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'Beauty Sickness', Five TED Talks That Disassemble Our Idealised Perception Of Beauty

The models that monopolise magazines and billboards are no longer remotely representative of the women that we see in everyday life, resulting in an influx of body-dissatisfaction, eating disorders and appearance preoccupation among young women.
JP Yim via Getty Images

In today's society, 'beauty' constitutes a specific set of characteristics that all women are somehow obliged to strive for. This image is more idealised and unobtainable than ever before. The models that monopolise magazines and billboards are no longer remotely representative of the women that we see in everyday life, resulting in an influx of body -dissatisfaction, eating disorders and appearance preoccupation among young women. The TED talks outlined below dissect modern beauty standards, offering a rare sense of perspective on what it really means to be beautiful.

After reading in VOGUE that Ashley Graham's TED talk, 'Plus-size? More like my size,' freed a young girl from her eating disorder, I yearned to hear her inspiring words for myself. Likely the most familiar name on this list, Graham is the figurehead of body activism and 'plus-size' modelling. Her humorous take on body positivity ('back fat, I see you popping over my bra tonight, but that's all right, I'm going to choose to love you') bravely reveals her lifelong struggles with body-image. Graham's warm smile and palpable sense of confidence make it easy to believe that she truly did find freedom, 'once (she) realised (she) was never going to fit the narrow mould that society wanted (her) to fit in'. She challenges all of us, both men and women, to 'create a body positive environment', concluding with the assurance that, 'this is the generation of body positivity.'

'An epidemic of beauty sickness', by Psychology professor Renee Englen, analyses the impact of the media on women's self-perception. Englen hilariously relays her experiences with beauty obsessed college students while using personally conducted research to address the detrimental effects of unattainable beauty standards. She highlights the way in which our preoccupation with appearances is distracting us from focussing on the major injustices of the world, 'you cannot chronically monitor your body's appearance and be engaged with the world.' Englen coins this process 'beauty sickness', explaining that our overexposure to idealised images has lead us to develop a 'warped' and 'unobtainable' vision of beauty. Englen concludes with a series of antidotes to circumvent this damaging culture and encourages us to raise 'daughters who see beauty as a minor side-note to their character and their hard work'.

Chika Okoro's speech, 'Confessions of a D Girl: Colourism and Global Standards of Beauty', challenges the disconcerting idea that 'lighter skinned' girls are portrayed as more beautiful than those with a darker skin tone. She draws us in through her revelation that for her favourite Hollywood movie; potential actresses were listed from A to D. 'A' referring to light girls with 'natural hair' and 'D' pertaining to 'dark skinned' 'poor' girls (Okoro comically remarks that even Beyoncé wouldn't qualify as an 'A' girl). The speaker eloquently relays how familiar the phenomenon of 'colourism' is, its roots in slavery, and subsequent prevalence throughout the world. She discredits the conditioned ideals of beauty that permeate society, explaining they are not 'natural' but 'learned'. She bravely calls out CEO's and marketing directors as the arbiters of what 'society considers beautiful', challenging them to make the 'unconventional choice' in order to perpetuate a diversified vision of beauty. Upon closing she reminds us, 'we don't have to passively accept what society tells us to think is beautiful. We can question it.'

Chantelle Brown-Young is a young activist who, despite being diagnosed with skin condition 'vitiligo' at age four, has cultivated a large following as a fashion model. Throughout her inspiring TED talk, entitled, 'My story is painted on my face,' Young humorously utilises personal antidotes in an attempt to deconstruct the isolating binaries cultivated by society that her to be alienated in childhood. She, like many women, struggled to find an identity attempting to 'put (herself) into a mould that (she) did not fit'. She asks a question that we all should take to heart, 'who is to say that I have to fit into a mould anyway?'. Young's affirming conclusion reinstates the concept that we should not look to define beauty through the pages of magazines, social media or through any other outside influence, but should make our own mould for 'what beauty is.' As is aptly affirmed by Young, beauty 'can be found in everything'.

Despite never having expected to use the words 'Victoria's Secret model' and 'Humanitarian' to describe one person, I am pleased to recommend Cameron Russel's, 'Looks aren't everything, believe me I'm a model.' Russel offers a unique perspective on the reality of the modelling industry, decoding the constructed beauty ideals of 'tall slender figures', 'femininity' and 'white skin'. She acknowledges her privilege in order to unpack 'a legacy of gender and racial oppression,' despite having been 'one of the biggest beneficiaries'. She reiterates the detrimental relationship between perception and appearance drawing on the all-too prevalent racism in New York, 'of the 140,000 teenagers that were stopped and frisked 86% of them were black and Latino.' Russel concludes with the hope that the audience feel more 'comfortable acknowledging the power of image in our perceived successes and our perceived failures.'

I hope that these talks will inspire you to rethink the way in which we see beauty, and to question, if not take action against, societies role in the prioritisation of appearance.

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