Looking Towards the Future and Beyond Beauty Alone

Beyond Beauty and Body Image Panelists
Beyond Beauty and Body Image Panelists: (from left to right) Yashar Ali, Marie Denee, Emily Musil Church, Melanie Klein, Chenese Lewis, Marquita Thomas, Pia Guerrero, Hugo Schwyzer, and Seth Matlins.

By Melanie Klein

They say “love don’t pay the rent.” Love is undeniably the foundation of any healthy relationship, but it is by no means the only essential ingredient to keep that relationship humming smoothly. The same rules apply to the relationship with our bodies—relationships often complicated, contradictory and influenced by the incessant voices from those outside the nucleus of that union.

Establishing a healthy body image and creating a positive relationship with our bodies absolutely requires a sturdy foundation built on love and respect. Banishing the negative self-speak—the fat talk and body bashing—and replacing it with positive affirmations is a vital step in that direction. There is no doubt that body-love is a key ingredient.

But is that all?

Well, no. Love Your Body Day’s Beyond Beauty and Body Image Panel Discussion, moderator, Pia Guerrero, and Hollywood’s Love Your Body Day organizer, Chenese Lewis, brought together panelists last Sunday in West Hollywood, including myself, to expand the mainstream conversation which seems perpetually stuck in affirming physical attractiveness. Together we discussed the broader social and political implications of body image. While new in the mainstream, the intersection of body image, beauty, consumerism and media is not a new conversation. In fact, the Media Education Foundation has produced several films exploring this intersection for years. These conversations, films, and the activist work accompanying them have largely been confined to educational, academic and progressive settings. To create massive change, the discussion must become mainstream and that mainstream conversation must be nuanced—a difficult task due to mainstream media’s love of sound bytes over complexity. Fortunately, the body image movement is steadily growing in popular culture, but its time to move beyond the cultivation of body-love and appearance. And as panelist, Marie Denee of the Curvy Fashionista, noted that the sexualization of plus-size women–as American Apparel has done–only creates separate but equal amounts of objectification.

The mainstream success and appeal of films like America the Beautiful2: The Thin Commandments and Miss Representation are positive signs for the body image movement. Unfortunately, while America the Beautiful2 examines the myth of the BMI, the diet industry and the dangerous compromise many make in the pursuit of thinness, it perpetuates the same reductive and one-dimensional analysis. It does not delve into a robust examination of the impact of the media, the role of the advertising industry or provide solutions beyond “love yourself.” On the flipside, Miss Representation is the first complex analysis of media representations of women offered to a wide public audience via OWN—and it just aired last week. Due to its success the film is airing again in November.

Clearly, the inroads are just being made with a mass audience and we need to be mindful of how these inroads are created and what solutions are offered. A thorough analysis requires the movement to examine the issues within a system of patriarchy, shining a light on sexism and misogyny, while employing critical media literacy skills. Low self-esteem and body image issues are not individual problems created in isolation. As such, the conversation and solutions must be forged in this context.

As Sunday’s panel discussed, beauty itself isn’t the oppressor. Standards and measures of beauty have always existed and they will continue to exist. Beauty is only the beast because, as panelist Hugo Schwyzer points out, mainstream standards of beauty are incredibly narrow and one-dimensional. Rather than eliminating beauty and the desire for beauty, the goal must be to inflate that definition beyond its current boundaries. As Schwyzer states, “It’s to expand the definition of what is beautiful by focusing on health and joy rather than on size alone.” To me, beauty is an emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical state of being. Our current beauty standards merely reflect a purely physical aesthetic, often dominated by a focus on size and Eurocentric beauty and body ideals.

Not only are the dominant standards of beauty suffocating in their extreme limitations, beauty is framed as the sole measure of worth for girls and women, as well as the only worthy aspiration. It negates and restricts all other vehicles of self-actualization and agency, such as the validation of intellect, self-expression, and social engagement. As witnessed this week, Hillary Clinton may be Secretary of State with extraordinary accomplishments to her credit, but our culture negates and belittles her leadership by measuring her worth by her fashion sense and her scrunchies. As Jennifer L. Pozner, director of WIMN’s Voices and author of Reality Bites Back, argues in a recent interview with the Daily Beast, “When girls look to the media for models they can achieve in the real world, they see newspapers and TV anchors talking about female politicians’ haircuts and fashion choices.” In Miss Representation, Pozner ponders the message that sent to girls and women when the medithe most influential and powerful women in the world berated and limited by media representations.

