What is a beauty standard and aesthetic activism, and can we free ourselves from this pressure that makes us unhappy?
The concept of beauty has changed over the millennia. From the Venus of Willendorf - an image of a woman whose attributes made her body a perfect receptacle for future babies - to the more stylised Venus of Milo, to Michelangelo's David, an example of the "perfect" proportions for a male body, these representations were the formula that determined what was beautiful and what was not. An aspirational dogma that left out the majority of people, mere humans, and an imposition that continues to cause a not inconsiderable number of mental illnesses, eating disorders and surgical madness.
The non-existent eyebrows of the Renaissance, the rotund but strictly proportional figures of the Baroque, the absolute pallor, the hourglass figure achieved by Victorian corsets, the junkie thinness of the 90s, the exaggerated false eyelashes we see today... The canon only changes because its essential nature is precisely unattainable. What stays the same, however, is how aspiring to a normative beauty is not only draining our pockets but also our self-esteem.
Fortunately - and thanks to social movements that have taken action - the canon as we knew it is disappearing. If beauty dwells in the eye of the beholder, everyone is now looking around them instead of upwards, where white, blonde, slim, small-nosed, big-breasted divinities used to dwell. And as we have descended to street level, we have discovered that beauty is everywhere.
People of all skin tones, sizes and backgrounds have taken the place that should never have been taken from them in the pages of fashion magazines, catwalks and advertising. While this may at first appear to be an exercise in political correctness, the avalanche effect of seeing this variety of faces and bodies in the media means that we collectively normalise the existence of not just one type of beauty but a wide range of characteristics that can be. Not only that, but representation, this influx of different faces, makes everyone feel validated, helps to reduce self-esteem problems and prejudices, and consolidates a more plural, inclusive, and less strict society.
The fact that the canon of Western beauty has been blown to bits has not come out of nowhere. The positive side of social media is that it has allowed many people to show themselves as they are, giving rise to body-positive movements exemplified by personalities such as Winnie Harlow, Serena Williams, Jonathan Van Ness or our own Itziar Castro, who have spoken of their efforts to overcome the complexes and dogmas of normativity and their journey towards self-acceptance and the joy of discovering their beauty. Anyone with social networks has been able to observe the abuse and insults that the recently deceased Castro faced every day, always responding with humour and compassion. Her example and commitment are an inspiration to us all.
This aesthetic activism has not always been accepted, as the black model, agent and activist Bethann Hardison tells us in her documentary Invisible Beauty, in which she traces her career as a model since the 1970s in New York and her struggle for recognition of the value of racialised people in an industry as racist, classist and non-inclusive as the fashion industry has been until just over a decade ago. Desirée Bela-Lobedde says in her book Ser mujer negra en España: "We live in a society that sets Western beauty standards according to which the lighter the skin and the straighter the hair, the more accepted we are. This translates into pressure and violence that we exert on our bodies as a matter of assimilation. Aesthetic activism also implies decolonising the body, not just the mind".
Thanks to the network of professionals who have driven change in the industry, some celebrities and the public's need for the heterogeneous reality of today's societies to be reflected in the media, we are slowly entering the most diverse era in history. And that is excellent news. However, we must keep our guard up: cosmetic operations are still a booming business, growing older is still seen as a problem and beauty is still dictated by celebrities with too much time and money. We are forced to be constantly vigilant in the face of an endless bombardment of images of absurd "perfection". And we must learn to recognise and love ourselves as we are.