I asked a group of young women what their ideal bodies look like. None of their descriptions matched their current body types.
History teaches us that women’s bodies have always been policed. Women have been objectified and the description of the beauty changes through time. In the nineteenth century, the ideal English beauty was described as having translucent skin, rosy cheeks and so slim that she was prone to fainting. In the 20th century, the beauty ideal fluctuated between having slim figures to celebrating hourglass curves. The 21st century has seen the return of the hourglass figure. Women are going as far as getting cosmetic surgery to enhance their curves.
It is easy to think of beauty ideals as a theoretical framework which does not affect us. However, beauty standards dictate the way in which we lead our lives. They are the measure of how we see ourselves in the mirror. I had short hair for most of my formative years. I hated having short hair when everyone else was getting their hair plaited into intricate and beautiful styles. It wasn’t the hair that I was after, it was the idea behind the hair. In my young mind, the hair was a representation of beauty. Long relaxed hair was equal to beauty. Short and kinky hair like my own, was simply not up to scratch. I spoke to Thandeka Matshikiza, a 3rd-year Psychology and Linguistics student, who admits to treating her hair like a crown. She describes the feeling of cutting her hair as liberating.
The way in which we see hair has gone through a revolution over the past 10 years. At 8 years old, I envied long and relaxed hair. At 10 years old, my younger sister’s aim is to grow a long and beautiful Afro. Black beauty standards have moved from the traditional Western idea and more people are embracing the idea of natural hair. However, the natural hair revolution has just introduced a new beauty ideal. There is a focus on curl patterns and most beauty vloggers prioritise length over health. Robyn Sebola admits that her type of hair remains uncelebrated. “It’s lovely seeing people celebrating their beautiful Afro’s, but none of these girls has 4c hair”, she states.
Skin colour has always been used to determine one’s beauty. If you perform a Google search on the words “Perfect Beauty”, 11 out of 12 pictures are of white women. The idea that white women are the mark of beauty has prevailed since colonial times. The closer that one was to whiteness, the more beautiful they were. Unfortunately, this has led to the scourge of skin lightening products amongst black Africans. Whilst most governments have made attempts to ban skin bleaching products, they always find a way to the markets. Skin bleaching is very dangerous as it pumps dangerous chemicals, such as mercury and lead, into the skin. The women are fully aware of the risks that they are taking but the reward of fair skin seems worth it.
In places where skin bleaching is unpopular, beauty ideals still lean in favour of light-skinned people. This is referred to as light-skin privilege. Light-skin privilege refers to the advantages which one has because of their skin colour. This privilege includes always having your shade represented in make-up lines. It’s also seen through the supermodels and influencers which one comes across on social media. Dark skinned girls often voice their complaints about being considered “pretty for a dark skinned girl”. Nosipho Mathaba, a third year Journalism and Media Studies student, doesn’t understand why people think that is a compliment. “Once a person feels the need to isolate my skin colour, nothing positive ever comes from it,” she explains.
Furthermore, body types are also used to mark the ideal woman. In recent years, the ideal body is an hourglass figure. This can be seen in the way which celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner have surgically altered their bodies. Unfortunately, the requirements of what it takes to have an hourglass body are very strict. One needs to have a big bust, a flat stomach, an unrealistically small waist and a large bottom. This body type is relatively unrealistic and is either achieved by a serious dedication to the gym or by going under the knife.
At the end of the day, the perfect body does not exist. The benchmark changes regularly and one can never keep up.