In her smash hit “***Flawless,” Beyoncé asserts that she indeed woke up like this – flawless. Amid a hard-hitting baseline and tantalizing melody, the Grammy-winning singer boasts of her accomplishments and never-ending desire to succeed. She steps out on stage in her infamous bedazzled leotard, revealing a slender hourglass shape, full flowing honey blonde tresses and sculpted legs wrapped in shimmering pantyhose.
But did she really wake up like this? Probably not; however, she does have an image to maintain. But where do female entertainers and the media draw the line when it comes to promoting unrealistic beauty standards for women? Where did these standards originate in the first place?
High Heel Standards
The societal pressures women face regarding beauty and femininity have been around for quite some time. From the super-skinny models in the magazines to the “Real Housewives” reality TV series, today’s woman is expected to look and act a certain way. There’s a standard to look flawless, yet remain as natural as possible.
A panel discussion titled “I Woke Up Like This,” organized by the Center for Student Leadership at Kennesaw State University, sought to challenge these societal myths of beauty by facilitating discourse among students and staff.
“I think the assumption about college students is that they’re in a bubble, but they’re actually part of the real world,” said Dr. Nyasha Guramatunhucooper, assistant professor of leadership at KSU. “They’re in the society and they do feel those pressures. And they’re gonna go into jobs, into positions where the pressures are magnified. So it’s important to start at the college level to make a space for these pressures and to name them and interrogate them at their root because unfortunately, they don’t go away.”
There’s no doubt these unrealistic beauty standards can take a toll on a woman’s self-esteem, but they also have the potential to negatively impact things like educational environments, relationships and even employability. Both panelists and students used the discussion to share their experiences and offer solutions to overcoming the pressures to be perfect.
What Not To Wear
As much as you would like to forget this period of your life, imagine you’re back in high school. You’ve got your studies to keep up with, extracurricular activities and pile of college applications to fill out. On top of all this, you’ve got to plan your outfit for the next day and make sure it adheres to the dress code.
Professor of education and panelist Dr. Shelbee Nguyen spoke on the fact that many times these standards to look a certain way are implemented in educational settings through school dress codes.
From the “three-fingers width” spaghetti strap rule to the “your skirt must be longer than your fingertips” rule, school dress codes seem to assert more control over what girls wear than what boys wear. Some schools have even implemented a new “bend over” rule; if you bend over to touch your toes and the backs of your knee caps show, then your skirt is too short. And say goodbye to comfortable active wear, because yoga pants aren’t allowed either.
Nguyen also pointed out that these regulations inadvertedly shame girls by deeming their outward appearance “distracting to the learning environment.”
“We give girls all the responsibility over boy’s actions,” she said. “This is what I call the subjective objectivity of women.”
Offering a remedy to this issue, Nguyen referenced an ad campaign featuring a young girl that read “my shorts are higher than your test scores.” She suggested teachers and school administrators spend more time focusing on improving academics overall, rather than worrying about what female students wear to school. This will better the learning environment for all students and relieve some of the pressure girls feel to look a certain way.
The saying holds true: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What one person considers beautiful, another might not. But this can pose a problem when you’re in a relationship and your standards of beauty differ from those of your partner. This was the case for Caroline Ofulah, a grad student at KSU and panelist at the discussion.
She described being in an interracial relationship upon first coming to America; her body image was intact until her boyfriend began making comments about her weight.
“He would say things like ‘you should come to the gym with me’ or ‘look how your thighs spread when you sit down,” she said.
When it came time to meet his parents, Ofulah could see from where these nitpicky comments came.
“Everyone was so tiny,” she said. “I was bigger than him, his mother, his sister. I was even bigger than his uncle! I literally felt like the elephant in the room.”
Ofulah went on to explain that in her native country of Kenya, curvy women are considered beautiful, whereas here in America, it’s the skinny women who turn heads. These conflicting views of beauty are present in other cultures around the world as well.
“Here in the United States, there’s a race toward thinness,” Yen Rodriguez said. “I come from a Caribbean culture where full figured people are much more attractive. I’m a pretty thin guy and every time I go around any family members, the first question out of their mouths is ‘Why are you not eating? Why are you so skinny?’ The same thing will be asked about a woman in this culture.”
You’re Hired, but…
Beauty and personal appearance standards exist in the workplace of course. A tidy, well-groomed image is of the utmost importance. Everything from your makeup, to your nails and clothing play a big part in how employers receive you. So can something as simple as a hairstyle compromise your employability? Sometimes, yes.
KSU student Toni Jenae revealed that she always feels the need to straighten her hair before going in for a job interview.
“I can’t go in there with my natural hair,” she said. “I know they’re looking for that ‘certain look.’”
Let’s say you’ve already got the job and decide to do something different with your hair. Panelist Nakia Richards described the reactions she received when she walked into work donning her natural hair texture. She heard everything from “how did you get your hair to do that” to “do you even wash your hair?”
Because today’s societal standards of beauty are heavily modeled after European standards of beauty, women of other races and ethnicities feel the need to appropriate the look in corporate and formal settings.
“I just don’t care anymore,” Cooper said. “You can always try to be the best version of what somebody else wants you to be, but it gets tiresome.
Flaws and All
Standards of beauty and femininity differ from one person to the next, yet remain the same in the fact that they determine what makes an individual beautiful. You have to be skinny. You’ve got to have long, straight hair. You must dress “like a lady” to keep from drawing unwanted attention to yourself.
“The only person I keep up with is me,” Cooper said. “Because at the end of the day, I need to be comfortable with who I am.”
So the next time you’re in the mirror trying to achieve those famous Kim K. eyebrows or at the gym sweating for J.Lo’s tiny waist, stop and ask yourself, “did I really wake up like this?” The answer is no, because you were already flawless.
Photo by Viktor Hanacek