An Impossible Standard of Beauty

“Our culture promotes and imposes an impossible standard of beauty on women,” people often say. “I’m expected to be a skinny, wrinkle-free, modelesque type of woman all the time because this is the only kind of female appearance that our culture accepts. This is causing me all kinds of suffering!”

Well, actually, our culture does nothing of the kind. You are simply confusing culture with trash. The culture of our Western civilization bears no relationship to the junk you are choosing to consume in its place. True culture, the one that has withstood the test of time, has nothing to do with impossible beauty standards. And the best thing is that you can gain access to it for a low price of. . . well, to be honest, for the most part, you can access it for free. Here are just a few examples.

1. “Magazines are filled with photos of air-brushed stick-thin models!” That is very true. However, your Vogue and Cosmo are not “culture.” They are trashy magazines that will end up on a garbage heap at the end of the month. Instead of obsessing over them, why not turn, for example, to the immortal art of Peter Paul Rubens.

Three Graces

This incredibly beautiful painting is what our culture has cherished, treasured and worshipped for centuries. Vogue and Cosmo are not being exhibited at the El Prado museum, while this piece of art is. Generations of people have stood in front of this painting with tears of admiration in their eyes. A crowd of people is standing in front of it right now with bated breath. You can do that, too, and forget about trashy magazines.

2. “Music videos show impossibly beautiful thin singers like Beyonce. I’ll never be able to look like she does!” With all due respect to Beyonce’s fans, performers like her are a dime a dozen. They come, they go, and we forget their names the second they stop performing. Why not turn, instead, to the magnificent art of Montserrat Caballé?

Caballé is not a “conventional beauty” by any standards. Her gift, however, is absolutely unique. Opera singers, for the most part, are not know for being thin. So if your consumption of culture makes you think of dieting, why not turn to opera? If this beautiful art does not convince you that weight means nothing, then I don’t think anything will.

3. “You only see very thin actresses with regular features and perfect makeup in the movies!” That’s not true, either. Maybe it’s time for you to realize that the garbage produced by Hollywood has nothing to do with the masterpieces of world cinema.

This is Natalia Gundareva, my absolutely most favorite actress in the universe. She died in 2005, which is a huge loss for the cinematographic art everywhere.

The photo is from one of her best roles in the film Autumn Marathon that you can find here. Actually, all of her performances were magnificent. Gundareva was not a conventional beauty and she was never thin. Actually, I look a lot like her and have the same body type. (When N.’s mother asked him what I looked like, he said I looked like Gundareva. This was the best compliment I could have ever received.)

Or take, for example, one of Spain’s leading actresses Carmen Maura.


This is how she looks on her brilliant role in the film The Promise. You could be watching her outstanding performances instead of insipid films starring the incredibly talentless Jennifer Anniston.

People ask me how I manage to be so much at peace with my body when society keeps telling me that my body type is ugly. The truth is, though, that society has immortalized the paintings of Rubens and the acting of Sara Bernhardt, and not inane TV shows and glossy magazines. If you choose to consume the performances of Rihanna and J Lo instead of all the available alternatives, whom can you blame other than yourself for limiting your reality so much?

31 thoughts on “An Impossible Standard of Beauty

  1. When people say “Our culture promotes and imposes … ” they mean

    – men in romantic partners,

    – what kind of body is considered prestigious, meaning conveying upper class status, which isn’t Rubens’s nowadays, but very thin

    – studies with such results:

    “Researchers investigating whether there is a beauty premium to be had in the workplace have found that those they deemed the most attractive make 12 per cent more money than those regarded as less goodlooking. Average Joes and Joans have little to smile about either, with the moderately attractive taking home seven per cent less in earnings than the prettiest people.
    The main reason for the apparent victory of the lookers is that they are seen as more helpful and co-operative.”


    1. ‘– men in romantic partners,”

      -Every single romantic partner I had worshiped my body. The one I have right now does it all the time. 🙂 Let’s not slander men. 🙂 I have said it before and I will say it again: one’s weight has absolutely nothing to do with how happy one’s personal life is. Nothing. To. Do.

      “what kind of body is considered prestigious, meaning conveying upper class status, which isn’t Rubens’s nowadays, but very thin”

      -Again, the passive voice. Considered by whom? Why are we sitting here worrying once again about what some undefined entity is considering? Let’s do our own considering, seriously.

      “- studies with such results”

      -A scholar of Hispanic Studies I know makes $250,000 per year. This is a fat person who is definitely not attractive in a conventional sort of way. It’s very easy to blame one’s lack of success on everybody else’s superficiality. It’s less pleasant to question whether one isn’t making as much as one would like to because one is lazy and underachieving.


      1. *It’s very easy to blame one’s lack of success on everybody else’s superficiality.*

        But in this case people didn’t blame anything, the researchers got such results.

        I think it’s different for scientists, scholars, programmers, etc. There are many less prestigeous jobs in which looks may play some role: waitresses, working with firm’s customers, sellers, etc.


        1. Volumes are written about the meaninglessness of such studies and how easily they can be manipulated to produce any results the researcher wants. Echidne does a beautiful job analyzing such studies on a regular basis. Just this week she did a beautiful series of posts on the subject.


  2. Meaning, even if you don’t buy into the trash, once enough others do…

    Btw, is “History of Beauty” by Umberto Eco a good book?


