Imagine for a moment if a group of less-than-athletic men held a protest against the NFL accusing professional football of being non-inclusive, demanding that all body types be represented among their players.
Imagine a horde of former American Idol contestants protesting the show’s 2019 return, decrying the on-camera humiliation they endured in their auditions. “They held us to standards that are unrealistic for the average singer. We need diversity of singing voices!” they cry.
What if a group of medical school wash-outs demanded to be accepted as surgeons, or if run-of-the-mill music teachers demanded first chair seats in premier orchestras?
Most of us would think the protestors had gone mad.
This past weekend, a group of body positivity activists protested a Victoria’s Secret store in London. The women stripped down to their underwear, demanding diversity of body types in Victoria’s Secret fashion shows and advertising. The protestors in London, billing themselves as “Fallen Angels,” seem to believe that VS represents a tyranny of beauty, and somehow forces them to dislike their own bodies because their beauty standard is—for most women—unattainable.
This meme of forced beauty standards has been around for quite some time. People write numerous articles and scholarly papers about the negative effects of “unrealistic beauty standards” perpetuated by popular culture. But these aren’t beauty “standards” at all. They are examples of exceptional beauty.
Go any place where you can see a lot of people. Notice all the couples out in the world shopping, laughing, dining, drinking, chasing their children, admiring art or nature—and you will see that few to none of the women qualify as VS Angels. And yet they have mates! Why, you’d almost believe that a lack of exceptional beauty is no impediment at all to pair bonding!
Real life attraction is much more complicated than skin-deep beauty. We all know this, so why use the concept of “body positivity” to exaggerate the importance of looks? While the purported intentions may be different, or even the opposite, the focus is on redefining physical beauty at the expense of other factors that make women attractive.
What is most ironic is that the protests were sparked by a famous transgender YouTuber, Gigi Gorgeous. If anyone could be accused of “perpetuating unrealistic standards of female beauty,” Gorgeous should be at the top of the list. The intersection of Gorgeous’ complaint that the VS fashion show featured no transgenders and the complaint that it featured no cellulite is astonishing, even for 2018.
Some are crediting Gorgeous with the annual event’s lower viewership last month, but it has been experiencing declining ratings for the past several years. Still, the audience for the show has been consistently 61% women. Soraya Roberts writes via Longreads:
Over the past three years, according to sources, the audience for the VS fashion show has been 61 percent women, 39 percent men (the numbers vary only slightly in the decade prior). That means that on November 28, 2017, three million women simultaneously felt the need to risk feeling bad about themselves.
I cringed when I read that second sentence. It perpetuates the female stereotype of petty jealousy, women embittered by the existence of more attractive women.
Glamorous beauty is somewhat of a female sport. Like any sport, some participate to win, others just for fun, and some choose not to participate at all. Women who enjoy the sport read fashion magazines and admire models and beautiful celebrities, including VS Angels. Serious competitors put in a lot of work—hours at the gym, time spent mastering hair and makeup techniques, and somehow learning to walk gracefully in stilettos. Yet, many of these women—despite their extreme effort—will never qualify as champions of the runway. Likewise, most young men that dream of a Super Bowl ring are never going to even play in an NFL game. Excellence is, by nature, rare.
You may be shaking your head saying, “She just doesn’t get it,” but I think I do. The problem isn’t Victoria’s Secret, the problem is women internalizing exceptional beauty as a cultural requirement, despite mountains of realistic experience to the contrary. If your psyche is tormented by examples of exceptional beauty that you can’t attain, please re-examine your priorities. The Fallen Angels protesters claimed “fashion has let us down.” The market for women’s clothing is well served by a myriad of brands and outlets offering clothing, lingerie and swimsuits that accommodate all shapes and sizes and budgets. But that’s not enough? You need a lingerie brand devoted to being sexy to publicly declare that you are sexy too?
There is no human right to being affirmed as sexy.
And you can have body positivity without that affirmation. Think about body positivity in a practical way, a holistic way that applies to all of us, and is actually positive, not weaponized.
The human body is fascinating—the whole thing from neurons to fingernails. Our bodies enable us to engage in the panoply of human experience from the base to the sublime, and act on our environment in ways that please us. Each one of us resides in an absolutely awe-inspiring organic vehicle running on chemistry and electricity that allows us to know hunger and satiation, desire and frustration, wonder and joy and love, regardless of its shape or size.
I have a high appreciation for my body, and so should you appreciate your own. My body nourished four human beings and brought them into the world. My body plays the piano, dances badly, sings competently and is transferring my thoughts into words as I type. Whatever your body enables you to do—surf, climb, philosophize, code, teach, laugh or cry—should inspire you to cherish it. Our bodies are often resilient, fighting off diseases or sprinting out of harm’s way, but also fragile, and thus precious. Each body is greater than the sum of its parts and walks through this world as somebody.
Some bodies make great athletes, surgeons, comedians, programmers, musicians or chefs. And some bodies make great lingerie models.
For those who have achieved exceptional beauty, good for you. Don’t be critical of those who haven’t as you should be well aware that you are not standard-issue. If you’re someone who will make fun of a person with a less-than-perfect body on the beach or in the gym, stop acting like a garbage human.
If you’re a woman who feels bad about herself because of the exceptional beauty of Victoria’s Secret Angels, stop worrying. To quote Oscar Wilde, you’re likely “pretty enough for all normal purposes.”