their well-being as a result. Mirza et al. claim that “Sociocultural thinness and beauty norms and pressure […] are a likely source of influence in women selecting physical activity goals related to appearance and shaping their bodies” (p. 367). Contemporary concerns such as obesity, which reduces a person’s good looks present a variety of health issues, some of which can be lethal. While the fact that regular exercise and a proper diet can help a person lose weight is common knowledge, a large proportion of people, including those in the United States, remain severely overweight. Thus, beauty standards can apply additional pressure and convince them to change their habits and improve their life.
The industries that benefit from beauty standard representation in media without enforcing negative self-perception or impossible ideals should be mentioned in this context. Gyms and companies that manufacture healthy foods and supplements benefit from advertising that is based on the depictions of people who successfully improved their appearance after training. As such, while the depiction of beautiful people as overly thin and otherwise unrealistic is dangerous and potentially damaging, the proponents of the idea argue against the complete removal of such displays. Instead, they argue for replacing them with healthy, fit, and attractive individuals who do not rely on superficial cosmetics and show achievable metrics. The approach would partially resolve the issue of negative self-perception and its outcomes while contributing to people’s well-being.
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Current depictions of beauty standards are harmful because people make them impossible to achieve on purpose to continue selling their products. Failure to achieve what people perceive to be prevailing norms leads to self-deprecation and a variety of damaging behaviors that put the person’s health in jeopardy. However, the arguments for the complete elimination of such depictions from media may be excessive, as the task may not be achievable. Beauty is not a marketing construct but rather a standard that is established by society and incorrectly relayed in commercial depictions. Furthermore, promotions of beauty can emphasize health, which is a concern due to various conditions, such as obesity, that are preventable and can be addressed through personal effort. Beauty standards help firms sell healthy products and convince people to pay attention to their physical well-being as part of overall attractiveness.
Mirza, Beenish, et al. “An Overview of Recommendations for Women’s Physical Activity Effecting on Health, Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviour.” International Journal of Bioinformatics and Biomedical Engineering, vol. 1, 2015, pp. 366-371.
Muraveva, Ekaterina. “Beauty Magazines’ Discourse in the Dystopian World of Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours.” Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 13, no. 2, 2018, pp. 120-137.