We live in a society obsessed with physical beauty. It doesn’t take much effort to see this: the digital image manipulation that is now so commonplace in product marketing has repeatedly and publicly come under fire for setting unrealistic physical standards for young adults. Opponents of this approach to advertising have attacked it for various reasons, ranging from acidic accusations of amoral manipulations of children to mere unadulterated malevolence. One element, however, that unifies them all is the idea that the perfect way to combat this is to tell everyone in the world that they are beautiful. Indeed, The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, you-are-beautiful.com’s popular stickers and a whole bunch of anonymous Tiger Ad Mirers submissions staunchly proclaiming the beauty of the reader are united in their belief that remedying the social obsession with physical attraction requires reassuring people that they’re physically attractive.
This is wrong.
I’m not saying these campaigns are evil. Certainly, the ethical nature of these efforts is nearly impossible to criticize. They are, however, misguided. The true “enemy” — if it can be called that — here is not H&M’s advertising team. It’s not even Adobe Photoshop’s brush tool. The social conception of beauty is rooted in the fact that we have tied people’s sense of worth to their level of physical attractiveness.
Unfortunately, the feel-good response adopted by Dove and Tiger Ad Mirers doesn’t actually combat this. In fact, it reinforces it; by telling people that they should be happy because they’re beautiful regardless of what they actually look like, they’re simply supporting the idea that self-worth is grounded in the body. The counsel of Tiger Ad Mirers submission 5336 — “remember you are beautiful” — functions only as a semi-functional short-term solution that in fact exacerbates the issue by reinforcing the source of the disease it is attempting to cure. No, the solution isn’t to anonymously reassure strangers that there is someone out there who will find them attractive.
The real approach is to devalue the role of beauty in determining personal value. We should stop saying “no matter what you look like, you are always gorgeous” and start saying “your beauty is not the be all and end all of you as a person.” Elevating the status of attractive intangible aspects will necessarily lead to the diminishment of the role beauty plays in establishing self-worth.
Allow people to take pride in the hours they spend playing an instrument every day, in their incredible dance skills, in their ability to recite every movie Morgan Freeman has had a three-line-or-more part in, and the social obsession with beauty will fade. Arguably, we should be reaching for a point where the comment “(s)he looks better than you” carries the same emotional weight as “(s)he dances better than you do” — a point where subjective statements of opinion do not have universal power to create depression and self-doubt.
This is admittedly difficult. You can’t control whom you’re attracted to, so manually resetting these preferences will not be easy. It will take time. But it is better to stab at the heart of the beast in this way, by devaluing beauty, than by attacking one of its arms with feel-good campaigns — especially since these misguided retaliations actually help the monster grow.
Being beautiful is not a bad thing. We should not demonize those who were born with a certain set of genetic combinations that conforms to some sort of ever-changing social understanding of what it means to be beautiful, nor those who work to achieve a place in that set. On the contrary, beauty is something to be celebrated.
However, it is not to be lauded in place of everything else. Physical attractiveness should be appreciated just as much as a great sense of humor or a sparkling personality. By relegating it to a more normal role in our lives, our obsession with beauty will disappear. We will begin to treat people as actual human beings, rather than dehumanizing them by focusing solely on their looks; in equally accounting for the many, many aspects that truly comprise people, we also force ourselves to accept their humanity, a humanity that is more than just beautiful, but also funny, and talented, and poetic, and infinitely multidimensional.
Yotam Sagiv is a freshman from Tel Aviv, Israel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.