04/07/2013 11:57 BST | Updated 03/09/2013 06:12 BST

The End of Standardised Beauty?

By standardised beauty, I mean the tall, slim and toned body, with disproportionately large breasts which is presented to women every day as the ideal standard we should attain. Oh sure, occasionally there is a twist on this, Jenifer Lopez and the Kardashian sisters have done much to bring large backsides into acceptance, but only if they are pert, self supporting and topped by a thin waist. It's a curvier standard, but still a standard.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I'm pointing to the internet as a major factor in this; the World Wide Web has given us 24 hour coverage and commentary on what "the beautiful people" look like and are wearing. As a result, the impact of women around the world being bombarded with the same images, cannot be over emphasised in the dominance of the standardised beauty aesthetic.

Sarah Grogan in her book Body Image, reports on a rural community in Western Fiji, where large body size in women was considered attractive and was positively associated with wisdom and child bearing. However, three years after western TV was made available to this community, its women were found to have developed a preoccupation with their weight and body shape and there was evidence of purging behaviour as a way of attaining the western ideal. Similar behaviour has been observed in other, poorer economies; where extreme thinness was once associated with poverty and disease, the thin, western ideal is now the prevailing goal.

The growth in availability and acceptability of plastic surgery means that it is not just body shape that is changing. Asian women are increasingly operating on their features to render them more "western" whilst in the UK, plastic surgery continues to rise (up by 6% between 2008 and 2011) as women continue to strive for "the look". Not content with re-modelling just what is presented to the world, the current rise in labia surgery is blamed on the increasing availability of pornography, as women seemingly attempt to conform to male expectations in the bedroom as well as in public.

There is a whole feminist argument to be had about why in 2013, women are still enslaved to a male version of what we should apparently look like, but more importantly perhaps there is also a very dangerous effect of the drive to fit a standard aesthetic; namely the rise of eating disorders. The charity Beating Eating Disorders (BEAT) reports that around 1.6m adults suffer from an eating disorder in the UK, with 89% of these being women. What is horrifying is that whilst anorexia is the minority diagnosis within this, it will in fact claim the lives of 20% of sufferers. This makes it even more imperative I believe, that we seek out and celebrate the different and unique beauty in every woman. And it seems to me that the time is right to do just that. Here's my starter for 10: Adele, Zoe Smith, Claire Balding and Mary Beard, just a few of the talented women in the UK at the moment, doing what they do best, whilst cocking a snook to the concept of standardised beauty. Conform to the current look? These women are too busy living! Take Sarah Millican's tweet after the TV BAFTAs,

"And to those who told me they thought my dress was awful, I'm not sure you understand but I felt lovely in it & that's all that matters."


Imagine if we all felt like that, if we all looked in the mirror and felt great, regardless of whether or not we're in the latest fashion, or the smallest size, how liberating would that be? The energy that is wasted on recriminations over another failed diet or a missed gym session could be put into finding the joy in life, today. An acceptance that we are OK opens the door to happiness, which as Soren Kierkegaard stated, requires us to "be that self which one truly is".

If we can accept each other without a value judgement on either our own or each other's appearance, how can our relationships fail to be anything other than improved? Samantha Brick has written about how her good looks mean that women don't like her. Personally, I suspect it's less about her looks and more to do with her competitiveness and demeaning attitude towards other women. For a really good looking woman who I'd be happy to spend time with, I point you in the direction of Cameron Russell, an underwear model, who it would be easy to consign to the category of bimbo (you see, value judgement - it works both ways.) had I not seen her fantastic TED Talk. In this she acknowledges that she got lucky in the genetic lottery, but also explains and exposes the artifice of the images she portrays, in so doing, she debunks the standardised beauty norm by disowning and rejecting it. Remarkably, having been praised for her beauty from an early age, she does not define herself by it.

And actually, today is a great time to take a leaf out of her book with organisations such as Body Gossip, Any Body and Mindful Bodies all celebrating and supporting diverse beauty. I think now really is the right time for women to stop defining ourselves by our looks regardless of whether we think they are fabulous, awful or OK. We are, all more than how we look and we demean ourselves by focusing on appearance to the detriment of our whole selves.