Redefining Beauty

In an extract from her debut book, The First Move, Future Women's founding editor Emily J. Brooks explores women's complex relationship with beauty.

By Emily J. Brooks


In an extract from her debut book, The First Move, Future Women's founding editor Emily J. Brooks explores women's complex relationship with beauty.

By Emily J. Brooks

I have a friend who is the type of woman who could talk herself into Rihanna’s birthday party and dance on stage to Diplo’s DJ set at a three-day music festival. Actually, she’s not the type of woman who could do that—she has done that. That shit just happens to her, while the most exciting part of my day is usually having my morning coffee made by someone else.

My friend is beautiful. In fact, she is a model. She has big hips and big thighs that are photographed in fashion shoots and featured in beauty campaigns. But I don’t think it’s her beauty that drags her into these ridiculous situations. Or her big thighs. Her curves have not always been popular, yet she loved them well before body positivity came along. And it is this trait that gets her into these extraordinary situations. Her ability to love and have confidence in herself no matter what, gives off a certain charm. And people always want a part of it.

I am talking about my friend, Jessica Vander Leahy, here because this is a chapter about beauty in a book about love; and we cannot examine women’s relationship with love properly without examining our relationship with our physical appearance. Jessica Vander Leahy has a positive relationship with hers, which most women do not. And it’s important to listen to the positive stories, to learn and grow and eventually reconcile our own.

To be a young woman is to slowly realise where much of the world sees your value: in your beauty. You might first revel in it, then focus on it, then fight it, and eventually let go of it entirely. If you don’t, this beauty that society links with youth will eventually disappear whether you want it to or not. The reason women have such a complex relationship with our physical appearance—our beauty— is because society has always told us that this is where our power lies.

We are informed about this from childhood. I grew up with adults telling my parents what ‘beautiful girls’ they had. ‘Beautiful’ being the adjective that always came first. I was blue-eyed, blonde-haired and slender. I held all the social capital a young girl needed to get ahead in this world and feel good about herself. Yet I didn’t. I don’t think many of us do. Because all those comments did was reinforce the necessity and importance in being ‘beautiful’, and when those comments didn’t appear in a social interaction I felt like I was doing something wrong. You become invisible and ordinary, so you strive harder to become beautiful again. If you do, society will offer up the reward: attention, praise, power.

Women’s beauty was historically—and fancifully— associated with perceived high levels of fertility, which is why it is so intertwined with youth. So, strong men fought for beautiful women, and today many men still do. A woman’s attractiveness is still one of the most important factors for men when choosing a romantic partner.

In his 1972 book Ways Of Seeing, art critic John Berger wrote that, ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’ He argued that women learn from childhood to continually survey themselves, growing up to never exist without the shadow of the male gaze. ‘This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves… she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’

When I read this statement it resonated on such a cellular level that I felt like I had fallen deeper into myself, suddenly knowing that person I walked around with a little better. I started to notice how quickly I would pick up on men’s glances, and I saw it in the women around me too. We are always watching ourselves, and examining how the world interacts with our physical presence.

It is this relentless examination that is so insidious to our lives because it constantly feeds the narrative that this is where our worth lies. So, we channel our energy and focus into an unreliable investment. Only to wait for our wrinkles to arrive, and the heads to turn less and less often. As Gloria Steinem once said, ‘We’re made to feel that our bodies are ornaments, not instruments.’

There is a reason Jessica Vander Leahy has an unwavering appreciation for her body and herself. She was born in Papua New Guinea, where women’s bodies were viewed and treated differently than in the West. ‘Bodies were seen as functional,’ she told me, as we sat on my grey couch with mugs of tea in hand. She recalled a famous photograph from the area she was raised in. In it, a woman breastfeeds her child on one breast and a pig on the other. Pigs represented wealth, and the status of your family was judged by the number of pigs you owned. You had to keep a child alive, but you also had to keep your pigs alive. The photograph didn’t sexualise or objectify the woman’s half-naked body. It merely represented both wealth and function. ‘It wasn’t really ever discussed that your body should be any different [than functional],’ she said.

Many people in her community were also battling illnesses and disabilities—the ongoing effects of polio were still present—so when she looked around, all Vander Leahy felt was an ‘enormous amount of gratitude’ that her body worked. If her surroundings hadn’t drilled it into her, her parents made sure they did, and this outlook stayed with her as she moved to the West, where women were told a different story.

When she arrived in Australia later in her childhood, Vander Leahy walked into school and suddenly noticed that her body was ‘a lot bigger’ than those of the other girls. It was an acute observation more than an internal critique; the roots of her childhood unwavering.