Historically, a woman’s waist size, weight or hotness quotient wasn’t always the definitive aspect of her being or value. Yes, women’s beauty was corseted and bustled in the recent Victorian past, but she was also measured by her commitment to the church, her community, mothering or her grace. All gender-specific to be sure and arguably oppressive, but they did represent a broader value system.

As Sunday’s panel agreed, beauty isn’t the problem. It’s our culture’s obsession with creating unrealistic and falsified images of beauty. It’s the double-standard. It’s the exorbitant cost to chase the beauty myth. It’s the damage to one’s physical and mental health by waging war on the body in an effort to punish it into submission. It’s the ways in which these Eurocentric beauty standards maintain other forms of inequality. It’s the lack of choice and control. As panelist Emily Musil Church points out, it’s having a bunch of men define female beauty, objectify and sexualize the female body (a standard misogynistic tactic of patriarchy) and package it for sale as female empowerment. And that’s just ass backwards.

In our quest to expand beauty, we must confront the commodification and co-optation of beauty. It is the profit-driven and commercialized images of unrealistic beauty that are equal opportunity self-esteem destroyers across race, class, age, sex, sexual orientation and ability. To move forward, we must recognize our shared struggle and work together in collaborative ways to meet our goals. And one of those goals is to navigate these giant commercial forces in thoughtful ways, convincing them, as Seth Matlins, of Off Our Chests, emphasized during the panel, that commerce and consciousness can work together-and that it can be profitable. And in this effort, we must remain vigilant to the movement and not allow positive body image messages to become merely bumper sticker slogans or empty epithets.

We must all do the work of consciousness-raising. We must examine the myriad of ways body shame is created and perpetuated in our families, our peer groups, by the fashion industry, the beauty industrial complex and the diet industry. We must point out the contradictions and failed efforts. A magazine that encourages women to love their bodies while putting highly sexualized images from the same mold on the cover and throughout it’s pages doesn’t cut it. We must take responsibility for what we say and do in our relationships and families, being mindful of the behaviors we model for our children. We need to be conscious of our levels of mediation—what and how much are we taking in? I am a huge proponent of limiting, or at the very least, decreasing that exposure. This isn’t necessarily easy but these efforts must be made in order to make the movement stronger, more inclusive and truly liberating.

After all, in this struggling democracy, there are other fish to fry. We can’t even begin to address those if we’re still fixated on the size and shape of our ass or the firmness of our thighs and breasts. To become liberated from oppressive and limiting standards of beauty frees us to commit ourselves to our families, communities and the world in more full and complete ways. Last I checked, the Equal Rights Amendment still hasn’t been passed.

Editor’s Note: Beyond Beauty and Body Image: Top bloggers and social media experts discuss what are the broader social and political consequences of our image driven culture?

Event Host

Chenese Lewis and Hollywood NOW


Pia Guerrero, Adios Barbie


Yashar Ali, The Current Conscious

Emily Musil Church, Ms. Magazine Blogger

Marie Denee, The Curvy Fashionista

Melanie Klein, Feminist Fatale

Seth Matlins, Off Our Chests

Marquita Thomas, President, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce

Hugo Schwyzer




64 thoughts on “Looking Towards the Future and Beyond Beauty Alone

  1. Thank you for the article!! Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, you don’t have to be a size zero. This kind of takes the pressure off, but I would still like to be thin. I have notice a difference in mood and behavior when I have lost weight. I have been battling with weight my entire life. I always seem to fluctuate and never stay constant. This article relieves some of the pressure to be thin. This article addresses the standards of beauty and how the media has an influence.
    One has to remember that beauty is not set in stone. What is considered beauty today can be ugly tomorrow.

  2. It is true beauty is not the problem. It is the one dimensional nature of beauty in our society that is troublesome. The idea that skinny and light skinned, European looking women are favored and considered beautiful is disastrous considering the melting pot of various cultures and people we have living in the United States. We need women to ban together and sisterhood to prevail in order to spark a movement to widen the scope of beauty today. I agree that consciousness raising is one of the most important actions the female community can take to figure out the root of all body image problems and how to combat them. We need to urge society that we are not defined by our appearance and that we are so much more than that. It has never been easy on women but at least in the 1800’s a woman’s kindness, charity, and good heart were important in judgement of women as opposed to nowadays in which looks are alone.

