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Our Bodies, Our Ideals: Tracing the Line Between Vanity and Obsessiveness

It’s entirely possible to liberate oneself from oppressive standards of beauty while enhancing one’s allure, says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, co-author of “Sexy Feminism.” But it’s not easy.

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Our Bodies, Our Ideals: Tracing the Line Between Vanity and Obsessiveness

A dark-skinned woman whose extended family is composed mostly of fair-skinned people, Shazia, 25, says she has experienced pressure to lighten her skin even from family.

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Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but the eye is trained by society. Standards set by our communities, our cultures and the mass media powerfully influence the manner in which we behold others – and ourselves. We are drawn to attractive people, and we want to be as attractive as we can be.

Those desires drive us to count calories, work out, care for our skin and hair, and buy appealing wardrobes. They also drive us to irrational behavior, spending money we don’t have, engaging in self-harming practices, even depriving ourselves of proper nutrition. And they trouble us, stirring up insecurities, self-loathing, envy and resentment.

How can we accept ourselves as we are while reaching toward our own ideals of beauty? How can we care for ourselves mindfully, both acknowledging and resisting the influence of peers and the media? And how can we contribute to a global shift in standards, advocating a common celebration of diverse beauty?

We at GPJ Headquarters pondered these questions as we pored over our reporters’ stimulating contributions to the Focus On: Body Image series from Africa, Asia and the Americas.

We asked writer-editor Jennifer Keishin Armstrong to offer her take on these issues.

Armstrong, a prolific pop culture writer, co-authored “Sexy Feminism: A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success and Style” with Heather Wood Rudúlph, her partner in operating sexyfeminist.com. The book and website explore how women can pursue their personal ideals of beauty without becoming enslaved by cultural standards.

“I’m interested in the line between ordinary vanity and obsessiveness to the point of self-harm,” Armstrong says. “When is a woman headed into troubling territory, in terms of feminism and in terms of health?”

Armstrong says women the world over are compelled to fill out a fixed template of beauty, often without understanding why.

“It’s so universal,” she says. “We all feel pressured to conform.”

Girls and women can’t help but compare themselves to striking celebrities.

“It’s all about what we’re taught,” she says. “We’re constantly shown the Kim Kardashians. It skews what we think human beings look like.”

A superabundance of celebrity images can even override a woman’s day-to-day awareness of what’s normal and healthy in her culture.

Armstrong attributes the gravely hazardous skin-whitening trend in Africa and South Asia to the propagation of a narrow, northern European ideal of beauty.

“America has so much media influence,” she says. “We’re pushing this beauty ideal around the world. In countries where White is not the dominant skin color, we’re imposing this Western standard.”

Along with its movies and magazines, the West has exported compulsive, self-destructive behavior, she says.

“In countries that fought off famine in our lifetimes, there are teenage girls starving themselves,” she says. “Some of these cultures don’t know how to deal with that. What do you say to teenage girls who strive for thinness?”

Armstrong says she is troubled by such evidence of low self-esteem.

“I’m concerned about what this says about self-image and racial hierarchy,” she says. “Why have so many full-figured, dark-skinned women with kinky hair become so wildly devoted to becoming skinny, light-skinned women with straight hair?”

Although she and her writing partner love shopping for beauty products and stylish clothes, Armstrong appreciates the element of economic oppression inherent in a beauty ideal that marginalizes women of limited means.

She notes that unequal expectations of attractiveness are paired with unequal wages.

“It’s about this massive imbalance,” she says. “Women spend so much more on beauty. Women are not even getting equal pay, and we’re paying so much more for all this upkeep?”

Like several sources quoted in stories in GPJ’s Focus On: Body Image series, Armstrong is disturbed by the knowledge that women sometimes deny their families’ basic needs to pay for hair extensions and skin-whitening creams. She’s not critical – just concerned.

“I can’t afford half the things I buy, but I’m in much more privileged circumstances,” she says.

It’s important for girls and women to object to the prevalence of unattainable standards, she says.

“The more there is outcry about this stuff, young women are starting to realize this is not the norm,” she says. “It’s a slow process. We still feel pressure to measure up to these images of beautiful women. It’s pretty ingrained, and it may never be totally undone.”

The entertainment and fashion industries have the power to help girls and women appreciate their many varieties of beauty, she says.

“The media need to show more diversity in body type, race, skin color, size,” Armstrong says. “The more we see of people like ourselves, the easier it is to accept ourselves as we are.”