Buzzfeed posted an article called “This Photographer Traveled The World To Show That Female Beauty Is Everywhere.” It describes the adventures of Romanian-based photographer Noroc Mihaela, as she travels around the world, photographing what she determines to be female beauty in other countries. What do they mean by saying the photographer wants to prove that female beauty is everywhere? Is the original assumption that female beauty only exists in the West, and now this brave photographer is proving that other people can be pretty, too?
The bigger problem is that the images shown fit a very narrow standard of beauty. All of the women shown are young and slim, fitting the West’s definition of beauty. They also share other physical characteristics that fit the Western beauty standard — narrower noses, narrower lips, and big eyes. The only concession to diversity is in the color of the participants. But otherwise, they are all variations on a theme. The display shows as much real diversity as a Barbie doll collection.
Obviously, I don’t think that the women pictured are in any way not a real part of their cultures. An Ethiopian women with traditional features is just as much a real Ethopian as one with more stereotypically Western features. However, when a project on beauty only highlights those women who do fit a certain mold, that says something about the viewpoint of the photographer and the cultural assumptions she is working from.
The ramifications of projects like these are extremely damaging. Imagine how it feels not to have a narrow nose or not to be slim or to have full lips, when you are told that all these things make you automatically ugly. This general awfulness is exacerbated in this project, because it purports to show true beauty from around the world. Essentially, it is saying that if you don’t look like this, you aren’t just ugly — you are, in fact, universally ugly.
The ageism is also striking. Only women with youthful appearances were highlighted. That encourages the fear of aging which is still an enormous part of our culture. To be beautiful, you must be below a certain age. Women who are past that age are encouraged to basically disappear from public life, a fact that is represented by the relative lack of roles for middle aged and older women in our media.
Promoting the need to conform to this one look encourages harmful practices like skin whitening and bleaching, and excessive plastic surgery. Both of these reflect an inability to be happy with our own skins. We feel the need to keep changing, and one of the reasons for that is projects like these.
I think a project that highlights women from around the world has the potential to be both educational and powerful. But this current iteration is patronizing, because it assumes that beauty in women needs to be discovered in other countries, and extremely narrow, because it only shows classical gorgeous Western beauties.
Image from BuzzFeed