  3. The image of beauty is constantly changing with time. Hundreds of years ago, men and women were considered “beautiful” if they were a bit overweight, which showed signs of wealth, because they could afford to eat. Now, the media displays beauty in unhealthy standards of thinness. I agree when the article states that we need to have a mainstream conversation about the definition of beauty. On the same note, we should support classes in middle school, high school, and college that emphasize on the medias power and control of our thoughts and beliefs. Before taking a Women’s Studies course, I never was really aware about such issues. I believe that beauty should be based on other standards rather than the physical self. As the article points out in the Victorian ages, a woman was judged by her commitment to the church and grace as a mother, both values not apparent through physical beauty. I think we should teach our youth at a young age not to be fazed by the medias pressure on us. Additionally, I agree that our culture strives on creating unrealistic images to compare ourselves against, which is a major issue. If we can start setting realistic goals for ourselves, then we wont have impossible standards to struggle for.

  4. In the last two years I have taken steps to move beyond shame and secrecy about my mental, physical and emotional issues. For so long I had hidden my illnesses and often suffered alone. It seemed the only place I could talk about these issues was with professionals or in circles of people who were similarly afflicted. Like the post describes, the conversation about body image, beauty, the diet industry, media and the damage to women’s mental and physical health, is confined to progressive settings and institutions of education. When I started to share my struggles with people outside of therapy settings, including my parents, siblings, friends and groups of people who were very unaware of the issues surrounding eating disorders and mental and physical illnesses, I felt empowered. At first I was startled by their ignorance, their assumptions and their lack of awareness, but it has become clear to me that in order to create substantial change in our society’s views and values with respect to women and their bodies, we need courageous women and men to step out of the shadows and speak up. I feel that I too have a responsibility to share with others and extend the support and knowledge I have gained along the road of recovery. If we cannot learn to love ourselves, or banish the shame we carry around with us, mostly as women, we cannot effectively extend the messages of hope, love and change to others.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this article because it praises on what the real ideal body should be and that is not a size 0 which many women aspire to be. The media and society portray beauty as being something that many women are not. Being comfortable in your own no matter how big you are i believe is what makes you beautiful. But because we are bombarded with images in magazines and on tv of women who are highly sexualized and are skinny, white, with blue eyes women see that as the ideal beauty but it is not true. All women are different and beautiful in their own ways, wither you are a size 2 or a size 14 all women should be comfortable with who they are regardless of your class, sex, age, race everybody is beautiful in their unique way no matter what society says and that should be encouraged.

  6. It is very nice to know that there are programs that make the effort to spend the time to talk and educate the younger generation about how they should love and appreciate their body. These are baby steps in the right direction and if only media and celebrities would jump on board, we might not have such devastating number of women, men, and children who are suffering from some kind of eating and/or mental disorder. If only we had programs in school to educate elementary, middle, and high school students about self-love, self-esteem, self-affirmations. Because it may well be that children are not receiving this type of education at home by their caregivers. It’s just like teaching children to walk, talk, and ask for things; we need to teach them how to love themselves for who they are, and it starts while they are young.

  7. I enjoyed reading this article because it makes an important point: beauty is not the problem; it’s our idea of what beauty is that is the problem. I don’t think we will ever be able to get away from beauty, therefore we need to broaden what we say is beautiful. I agree with the article’s statement that our idea of beautiful is so narrow and limiting. What is known to be beautiful today is to be skinny, be sexy, and to look white. Obviously, not everyone in our society is skinny or white so this leaves a huge portion of our population feeling unsatisfied about their appearance, not good enough and not sexy. Our idea of beauty needs to span to all different waist sizes, bust sizes, butt sizes, thigh sizes, skin color, eye color, eye shape, hair color, and hair texture. We will continue to be born all looking different so we need messages that tell us that we are all beautiful not just white, skinny people. Beauty should be about being healthy, respecting your body, and being happy with yourself. I wish that our society would put more emphasis on being an honest person, loyal, nurturing, and emphatic rather than that the best people in the world are the ones who are a size zero and look like a Barbie. The most important traits should be about loving others and respect rather than if you look like porn store or not. -D.O.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this article. It brings up the many issues we are talking about in our Women’s Studies class, showing how much the media cultivates us women and our mindsets about how the society expects us to be. The media accomplishes this by creating an unrealistic image of beauty for women where it only leads them to lose their confidence and do everything to achieve that image. It’s really such a shame that the media is able to have such a power over us women and society. We need to learn to respect our bodies and know that no one is perfect, not even these celebrities.

