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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

“What matters is what you see”

Amy Booth deconstructs media ideals of beauty with a personal reflection on appearance and empowerment

”One day I decided that I was beautiful, and so I carried out my life as if I was a beautiful girl. I wear colors that I really like, I wear makeup that makes me feel pretty, and it really helps. It doesn’t have anything to do with how the world perceives you. What matters is what you see.” (Gabourey Sidibe to Harper’s Bazaar.)

I was a shy and self-proclaimed ugly duckling of a sixteen-year-old when I came across these words for the first time (on Tumblr, because where else would my faux-deep, semi-reclusive teen self have been spending time?), and I feel I’m only being very slightly over-dramatic—and, perhaps ironically, only very slightly less faux-deep—when I say that they changed my life for the better. It’s hardly a secret that younger girls and slightly older, oh-my-god-I’m-an-adult-now girls (like I must begrudgingly admit I am now) are under constant pressure from the media and their peers to look and act in a certain way, and that mental illness among children and teens of all genders is at an all time high.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that, if you’ll pardon my French, sidestepping the bullshit of the former can have a positive impact on many individuals’ mental health, too. It’s for this reason that I consider Sidibe to be an important feminist role model for what has been dubbed the Selfie Generation. In a world so focussed on the aesthetic, helping to convince even one girl she is not unworthy of feeling beautiful is, in a highly individual and perhaps (but unapologetically) superficial level, a revolutionary act.

Everyone who defines for themselves, on their own terms, what makes them feel beautiful sticks up a huge middle finger to the media, to peer pressure, and to any other so-called authority that defines beauty in the narrow ways we have grown so used to. Sidibe’s words are powerful because she herself is far from ascribing to these ideals; being dark-skinned and overweight, she is the antithesis of what the mainstream media would promote as beautiful. And yet, as she asserts so eloquently, what other people think of her individual beauty does not faze her. She decided she was beautiful, and so she became. I implore every girl reading this who has ever been made to feel ugly or unworthy by anybody to do the same. And I am heartened to see girls and women who, on some level, already do.

The ‘Selfie Generation’ is empowered, liberated; every selfie is a composition, taken with the right lighting and the right angle to create an image that its subject feels happy and comfortable with. For the first time in media history, women are in control of their own image, taking, selecting, and uploading self portraits that they feel good about, regardless of whether girls who look like them would ever be found gracing the pages of a Vogue editorial.

It hopefully goes without saying that a girl’s self-worth should not start and end with her appearance. Obviously we can and even should aim for much more. However, my personal experience following the adoption of Sidibe’s words as a kind of mantra is that, superficial as it may seem, feeling that you look good by whatever standards you have set for yourself is a massive first step toward feeling better about other aspects of yourself, too. When media pressure to look a certain way is so omnipresent and pervasive, it can be pretty draining to have to contend with this as well as anything else that might be going on in your life and getting you down. Taking control of your own self-image means that nothing and nobody else can make you feel you ought to look a certain way. And when everything else is turning to crap, be it down to a bad breakup, drama with friends, or merely a looming deadline, it’s at least one load off your mind.

Although I’m mostly speaking from a personal perspective, I imagine that my experience of body image and self-confidence will be a familiar tale for many other girls and women. For years, I used makeup and meticulously straightened hair as props in order to feel pretty enough to go to compete with other girls. This ‘competition’ wasn’t malicious. It was about me wanting to feel pretty like the others, dreading being the plain one among girls who looked how the teen magazines I read religiously told me I should.

In hindsight, of course, everyone else was probably feeling exactly the same way—despite what I thought when I was scrolling through Tumblr in a My Chemical Romance t-shirt and comically heavy eyeliner, I was, in fact, just like other girls. Feeling physically inadequate is, sadly, an everyday part of life for many girls and women, and that’s why it’s important to me to share Sidibe’s words. “What you see” can be what you want to see: sometimes you might have to fake it ‘til you make it, as the 16-year-olds on Tumblr are saying these days.

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