  3. I am not sure that what you say is mathematically true. If someone weighs 1200 pounds and cannot get out of bed, it seems likely that their quality of life is somewhat diminished. And, yes, such people do exist.


    1. I saw this Dr. Phil show (yeah, I know, what can I say?) and there was this woman who weighed 700 pounds whose thin boyfriend adored her and dedicated his life to taking care of her. In the meanwhile, my modelesque friend of stunning beauty had been single and dateless for five years in a row.


  4. Would you feel more comfortable with the statement “our society promotes….?” Or some other variation? It certainly seems to me that these messages are out there. Young girls aren’t going to be taken to the Prado, but they will pick up Cosmo at the hair stylist’s or the doctor’s office.

    Of course, this is a completely different discussion from what we should do (if anything) about it if, in fact, these messages exist. But it certainly seems like they are there.


    1. I found the reproduction of the painting online. 🙂 Didn’t even need to visit the stylist for that. 🙂

      The messages definitely do exist. It is our choice, however, to listen to them or not. We can also start sending our own messages. Which is what I tried to do with this post. 🙂


      1. I can just imagine the uproar if that painting were shown in the schools in my area. HOW DARE YOU SHOW MY CHILD NAKED WOMEN? WON’T ANYONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?

        Back in the 70s, Venus on the Halfshell was considered to be a bit much for high school students (in my state). Luckily, my parents let me check out books willy nilly from the library and never censored me (although after I read Lolita around age 12 and asked the librarian questions about it…SHE read the book and then destroyed it); plus my parents bought all the Reader’s Digest record collections and let me play them whenever I wanted. I got the art, music, and literature I couldn’t get at school, but not everyone is so fortunate. Some can teach themselves alternate culture, some must be led to it…but if there is no one to show the way, how will kids learn


    2. ‘Would you feel more comfortable with the statement “our society promotes….?”

      -Our society is made of all of us. It doesn’t exist somewhere in the cosmos, governing our lives. We choose what to do and think and care about every day.


  5. You don’t understand what culture means. Culture doesn’t refer to the high-brow. Culture: you’re living in it.


          1. You don’t live in a vacuum, dude. That you are a classist, racist, sexist elitist doesn’t negate that you live in a culture shared by millions of other people, with whom you interact daily, who shape and replicate and reinforce the status quo. You are a not a special snowflake because you ridicule a popstar. Get some fucking perspective.


              1. Nonsequitur. You hold elitist views about what “culture” entails. Culture does not wholly consist of books you like or paintings you dig, moron.


  6. A woman’s distorted view of her body is a money making machine and as long as women will let the companies talk them into diet pills, miracle diets, shaping underwear, etc. nothing is going to change. The more a women strives to the unreachable ideal, the more money will be made off her in the run.


      1. I’ve said this before (most recently on your older-boyfriend thread), and I think I’ll have occasion to say this again: people like you — and, admittedly, me — are not the statistical majority that drives the market.

        So while self-assertive, sparkling posts like this are a great read, we should keep in mind that most of our fellow-people are susceptible to social approval, and therefore victims of those that shape parameters of approval for their benefit. After all, it helps us understand the reality we live in, even if it is inside our own little bubbles.


        1. “people like you — and, admittedly, me — are not the statistical majority that drives the market”

          -But they should be like me and you! 🙂 Kidding, everybody, just kidding.

          “So while self-assertive, sparkling posts like this are a great read, we should keep in mind that most of our fellow-people are susceptible to social approval”

          -Of course, you are right. But I simply refuse to write yet another whiny “I’m victimized by my TV-set” post. There are so many of them out there. At least, I can try to show that there can be a different approach to life.


  7. “If you choose to consume the performances of Rihanna and J Lo instead of all the available alternatives, whom can you blame other than yourself for limiting your reality so much?”


    I always tell people that my body image issues aren’t imposed on me by American culture, but rather by Russian parents who’ve spent years telling me I’m fat. 🙂


  8. ohyes (pls read in capital letters 😉
    imho most people want an easy-self-centered-complacent-life.
    well, everthing else is called e-man-cipation aka growing up.
    pop-culture = BS

    thx to the webz i can practise my choice what i use self-reflect upon (and can e.g. read your blog)
    debunking pop-culture, bad-science and other BS is part of that.
    same for past dysfunctional psycho-baggage.
    (yes, i am aware of recent neuroscientific research and what happens, when people, esp. younger ones, do not self-/critically consume web and pop-culture)

    “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
    A. Einstein


  9. Huh. So you don’t believe in sociological research and you think anecdotal evidence is a better indicator of what is happening in society and in the workplace?
    Sure, these studies can be manipulated to say what the researcher wants, but they can also be done right and tell you something about reality if the researcher is ethical and designs the study well. It makes more sense to look at how each study is conducted than to dismiss the idea of studies altogether. After all, no matter how much you have experienced in your life, you can’t be everywhere and experience every situation.

    Also, there is a difference between what an individual could potentially do and what the majority of people end up doing. An individual is free to make a choice, but what most people do still follows a pattern, and most of us fall into patterns of thinking based on the society we grew up in without even realizing it. Simply saying that a person COULD be doing something else and therefore nothing is wrong is completely dismissing a whole variety of social factors which lead a great many people to view “trash” as a representation of reality.


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