Today in American society, we value the “natural:” we buy organic, fight pesticides and GMOs. It’s all about “going green,” biking to work and eating like cavemen. This is all good and wonderful to my crunchy, mason-jar-wielding self. We are trying to live healthier, enforce environmentally wise habits and reclaim nature into this modern world forged by the Internet’s brittle attention spans.
We want the real; we want to consume and feel the authentic. We crave a connection with the earth, its inhabitants and our inner selves. It’s interesting how these desires play into the aesthetics of the human body, and here I want to examine the nuances of “natural beauty” and it’s place in Western society. What exactly does “natural beauty” mean and how do we value it?
If we want to be textbook, we could extend the definition to the extreme. “Natural” implies something that “exists in or was caused by nature,” something that is untouched by man or whatever humankind invents. Therefore, if you want to fit the ideal, I advise you stop touching yourself. No brushing your teeth, no combing your hair, and stop shaving your hoo-haa gosh darn it because the young and the beautiful look more like this:
Of course this isn’t what anybody really means when they say “natural beauty.” No one wants people to stop grooming. I tolerate bad breath just as much as Donald Trump scrunches his nose at the word “Mexican,” and long toenails freak me out. Plus people will tell you that there are natural remedies to these things like chewing on mint leaf or filing your foot on a rock.
When you ask people what “natural beauty” is, they typically mean “someone who looks good without makeup on.” Many women look at magazines, stare at Ruby Rose, Beyoncé, Luptia N’yongo and the Jennifer Aniston’s of the world to derive the pleasure of knowing that there are perfect humans out there. Then we look into the mirror and wallow in the despair of our cavernous pores. Fortunately makeup is available to cover up the average faults of our faces. The oxymoronic “natural look” is just a dab of blush away.
But when I put on makeup, am I hiding the truth? And why would I be so concerned with that like it’s some sort of moral issue?
Notice how, in this hetero-normative world, this discussion centers around a common female dilemma. (Go ahead straight girl. Tell your boy he looks pretty with no makeup on). However, Dove—the company that sells you bodywash and deodorants that make me itch—claims that the problem begins with pop culture and media: In the images we see, the definition of beauty is narrow, manipulated and unattainable.
After analyzing findings from a large global study conducted in the early 2000s, Dove discovered that only 2% of women believed that they were beautiful. So in 2004, Dove launched the Campaign for Real Beauty to start a discussion, break down beauty stereotypes and boost the self-esteem of women around the world.
In 2006, Dove’s video “Evolution” was one of the first videos to go viral. It showed how much the commercial world utilizes makeup and photoshop on otherwise gorgeous models to create the flawless women we see in advertisements. The company also distributed feel-good billboards of women of all colors and shapes laughing confidently in their pristine white underwear. Beauty became associated with the pure, the innocent, the organic.
In the video called “Selfie,” Dove challenged a group of women and girls to take an “honest” selfie with no filters or edits. Together they arranged a photo exhibit where everyone complimented each other on their distinct natural features. By the end of the exercise, they all discover that they are beautiful the way they are.
After watching these kitschy commercials (and wiping the tears that I refuse to talk about), I understood that no one should feel the pressure of cosmetics to feel beautiful. In telling us to #choosebeautiful, Dove linked natural beauty to authenticity. All you have to do is be yourself and unequivocally proud of that self.
I think Dove has pushed society to loosen boundaries surrounding beauty standards. Dove bolstered the criticism on the myths we already knew were inundating the media. However, I believe that this honorable push for #realbeauty streams parallel to another online discussion that Dove probably never intended: Makeup shaming.
I’m talking to all those Justin Bieber wannabes posting up on tumblr holding the signs saying, “Girl, you don’t need make up. You are beautiful just the way you are.” I scroll through my dashboard and realize guys think a “real chick” is sexy. No one wants the fake b**** caked in concealer. Women shouldn’t hide themselves or dress up for other people because the “real you” is always more attractive they say. We women would think this is liberating.
