Besides destroying camaraderie between women, among many other ploys, the patriarchy also sustains itself by causing women to be in toxic relationships with our bodies. This happens when it sets ridiculous beauty standards in place. We feel insecure when we do not meet up with these ideals.
Just when you thought the feminine beauty ideal would forever be tall, thin, and light-skinned, society has switched the goalpost. Now, the desirable woman body is thick, slim waist, big bottom, ample thighs, and broad hips - a la Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a Hottentot Venus.
Tami Winfrey Harris says in the Clutch Magazine, "In our own communities, black women’s bodies – whatever they look like – are A-OK. Not sharing the majority culture’s beauty standards is not the same as not having any at all. The black community has its own standard for what women should look like. It’s not more relaxed and it can be just as oppressive as the more mainstream standards. Standards for women’s bodies are predicated on the male gaze. It is, for sure, a standard that is different from the Eurocentric mainstream, but it is a standard: small waist, round booty, juicy thighs, boobies optional.”
Truly, beauty lies in the male gaze. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Woolf explains how the beauty myth is not a function of evolution, sex, gender, aesthetics, or God. She writes “The beauty myth is not about women at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power.”
To get this “wonder body”, a good number of women decide to go for the Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL) in a bid to meet up with one of society’s many ridiculous beauty ideals of feminine beauty despite knowing it is a risky venture. In a paper published in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal (2017), it was revealed that 3% of 692 surgeons had experienced the death of a patient after performing surgery, thereby making it the world’s most dangerous cosmetic procedure.
Men determine what is beautiful. They validate us from a selfish place, yet we strive for their approval, even when it is harmful to our health.
We have been socialised to perform heteronormativity, and one of the ways this manifests itself is our desire to look good in order to fit in with heteronormative standards of feminine beauty. Because it is subconscious, most of us are unaware that a part of our psyche is actively seeking male validation. Our desire to pander to the male gaze has inspired most of our fashion/beauty decisions. You might say you decide to look good for yourself, then again, would you go through the stress of looking good (e.g., sitting for hours in a salon) if you knew no one was watching you? Were you so concerned with looking good during the lockdown months of 2020? Fitting in with the beauty consensus has a way of making us feel good about ourselves, as it is a confidence-booster.
As other toxic ideas embedded in the subconscious, we can change this programming by being intentional about not performing femininity for male approval, especially when it could jeopardize our health. As expected in a patriarchal system of society, everything revolves around men. This brings forth the idea that women exist for men’s pleasure. This precarious consensus enables men to believe they are entitled to our bodies.
We should make peace with this fact: these unattainable beauty standards change through time, and we will never catch up to them. Who knows, the beauty standard in 2027 could be narrow hips, smaller butts!
Choosing not to perform beauty according to heteronormative standards would be one of the ways to decentre men from our lives, which would contribute to subverting the patriarchy. This way, we would develop wholesome relationships with our bodies and make comfortable choices without trying to fit in with the conventional concept of comeliness.
Written by Cisi Eze