Flawless: Challenging Society’s Myths of Beauty

Flawless: Challenging Society’s Myths of Beauty


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.

Blurred Lines
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

Riding the Natural Wave: Understanding the Natural Hair Movement

Riding the Natural Wave: Understanding the Natural Hair Movement

Curls, kinks and coils, oh my! The natural hair phenomenon is sweeping the nation; over the past few years, hair relaxer sales have decreased by at least 26 percent. It seems that African-American women are ditching their relaxers and chemical straightening kits to embrace their naturally-curly hair textures.

But what exactly does “going natural” mean? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word natural as “not having any extra substances or chemicals added: not containing anything artificial.” The meaning of the phrase may differ from one woman to the next, but most agree on this: natural hair is hair that is no longer straightened through the use of chemical relaxers. The hair is as close to its original state and texture as possible.

Donning an afro and natural styles like it is no new concept of course. Natural hair was especially popular back in the 1960’s and 70’s. According to “The History of Natural Black Hair,” an article published by Bustle.com, the afro was about making a political statement. Within that statement was the goal of reclaiming black power and reiterating the message that black is beautiful.

But why are afros, rolls, and two-strand twists making such a comeback among black women? Why now? And how does this new wave of “naturalness” differ from that of the 60’s and 70’s?

“I feel that the reason people wanna go natural now is because they just wanna be themselves and feel more comfortable in their own skin,” said beauty and natural hair blogger Jasmine Spells. “As African-Americans, we’re known to get perms [or relaxers] because our hair is ‘nappy.’ Our hair is not nappy!”

“I feel that people are now seeing how healthy and how pretty their hair is being natural,” she said.

With the decision to ban chemical straightening agents from the hair came the hopes of having healthier tresses altogether. Another catalyst in the shift toward natural textures was the want by many women to remove previous damage to their hair caused by relaxers, hair extensions and heat.

“I wore a lot of weaves growing up,” said Shnequa Mixon, who has been natural for almost three years now. “I just kind of got tired of always having to put in a new weave to cover up my hair, so I just cut it all off. I just wanted to start over.”

Unlike maintaining relaxed or straight hair, naturally-curly hair needs to be tended to much more often. “What You Should Know About Natural Hair” by Blacknaps.org suggests that natural hair be handled delicately and moisturized daily, as curly hair tends to lose moisture faster than straight hair.

“Trying to figure out what to do with my head was the most difficult part,” said Akosua Wiafe. “It’s time consuming and my hair never dries. It needs about two days.”

Although styling hair in a way that’s flattering when dealing with uniquely-textured hair can be difficult, many women are still opting to rock their natural locks.

“I think that people are starting to realize that we don’t have to submit our hair to a certain standard,” Mixon said. “I think people are starting to embrace that their hair grows towards the sky. It doesn’t fall.”

Not only has the natural hair phenomenon affected the way African-American women view their hair, but it has also affected the hair care industry and the number of products available for those with ethnic hair. A number of hair care brands like L’Oreal, Pantene, Crème of Nature and Dark and Lovely have created collections tailored specifically for curly and natural hair textures.

“No one is really losing here,” said Tai Carter-Roman, a hair stylist in the Atlanta area who has experience doing natural hair. “It [natural hair] has only affected the stubborn hair companies; the companies that only used to make relaxers. Now, they have products that cater to all hair types and textures.”

Roman also reiterated that this new wave of naturalness simply isn’t fueled by fascination or the “black is beautiful” mantra.

“Women are starting to realize that with a flat iron and a blow dryer, they can achieve the relaxed look without all the chemicals,” she said. “It’s more of a health concern thing now.”

No matter the reason for going natural or the negative stigmas that come with it, African-American women have found a love for their kinky, curly hair like never before. Whether it’s a passing phase or one that will stick, it’s sure to have a lasting impact on the traditional standards of African-American beauty.

“I love my hair ‘cuz I’m happy to be nappy,” said Wiafe with a giggle. “It grows out of my head. I have no choice but to love it. If you don’t love it, you’re stuck with it, so you might as well learn to.”