by Jessica Couloute
Photo by Eva Drewa
Helen of Troy, infamously known as “the face that launched a thousand ships”, can teach us a great deal about how society values women, particularly their beauty. While it may not be the original intention behind the story, it does serve as an illustration of how the female form has been scrutinised by societies for centuries. Just like in ancient Greece, so today modern women are often characterised based on their appearance, and frequently under the male gaze.
It seems that from the dawn of time, the female form has been revered, sought after, critiqued, and commodified. These days, cities may not be toppling over a pretty face, but society is still up in arms as beauty ideals continue to be a topic of discussion. Everywhere you look, there are images trying to define what it means to be a beautiful woman. There are magazines, billboards, films and social media feeds that signal beauty standards to society. But there is hope that artists, photographers and activists are redefining these standards, maybe even eradicating the existing “norms” altogether.
Traditional beauty templates vary across cultures. For example, the paragon of traditional beauty in North America is typically someone young, tall, slim and Caucasian. Regardless of culture, all beauty standards shift and evolve over time. However, confining women to standard templates for what they should look like can be limiting and in some cases even demoralising – specifically when these standards are unattainable.
If you fit the description, you are deemed acceptable. And if you don’t, you might be able to buy the desirable look and become so. This leaves the majority of women feeling shame or that they fall short. These standards, often expressed as visual representations of women, are not representative. And, arguably, there is so much discourse surrounding the female form that, if not productive, it can objectify and commercialise women. In recent years, there has been a wave of body positivity resulting in media adaption of relatable imagery that reflects women of all colours, shapes, sizes and identities.
The body positivity movement is not a new concept. According to The New York Times, the movement “is the convergence of a few movements. The fat acceptance movement was pioneered in the 1960s by black and queer women to fight discrimination in public spaces, the workplace and doctors’ offices. Fat positivity, which is more of a reaction to fat shaming, and body positivity, which is a more commercial self-esteem movement, came later.” In the 1960s, during the Black Panther movement, the first signs of what we now recognise as today’s Natural Hair movement appeared, which can also be included in the discussion about this convergence and campaign for self-esteem, self-acceptance and inclusivity.
In the 2000s, the skin care company Dove launched a worldwide marketing campaign showcasing women of different racial backgrounds and body types in an array of advertising and promotional material with the goal of advocating for self-confidence in women. While well-intentioned, the campaign was not flawless. When the company aired its “Real Beauty Sketches” video campaign, Business Insider highlighted the various critiques regarding how Dove missed the mark.
Critics noted the ad featured primarily white women who were considered thinner and younger, with the oldest participant being only 40 years of age. There were only a few women of colour, who evidently had shorter screen time, and the Black women were notably on the lighter end of the colour spectrum. Other critics also noted that the featured forensic sketch artist who drew the participants was… a man. While the artist never saw the women and produced the illustrations using solely verbal description, audiences felt this only perpetuated the idea that acceptance of the female aesthetic is ultimately defined by the male gaze. In an effort to appeal to the body positive movement, Dove attempted to walk the line between maintaining the status quo and challenging it, only to teeter and fail.
The downfall of their campaign was likely due to the fact that the success of their business relies on women seeking “beauty” products to feel better about themselves, and this dynamic only exists if women feel inadequate. In doing so, the mainstream was once again limiting the idea of what is aesthetically acceptable in our society.
Dove is just one of many examples. Throughout the early 2000s, many companies – specifically in the beauty industry, which primarily targets women – incorporated these new ideologies in their brand messaging. While this is progress, much more needs to be done, as women continue to be mis- and underrepresented. While brands are striving to hold more body positive ideals and include notions of self-acceptance, their attempts at being inclusive and accepting remain insufficient, especially in terms of age, disability, colour and gender identity. Therefore, how can we say that we live in a body positive, self-accepting society if we’re still not showcasing the truly rich diversity of women?
Today, in the Digital Age, corporations are not the only entities to disseminate content and messaging to the masses. Sharing new ideas has become more accessible than ever before. If you can gain access to the Internet and a mobile device with a camera, you can become a content distributor. With social media at their fingertips, activists, photographers and artists alike are afforded the ability to share their work and engage with audiences on a larger scale. This in turn grants exposure to new ideas that may have been considered too unconventional for mainstream platforms.
In doing so, artists have been introducing new ideals and new “standards” into the mix, painting a more realistic picture of not only what it means to be a woman or a beautiful woman but also what it means to be human. A British fashion and portrait photographer Sophie Mayanne, who centres her work on diversity and inclusion, portrays subjects in a realistic manner. On her website, she even makes the following pledge:
Please note that Sophie has pledge[d] to realistically represent bodies in her photographic work, as of October 12th 2017. This includes not digitally manipulating bodies, or skin. Light and contrast adjustments will still be made to images, as well as technical adjustments such as the removal of “dust and scratches” if required.
In 2017 Mayanne launched a project titled “Behind The Scars”, a celebratory gallery of scars of all shapes and sizes and the stories behind them.
Alongside Mayanne, there are many other photographers who are leading the charge in inclusivity (and maybe even erasing the concept of “beauty standards” altogether). Rochelle Brock, also known as Rochelle Fatlepoard, is a New York City-based size-inclusive photographer. In an interview with Papermag, she said that as a young Black woman, she didn’t necessarily aim to be a “body positive photographer”. She just wanted to showcase more images of people who looked like her, and in doing so, she is filling a gap in representation. In Canada, Laurence Philomene, a Montreal-based photographer, focuses their work on representing nonbinary and trans folk.
It is apparent that we are in the midst of a movement that is pushing the boundaries of its predecessor, which aimed – unsuccessfully – at breaking patriarchal concepts of beauty and establishing body acceptance. Through the lenses and inclusive perspectives of photographers like Mayanne, Brock and Philomene, we are witnessing the emergence of a picture that is diverse and reflective of the whole of society – one that was ever-present, just never acknowledged. As artists take the lead in showing us what it means to be inclusive and realistic, various brands are following suit. Clothing companies such as Everlane, Universal Standard and Girlfriend Collective are copying these images and striving for more representation and inclusivity when promoting their products. But is this the result we wish to see when we push for inclusivity?
When referring to Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign, Ann Friedman at New York Magazine writes: “These ads still uphold the notion that, when it comes to evaluating ourselves and other women, beauty is paramount,” and even as the body positive movement continues to evolve, this sentiment still has a strong hold on the minds of many women and men. Friedman goes on to add that “the goal shouldn’t be to get women to focus on how we are all gorgeous in our own way. It should be to get women to do for ourselves what we wish the broader culture would do: judge each other based on intelligence and wit and ethical sensibility, not just our faces and bodies.”
As companies, activists, artists and society continue to challenge beauty standards and representation, which does look like a step in the right direction, it is important to keep in mind that this is only the beginning of all the progress that has yet to be made. As we continue to redefine the standard of beauty, maybe with time we will redefine what it means to be beautiful altogether. It is also important to acknowledge that corporate contributions to this conversation are most likely driven by profit, but if corporations feel the need to shift in order to meet popular thought, it means that people are not only being heard – they are also being seen.
Yes, there is still much work left to be done, but the photography and the progress made thus far are real. And as for Helen of Troy, well, she is a myth, and so are the standards inspired by her.