‘My genetics are made to climb up mountains, so I have this big arse and big carves and strong thighs, but I remember seeing these girls with very twiggy legs and thinking, “Oh, my legs are so much bigger,”’ she said. ‘There is nothing wrong with observing your body as different and having [an] appreciation for it. I played a lot of sport, so my body was always seen as something pretty powerful in my mind.’

Vander Leahy views her body somewhat like a man does: instrumental, not ornamental. And for women like me, who have been told the alternative story, the answer to reconciling our relationship with our physical appearance lies in choosing this viewpoint: in seeing our body and face as instruments that allow us to swim and run and sit and stretch and smile. Instruments that carry our mind and personality around so that we can think and converse and laugh and use these assets to form relationships.

In order to do this, we must first shift our perspective and instead of seeing the flaws in our bodies, choose to see the function. Once you see the function, you can feel gratitude for what you have, just like Vander Leahy. You begin to focus on what you do have, instead of what you don’t. But it does not end here.

This perspective still leaves us focusing on our bodies, so it helps to make this world smaller and the other, bigger. When we channel our focus and energies towards our minds and our interests and our personalities and our intrinsic lives, the weight of our external beauty becomes lighter; its world, smaller. Our worth is defined less by it, as our internal world takes the front seat in our value and our lives.

We have to consciously invest in these other facets of ourselves more than men do, because we have been conditioned to focus on the external more than men have. It is traditional for men to wield power through their work; it is traditional for women to wield it through their beauty. The woman of today may no longer need to use her beauty to form a relationship with a powerful man, consequently giving her access to this power. Today she can acquire power (a job, a home, wealth) independently, and choose her relationship on the basis of anything else. Yet she is still made to feel that her beauty is not just important, but crucial to her existence. So, she spends thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on maintaining a slender, tight physique and clear, poreless skin. Her mind is not just consumed with work each day, but whether her diet is clean enough and her skin bright enough as she mentally beats herself up for eating pasta last night. She strives for this ideal version of her physical self, only stopping momentarily to beat herself up for falling off course.

This all-consuming feeling is one we have to work harder against, in order to live in a world where our bodies are instrumental. Because it is the ornamental aspect that has been used to oppress us time and time again.

In her 1991 bestseller The Beauty Myth, author and journalist Naomi Wolf wrote about an unusual trend that saw beauty requirements for women increase as women gained more social power. The second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s may have seen their economic and legal dependence on men decrease, but they were now held to stricter physical standards in the workforce. It was like a social reflex stepping in to hold women back from achieving gender equality.

Before the second wave of feminism, women were confined to the home and their worth was attached to the keeping of it. Women’s magazines advertised cleaning products, and housewives purchased them with great enthusiasm. After many women freed themselves from the home, the magazine ads continued, only now they were replaced with ads for beauty products—the personal worth women had associated with their home had merely been redistributed onto their appearance.

The ‘beauty myth’ told women that beauty could be achieved not through pure luck and genetics but through hard work. With enough patting and prodding and purchasing and dieting, they could achieve the beauty they were striving for. And if women did work and did succeed in the workforce, the beauty myth told them that their beauty became even more crucial to maintaining this professional success. Being beautiful became an additional part of their job, and if they did not maintain it, they were deemed replaceable. As a result, women became distracted by anxieties over their appearance instead of focusing on gaining more political and professional power.

Wolf wrote that women of the time had access to more power and independent money than ever, ‘but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers’. I don’t think the woman of today feels all that different. She still spends thousands of dollars each year on boutique gym classes, purchases $83 serums under the guise of self-care, and rubs a jade roller on her face in the hope of avoiding the effects of gravity.

The beauty myth was so detrimental to women’s lives because it behaved as the final system maintaining male dominance, by ‘assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard’, wrote Wolf. Women could be ranked against one another at face value. But the most crucial point here is that beauty is defined by a culture that is ever changing, and therefore the definition of ‘beautiful’ will always change with it.

You see, we don’t get to decide what ‘beautiful’ is. It is defined by culture, which has been predominantly controlled by men and is constantly changing. While Kate Moss may have been the cultural pin-up of the nineties, it is Kim Kardashian West today. Skeletally thin has been replaced by curves in all the right places and contoured faces, and it is hard for a single woman with a single body to keep up and succeed at every one of these ideals.

This evolving nature of beauty drives us to chase it much like the toy rabbit lures the greyhounds around the race track. And the perception that we can achieve it through hard work (be it $83 serums or boutique gym classes) keeps our pace up. Yet if we do already have it or acquire it, its link to female youth means it will inevitably fade over time. If it gives us power, it is only ever for a while.

This is an edited extract from The First Move, an examination of gender equality in modern romance, by Emily J. Brooks. On sale now.