No Shared Standards

Beauty standards are intense and hard to wrap our heads around, but being in Europe gave me a new perspective on what the definition of “beauty” is.

American beauty standards have been drilled into my brain from the minute I began purchasing Smackers strawberry-flavored chapstick from my local CVS. I’ve been aware of the ideal body image since the age of eight, when I was too embarrassed to wear tank tops in fear that my arms were too hairy and too chubby to be displayed on the playground.

In order to be beautiful one must meet the criteria in all departments: tall but not too tall, perfect skin (tanned but not too dark), straight bright smiles, hair growing only from the head, defined cheekbones, full lips and most importantly thin but not too thin! In Katy Perry’s California Girls, Snoop Dog so eloquently states the beauty standards that all American women are supposed to live up to in five simple words: “toned, tanned, fit and ready.” It’s difficult to escape the world of “toned, tanned, fit and ready” in America. Whether I’m flipping through a magazine, scrolling through my Instagram feed, shopping online, or even driving past a billboard, it’s rare if I witness someone that I could share a pair of pants with.

This past semester I had the opportunity to study at Kasteel Well in the Netherlands and travel to various European cities. This experience not only allowed me to take a brief sabbatical from the complex and convoluted American beauty ideals, but also opened my eyes to what is perceived as beautiful in countries other than America. Being a white woman, I acknowledge that my viewpoint may vary from that of a woman of color who is also witnessing European beauty standards. Many of the beauty standards I witnessed around Europe were still based off of western ideals and many times mirroring American standards. However, certain aspects captured my attention.

In the Netherlands, the ideals are vastly different than those in Naples, Italy. Getting on a train to head into Amsterdam, there were so many fresh-faced Dutch women who towered over me in their smart and structural wool coats. While in Naples, many of the women’s faces I saw, whether at a café or at a club, were boldly and beautifully contoured, painted perfectly, and donning heavy gold jewelry from lobe to neck. The differences between what I witnessed in Amsterdam and Naples versus what we live with on a daily basis in America, were fascinating. Although beauty standards were certainly present in these two countries and people definitely dressed a particular way, the pressure that typically comes with American beauty standards didn’t seem to be as prevalent in Europe.

For Dutch women, it is norm to be tall, wear natural and light makeup, have light eyes and light hair. But, the pressure to possess these features didn’t seem to be nearly as crippling as that of the intense pressure we face in the states. Dutch advertisements are not pushy and are not constantly in our face. Many times, it seemed as though Dutch beauty products were meant to help you highlight what you already have, not change who you are and who you ought to be. Beauty advertisements in the Netherlands didn’t seem to call out women’s flaws and point out what needed be to changed as drastically as ads we see in America.  

In the States, we are bombarded with articles on how to get a “tighter booty in just eleven minutes without sweating at all!!!,” constant images in advertisements for beauty products telling us how to look, tabloid exposés on celebrities having too much cellulite exposed on the beach, and social media perpetuating unhealthy and unrealistic expectations for its users. In Europe, body image expectations through societal pressures do not seem to run nearly rampant as they do in America. In America, we are facing a body image issue epidemic due to what is constantly pushed in our faces.

During one taxi ride through Naples, I noticed a large billboard featuring an advertisement for a lingerie company. The woman featured on the billboard had darker features, and her body was not nearly as photoshopped as a woman on an American billboard would be—her body had shape to it. While there is no such thing as a “normal” or “regular” female body, this woman on the Neapolitan billboard did not look digitally distorted, she looked natural. The lingerie model on the billboard had on heavy makeup and was posed in somewhat of a sexually compromising position, but the focus was not on the fact that her body was slimmed down to unrealistic proportions. There was certainly a lot less of the “toned, tanned, fit and ready” sentiment looming above this billboard that would allow for Neapolitan women to feel societal pressures.

My time in Europe has allowed me to come back feeling somewhat liberated from American beauty standards. While I know that I will still feel pressured to purchase certain beauty items to attain a specific standard or have moments of insecurity, I have become more aware of the fact that the whole world does not revolve around what America deems beautiful.

Art by: Helen Ren