  9. I admit I use to buy into the Eurocentric standard of beauty set up by the mainstream media. I use to judge myself head to toe telling myself what I could do to improve my image. I remember going to Macy’s beauty counter and buying the latest cream, moisturizer, serum, exfoliator, etc…that guaranteed to enhance my “natural beauty.” To make matters worse, while watching TV, flipping through a magazine, or just driving down the street my mother always had to compare me to women in the media. I thought my mother was right, I had to do something about my body, and fast. I always told myself that there weren’t any girls my size on magazines or billboards because that wasn’t what a real women looked like. But now I’ve realize that I have to develop self-love in order to move past these body image problems. As I was working towards what I like to refer to as my recovery, my mother had once again told me I should be looking like that lingerie model on TV, in front of all the family on thanksgiving dinner. Normally this would have disturbed me, ruined the rest of the year for me, I would have gone to my room and cried my eyes out but instead of letting her comment get to me, I told her to clearly look at those model, and to determine if having those bodies were even possible to obtain without plastic surgery. Although I’m not proud on how I got my mom to realize that she was comparing me to an unrealistic standard of beauty, I’m glad that we both have come passed it.

  10. I completely agree with the message that this articel is trying to send out. I find myself struggling with the same concerns when I flip through a womens magazine. I believe what is comes down to is advertising and making money. Images of female bodies are everywhere. Women and not to mention their body parts sell everything from clothing to cars. Popular film and television actresses are becoming younger, taller and thinner and I think that this current obsession will unfortunately not fade away. When I read the typical women’s magazines I see articles that are full of urging women if they can just lose those last ten pounds, they’ll have it all, being the perfect marriage, loving children, great sex, and a rewarding career. I agree with this statement of the article that, “We must all do the work of consciousness-raising. We must examine the myriad of ways body shame is created and perpetuated in our families, our peer groups, by the fashion industry, the beauty industrial complex and the diet industry. We must point out the contradictions and failed efforts. A magazine that encourages women to love their bodies while putting highly sexualized images from the same mold on the cover and throughout it’s pages doesn’t cut it.” The barrage of messages about thinness, dieting and beauty tells ordinary women that they are always in need of adjustment and that the female body is an object to be perfected. I hope that as the panel agreed we can create some type of change to counter-affect these magazines.

  11. The years wasted of self hate and trying to fit into this cookie cutter image only destroyed my self worth as a teenager and young adult. How suffocating for a woman to truly believe that they are worthless if not naturally airbrushed picture perfect. We are tricked into this false sense of of beauty. Every picture, interview, movie, and tv show, are perfectly lit, perfectly cut, and of course done professionally in ever way. It is one of the most important things a person can do for them self, have a healthy body image. It is not only important for the self but important for having relationships. I love that Emily Musil Church pointed out that men define our beauty. It is so true! Some think we are out growing patriarchy, but we aren’t even close when this over sexualized, emaciated woman is the ideal beauty.

  12. I completely agree! So many people are blinded by the images placed by the media. People are try to fix this or do that, just to look like their icon when in reality it’s impossible to be that “perfect figure”. With so many women having surgery to fix flaws or add new structures, they will constantly be unsatisfied due to new changes that are constantly made by the media and as a result, they would never be happy with themselves. Like another comment that mentioned the gym, I always wanted to be sculpted and ripped like people that were placed in ads, so I joined the gym… but for the wrong reasons. Even though I eventually reached my goals, I was never satisfied because of the new changes in the media on what was great looking. I came to realize how I fell into the media’s grasp so I changed my mindset and went to the gym solely for getting healthy and fit through ju jitsu. Im sure this happens to people all the time but dont have the tools to see it. Our culture needs to be more diverse and correct the flaws our media has influenced us on.

  13. This article made me realize how standards of beauty really effected my life. The standards of beauty still runs my life up to now. I feel like it made me obsessed with the way i look. I’ve been wearing hair extensions since the 11th grade because i feel like it makes me look better. If I feel that I look better i’m always going to be wearing them to make myself feel better about myself. When i don’t wear my hair extensions i’m always told what’s wrong you look bad today or when are you going to get your hair done.i just feel that the standard of beauty starts with someone with great hair so thats why i wear them. Me being so caught up in the way I looked,I stopped caring about more important things like school and work. It sucks how the media and our society are really harsh on girls for the way they look.

  14. With love comes respect, and with respect comes love. One cannot exist without the other. If a person cannot learn to love their own body, he/she will never be able to respect their body for the way it is. Instead, he/she will continue to worship their body with mass media influences in order to gain the public display that they desire. It is the media that forms and defines the ideal definition of beauty. Without the media, we would be looking upon our peers for references to beauty. I can almost be sure that the ideal portrayal of beauty would not be exactly the way we see it today.

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