When the 84-year-old Dalai Lama shared earlier this year that if his successor is a woman, she should be “very, very attractive” otherwise she would be “not much use,” it was the cause of much consternation. If the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism has an opinion on the way women look in modern society, you have to wonder whether the balance of power on the need to look a certain way has swung too far.During the last fashion weeks, women were not only confronted with new style trends but also new aesthetics. At Balenciaga, models bore prosthetics of over-sculptured high cheekbones and inflated lips, holding a mirror up to modern society’s obsession with exaggerated features.
But while the need to look a certain way in order to succeed is a centuries-old issue, at the root of it lies our own body perception – and, more importantly, what we do if we’re not happy with how we look. “A flaw is usually a physical feature or a personality trait that we feel embarrassed about or ashamed of when spotted by another,” explains Christine Kritzas, counseling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia. “We’re constantly being fed messages about what it means to be flawless, and how being prettier thinner, richer, and smarter is of higher value in our daily lives.”
Statistics by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reveal that almost 18 million cosmetic surgical and nonsurgical procedures were performed in the US alone in 2018 – and these figures have been on the rise for the last five years.
While it would be churlish to lay all the blame with social media, it’s hard to argue that the desire to fill your feed with perfect images has not become an increasing pressure – and a filter only goes so far. The Royal Society for Public Health even suggested that “social media may be fueling a mental health crisis.”
These results have seen companies such as Instagram attempt to rethink its strategy, with “digital wellness” the order of the day. Earlier this year, the social media app tested a new design that would no longer show the number of “likes” on a post – only the account holder would know what attention they receive. The test was such a success in Canada that Instagram recently announced it would roll out the design across six more countries.
A scroll through the feed of Dubai-based health and fitness expert Amy Jean Fox reveals a life of pure bliss. When she’s not on a beach, she’s in a glam gym – the South African emits fitness inspiration to the nth degree.
Yet she is the first to point out that “what we see on social media versus what someone is going through behind the lens is often very contrasting. We never know the full story or what motivates them to post the images they do.” While Fox is now comfortable with the stories she tells on Instagram, she wasn’t a year ago. “I felt there was the pressure of perfection,” she explains. “But that isn’t the case for me anymore. I’ve learned to overcome the fear of judgment and, on most days, I feel completely confident in my images and the messages I’m sending the world.”
She attributes this change of perception to what she believes is a change in social media focus. “It’s more about body positivity, self-love, and acceptance,” she says. “It makes it easier for me to freely post what makes me happy. There’s the battle of trying to be as real and raw as possible, while still creating innovative content. Celebrating different bodies and empowering the body is something I’m proud of.”
For some, that acceptance comes a little tougher. Influencer Rania Fawaz turned to non-invasive cosmetic surgery to fit into what she saw as a societal norm. “Growing up in Dubai, I was involved in a very materialistic environment,” she shares. “I grew up being insecure and indulged in fillers on my face. I kept trying to find the perfect look in the mirror but no matter what I did, I never felt satisfied.”
The ease with which you can alter your online appearance via apps such as FaceTune – which removes wrinkles, straightens teeth, and swaps that muffin top for a six-pack – means that those who keep things natural are often leaving themselves open to criticism. Singer Camila Cabello was recently body-shamed on social media for her “natural figure” and quickly retaliated. “I felt super insecure just imagining what these pictures must look like – oh no! My cellulite! Oh no! I didn’t suck in my stomach!” Cabello wrote on Instagram. “But then I was like… of course there are bad pictures, of course, there are bad angles, my body’s not made of rock, or all muscle, for that matter.” She went on to highlight the dangerous precedent body shamers set for young people. “I’m writing this for girls like my little sister… fake is becoming the new real. We have a completely unrealistic view of a woman’s body.”
When it comes to body size, the focus on “airbrushed beauty” and hashtags like “thinspiration” have been linked to the rise in dieting. While fitness and diet-conscious posts can serve as inspiration for a healthier lifestyle, that is where it should end. If you are overweight and want to lose a few kilograms, you should do so for yourself and not because of shamers. Eradicating a perceived flaw isn’t the way to build self-confidence and higher worth. The growing mindfulness movement preaches that we embrace the individual nature of us all. “Accepting your flaws can be achieved through mindfulness,” says Dr Lanalle Dunn, a naturopathic and anthroposophical physician at the Chiron Clinic in Dubai. “It allows us to see the connection we have to every living thing around us.” People have forgotten what it means to be a human being, she feels. “I think the gift of humanity is accepting who you are and striving to always be the best version of yourself. Loving yourself and inspiring other people to do the same aligns you with your own humanity, spirituality, and life purpose.” Dunn blames advertising for the need to “try to put the masses in a mold.” She states, “The psychological impact is that it is reinforcing insecurity, and never feeling good about yourself, rather than inspiring you to be who you are. Fear and insecurity sell. If every woman feels insecure about themselves, they will buy that anti-aging cream and that mascara that makes eyelashes longer. It’s that simple.”
Originally published in the November 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia