The effects that beauty standards and expectations have on our relationships with our bodies are complex, and must be understood within an intersectional framework. We asked representatives from some of Bristol SU’s Networks how these issues affect their members, so that we can learn from one another and challenge societal prejudices together.
There is an incredibly large amount of pressure on transgender women and girls to look and act in a certain way. While cis women face a similar pressure, they at the very least will not have the validity of their gender called into question for failing to conform to these expectations. Often if a trans woman doesn’t “pass” as a cis woman, people will take this as an excuse to misgender them. Even some within the trans community are guilty of this (a good example being the Youtuber Blaire White).
Trans women who do not look conventionally feminine/attractive can also be told that they shouldn’t have bothered transitioning to begin with, which can be incredibly damaging to their wellbeing. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, if a trans woman looks or presents in a conventionally feminine way, some will accuse them of sexism and reinforcing gender stereotypes. Ultimately, it needs to be understood that there is no “right” or “wrong” way for a woman (cis or trans) to look.
Isabelle Kerwick, Chair of Trans Network
In Year Twelve, we learnt about ‘globalisation’: adapting global products to suit the cultures and countries where they are to be sold. One major example was about how cosmetic brands cater to their South Asian, Middle Eastern and African markets by identifying the products that most appeal to the women in those places. The answer? Skin lightening products.
Colourism is, without a doubt, a major problem that infiltrates black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. It is one of the main ways that contrived beauty standards have affected masses of people of colour. Fair skin is equated with beauty and dark skin is looked on much less favourably. Colourism is, to put it simply, discrimination based on skin colour in its most crude form, and it is everywhere. BME people in the media are commonly, and notably, fair skinned. They comply with a certain Euro-centric look and it is this that people across Asian and African communities attempt to achieve. There is a pressure to be fair skinned, in order to be and feel attractive, and this pressure mounts from within communities, as well as externally. Colourism is by no means limited to external prejudices.
Colourism is an obstacle to being comfortable in one’s own skin for many people. And hence, the skin lightening product industry continues to boom.
Laila Freeman, BME Network Social Media Officer
Beauty standards are a complex beast within the LGBT+ community, with internal “tribes” of presentation dictating so much of how you’re perceived. Whether it’s gay men spending hours upon hours at the gym, determined to prove masculinity; queer women having to look “gay enough” to be considered part of the community through their appearance; or trans folk having to hyper-perform their gender just for it to be considered valid.
Often the very beauty standards imposed on us by “the scene” are the very things that draw negative attention to our identities the minute we step out the doors of a queer venue, leaving us vulnerable to homophobic and transphobic abuse. This then provides the added, often contrasting, pressure to “pass” – to outwardly present as cis and straight for our own safety. Obviously neither of these are right – our bodies are ours alone to do with as we will, to express ourselves, and all the identities we may hold, but only if we choose to do so. Just because you identify as part of the LGBT+ community does not mean you have to change your appearance to reflect that. Our beauty is in our diversity and our individuality, and our confidence to live our lives as who we are. It’s what our rainbow flag symbolises, and why we fly it.
Vala Biggart, Chair of LGBT+ Network
The word disability is a difficult one when it comes to considering body image, as disability is a broad term encompassing any physical, mental, developmental or sensory difficulty which has a substantial and long-term effect on a person’s ability to do normal everyday activities. Therefore, as a result of this diversity, the nature of body image problems faced by women with disabilities varies hugely. Those with physical disabilities may struggle with the way they look due to the lack of physically disabled role models in popular culture and society. On top of overcoming the obvious hurdles a physical disability throws at you, not being able to use one’s body in the same way as others can affect the way others perceive and treat you, and this can be very damaging for self-esteem and body confidence.
Additionally, many mental illnesses affect people’s self-esteem and body confidence. Eating disorders which often have roots in society’s portrayal of ‘beauty’ affect at least 8% of women in the UK throughout their lifetime (www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk) and often have long lasting implications for both health and body image. Disabilities can also cause changes in the shape and appearance of your body. For example, many disabilities cause weight gain whether directly or indirectly, and the enormous societal pressure on women to be slim and toned can result in huge difficulties for women for whom that ‘ideal’ is simply not possible.
Overall, it is really difficult to generalise the ways in which disability affects women’s body confidence due to the variety of disabilities faced by women, and this may be one of the reasons so many women with disabilities feel under-supported or underrepresented in modern portrayals of ‘beauty’.
Molly Rogers, Women’s Network Disabled Student Liaison