There has been a lot of fuss recently over Facebook’s plethora of “most beautiful teen” contest pages, which collect and peer-rate the physical attractiveness of teenagers. One of the concerns raised is that such pages reinforce the notion of conventional beauty – that there is a perfect body type which all people should aim to achieve, assuming that beauty is the highest goal of life. People have begun to attack the groups by posting protest pictures, often featuring anorexia and other eating disorders, or by posting pictures of disfigured teens and attributing them the greatest beauty. The trouble is that a picture of a disfigured teen isn’t beautiful, it’s ugly, and the push to rebrand beauty is not a productive one.
The fact is that societal mores lead to some physical characteristics being favoured over others, and this is what the “beauty” in “beauty contest” refers to. Calling someone who doesn’t conform to these trends beautiful in an attempt to raise their self-esteem is, in the big picture, detrimental because it reinforces adherence to the conventional system that rejected them in the first place. It’s the equivalent of trying to solve racism by telling people that it’s alright because they’re white on the inside.
You might think there is a possibility of changing the meaning of the word. We already use the word “beauty” to denote kinds of beauty distinct from immediate physical attraction, so how hard can it be? Well, nigh on impossible, actually. The thing about pejorative terms is that they are almost impossible to eradicate through language change: take the incessant rebranding of children with learning disabilities in schools. The term used to describe them is changed periodically, because every time one comes into use it is acquired by children who use it against each other as an insult. It doesn’t matter how often the term is changed, because it is the thing the word refers to which is offensive to the child, not the word itself.
In the same way, we can rebrand beauty and reclaim the word for people who don’t conform to the image that is favoured, but there will always be a word to designate those who are not physically attractive and it will always be levelled against people who do not conform to the ideal society prescribes. The type itself may change – is changing, in fact, and has been for thousands of years. But that’s not a process which can be forced, or even conveniently manipulated. Even if the ideal body type changed, it probably wouldn’t have much of an effect on eating disorders; there would still be an overall “ideal” weight, and obsessing over achieving it is just as much a disorder, whatever the weight.
Neither can we suggest that it is not a good thing to achieve the prescribed characteristics. People who do so are evidently at a great advantage; in fact, the closer you are to the ideal, the greater the advantage. We see it in everyday life, and the evidence is incontrovertible: good-looking people have an easier time than ugly people in most areas of life. When people point the finger at beauty contests, suggesting that they are responsible for eating disorders, what they fail to acknowledge is that our culture is saturated with the notion that more conventionally attractive people are better. It’s not just implied by explicit beauty contests, but also by pop culture, advertising and even by evolutionary biology.
There is only one way to combat the low self-esteem of people raised to believe that they should ideally look different to how they are, and that’s by reminding them that there are other ways to better themselves. If you have some sort of massive facial disfigurement then you’re not going to win any beauty contests, and ultimately the only healthy approach to such contests is to accept that they are not for you, but the world is full of other contests at which you have no such disadvantage. Pick your battles: we are not all born equal.