But there are many women who defend their right to enjoy makeup. As a part of an Instagram trend that started in 2015, makeup lovers posted photos of themselves after they had only dolled up half of their face. They wanted to show that they can be confident as their bare selves and still love makeup. The movement was inspired by a video called “The Power of Makeup” created by YouTuber NikkieTutorials. She said:
“I’ve been noticing a lot lately that girls have been almost ashamed to say they love make-up because nowadays when you say you love make-up, you either do it because you want to look good for boys, you do it because you’re insecure, or you do it because you don’t love yourself.”
If you read the comments, people are still crying for these girls to stop kidding themselves. The pictures make people uncomfortable. People feel deceived, duped, wronged. This is how using makeup vs. “being your natural born self” reaches a bizarre moral plane.
Many makeup-loving women argue that they are being themselves by doing what comes natural to them. Makeup is an art form and a hobby that they pursue for themselves. I fully support creative pursuits that make people happy but sometimes I wonder whether or not these artists can be completely in it for themselves. NikkieTutorials mentions that she dislikes her eyes because they are not “awake and fresh,” and I wonder where that dislike comes from. Who or what told her to think that way?
Human beings are social creatures who form societies, rules, standards and expectations. As a result, we internalize each other’s expectations subconsciously to function well within society—even when we are alone in front of the mirror. If makeup is an art form we can ask the question, “Does art exist just for art’s sake?” or “Does it need an audience regardless of it’s immediate presence—a man, your mom, your girlfriends, the frienemy you want to 1-up at the club—to live? ” Regardless, I don’t think the artist with an audience necessarily sacrifices integrity or some central truth.
Let’s be honest: We are molded by each other’s touch, shaped by each other’s gaze. To an extent we are all manmade so how natural can our beauty really be? There’s an art to artificiality and we appreciate that too because we all have a natural tendency to decorate ourselves: face paint, tattoos, piercings, clothing, what have you. Who are we to be the “natural” validation police?
Sure, extreme plastic surgery is a cause for health concerns. Photoshop abuse promotes detrimental fantasies. Yet some chick somewhere is calling another girl a fake b*****, whispering about how that one hoe’s wearing a weave. Women (with the help of men) too often tear each other from the roots while forgetting the environment that pruned them to do so. We don’t worry whether or not a man is fake.
In addition, people forget that we have a limited understanding of what “natural” is in this world. Our understanding of human kind is dictated by Western knowledge. The other day, I found a YouTube video entitled, “Unexpectedly Amazing Blond Haired Children of New Guinea!!!!!” where a group of white tourists observe the people of Melanesia. The Melanesian people are some of the few dark-skinned people in this world that have blonde afros. Until recently, this population baffled scientists who assumed blonde hair was only a trait associated with European/Caucasian descendants. It turns out that it is a naturally occurring mutation in their gene pool.
I wish I could have told that to my 13-year-old self who thought that she should never dye her hair blond because “black people don’t have blond hair.” I thought that I’d look like a freak…Which could still be true, but you know I feel cheated. What’s more, I still wonder if people will ever stop asking me whether or not my eyes are contacts. As flattered as I am when people compliment me on my (unexpected!!!!!) light eyes, I notice that people don’t ask my white friend with gorgeous blue eyes where she bought them.
Our definitions of “blackness” and other races are limited and the hierarchy of certain physical attributes such as skin color and eye color still drives the media. Our appreciation of certain naturally occurring traits is near-sighted though we are beginning to open our eyes: There is a reason why award-winning actress, Lupita N’yongo, is now on the cover of magazines like Vogue. In pop culture, she is now considered beautiful when she once thought her own dark skin despicable. Her story shows that “natural beauty” is a social construction that is capable of change.
The other day, my friend told me that a naturally beautiful person is someone who has “a deep glow that comes from inside that is undeniable … someone who uses their look to speak their truth.” I want to achieve that sort of beauty; I think most of us do. I want to believe that all of our attempts to dress, paint and pierce ourselves is an effort to capture and share a sense of self that is always changing—an identity that is dynamic as nature itself.
But we all succumb to social pressures at some point in our lives; we can’t escape judging eyes or live beyond conventions. We should be gentler with ourselves in digging for the “truth” that makes us glow. Our nature stems from the core and that’s where beauty resonates. Let’s try to preserve it and each other.← Previous Chapter Next Chapter →