In the way of Instagram, the algorithm decided that I must be fascinated by before and after pictures posted by millions of women (for it always is women) documenting their “body journeys”. I confess to diving headlong into this rabbit hole once it presented itself and really setting off the algorithm so that now I am constantly inundated by these stories.
In this region of Instagram there is a common language expressed in hashtags like #bodypositivity, #fattofit, and #transformationtuesday. Each post is written in a first person confessional format with a suitably upbeat conclusion and each person’s #journey has all the hallmarks of obsessive navel gazing (quite literally) and a self-help recovery textbook .
I am fascinated because writ large in these personal stories of triumph over their fallible human bodies is every woman’s battle with the so-called ideals of beauty, youth and social cachet. The story these Instagram feeds tells is the classic redemptive fairy tale that has driven the narrative about women and their role in society since these sorts of stories began to be told.
Cinderella has nothing on these battle-worn women. The lowly unseen and unsung prototype relegated to the kitchen, slaving away unloved and unappreciated, is rescued and transformed by magic and, in this instance, #hard work so that her true beauty can emerge like a butterfly from the chrysalis and society can finally value her. She becomes a princess – with all the trappings of 'princessdom', but primarily the love and adulation of a prince and by extension society at large.
The prototype of this “princess bride” is freighted with the baggage of millennia. You don’t need me to tell you that it is a Western European gaze that has informed the imagery that goes hand in hand with this idealised model of womanhood. As Gulliver on his travels explained when viewing a gigantic Brobdingnagian breast up close and personal: “This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size and their defects not to be seen but through a magnifying glass.” In other words beauty and cultural proximity are deeply entwined. In a world where the Western European aesthetic has prevailed, beauty as a kind of moral virtue has been represented as one kind of thing: the thing that all these women are striving for in their transformation journeys. What that thing is, is the classic ideal of womanhood – a Hollywood chimera – an “after” to make up for all the mistakes of “before”.
In this telling the media, as it reflects and amplifies the values of Western European culture, is responsible for perpetuating these skewed beauty ideals. Woman who do not fit into the mould of fair-skinned, symmetrical, pubescent-thin prototypes have hardly ever been represented in glossy magazines or on TV and movie screens. To be fair, they have also not been represented in the artefacts of this culture either: the many paintings and sculptures celebrating female beauty in museums and churches around the Western world. Anything that strays from the ideal of beauty was 'other-ised' and considered ugly, so old women in particular were represented in gruesome detail as something to fear – crones – closely related to witches, another category of women who were by nature dangerous and morally corrupt. Until modernism challenged this dichotomy.
The aesthetic battle for a woman to be divorced from her physical appearance when making judgments about her worth, never mind her moral worth, has been central to feminist theory for decades. But it is only in the last few years that these ideas about representation are starting to take hold in popular culture. Now women’s media, the fashion industry, and the television and film industry are all being held to account. How many woman of colour and non-binary gender are being reflected back at a society that is diverse and underrepresented is a question on every editor’s mind. They ignore these questions at their peril.
But in a way this debate is moot. People moved on themselves and started representing their “real selves” and their “real beauty” in their own social feeds as soon as the word selfie became both a verb and a noun. The Kardashians in one stroke of blanket social media coverage altered the so called ideals – morphing the female body into their new Kardashian prototype of hyper-sexualised hips and lips. Is it real? Not really, since they spend hours in hair and makeup and have a full team of photographers and lighting experts creating these candid shots. But without a doubt what used to sell product, ideology and launch a thousand ships has been briskly altered by a particular set of women, by themselves – bypassing the traditional media.
Which is why the latest Dove campaign is probably smarter than you think. #ShowUs is a collaborative drive with Getty Images to create a trove of stock imagery generated by woman themselves in all their spectacular diversity so that traditional media can use these “real” images to diversify their content to reflect a multiplicity of women back at themselves. It is a circular argument that has a positive logic. The same logic Gulliver used. Cultural proximity will alter the ideals of beauty if you change the prism through which you view them.
For more information on Dove's #ShowUs campaign, read: