Your Periodic Reminder of How Arbitrary Beauty Standards Can Be


We all know, theoretically, that standards and conventions for beauty are a load of crap, but that point was driven home from me today. I was idly searching for ideas for how to wear two different colors of lipstick at once. A Buzzfeed post called “17 Easy Ways To Make Your Lips Look Perfect” popped up. Column 1, Row 2 of “Borrowed” Image #13 (originally via Vintage Make-Up Guides) gave me pause.

It reads

A Cupid’s bow can be toned down with foundation. Trace prettier lipline with stick.

If you watch or read make-up tutorials or know something about beauty, you will immediately recognize how bizarre that statement is.

the first page for Google search results for "cupid's bow"

If you don’t, the Google results for “Cupid’s bow” speak for themselves. The image results are all positive portrayals. The page results include an article that claims that women with Cupid’s bows are more sensual than the “cold fish” women who don’t have them, Pinterest boards replete with admiration for the feature, one YouTube and two text tutorials on how to create the illusion of one (perhaps with the help of another result: a product specifically designed to enhance it), and even a whole beauty site named after the humble tubercle. The image I found was advising creating a “prettier lipline” by obscuring a Cupid’s bow with foundation while everyone else seems to be trying to play it up.

Although most people will try to say that beauty standards are based on things that “everyone knows” or that are “objective fact,” the only thing that is objective fact is just how arbitrary the basis for beauty standards can be. One person’s much-desired feature is another’s flaw to be “corrected.”

I have to admit I was especially annoyed because my Cupid’s bow is one of my few features about which I feel unadulterated pride, since it seems to be almost universally sought-after. Stumbling on that image reminded me that there is no such thing as an unchanging and universal standard of beauty for even a single, specific facial feature. Self-confidence based on ever-shifting societal standards of beauty, then, is fragile by definition as well as a reinforcement of beauty standards as a whole — and who would want that?

Certainly not me. I can carry on liking my Cupid’s bow just as I like other visual features of mine rather than thinking of it as some kind of special, socially-blessed bit that somehow elevates my status.

Your Periodic Reminder of How Arbitrary Beauty Standards Can Be

10 thoughts on “Your Periodic Reminder of How Arbitrary Beauty Standards Can Be

  1. 1

    I think you have the right idea. The most attractive and interesting feature a partner can have is between their ears. You seem to be pretty well set there and I bet you have friends who would agree. Being happy and comfortable with yourself is going to work better than any make-up trick so ignore anything that doesn’t make you feel pretty or interesting. 🙂

    1. 1.1

      Yep! To me, makeup is a way to have fun. If it makes me look more attractive to the people I want to attract, cool, but that’s a happy accident, not the reason I do it. I feel like people forget that makeup is just colors that you put on your face in different ways. I like coloring.

  2. 2

    Looking for ‘beauty standards’ on a makeup website is like looking for objective consumer information on the Shopping Channel. But there are standards of attractiveness, they have been established and verified by psychological research extending over more than a century, and they are surprisingly invariant over time and between raters of different ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds and cultures. How they are formed, and whether they can or should be changed, are matters for debate. But if you ask for objective reports on how you look from the people around you, rather than seeking information from consumer sites or magazines, you’ll be able to form a much better idea of what’s working or not working for you.

    1. 2.1

      Re “invariant beauty standards”: The fact that people who look and live and love all kinds of ways survive to have sex and even reproduce, in my view, says something about the variety in preferences that exist. But I can’t say I’m in the mood for taking down evo psych, so I’ll let that go.

      I’m more wondering what about this post said that I was looking for “objective reports” or “what’s working or not working” for me. I was looking for fun ideas for the colors I put on my face, nothing more and nothing less. I wasn’t looking for “beauty standards”, I was looking for make-up tips to create a look that I wanted. I happened to find norm-enforcing, standard-pushing standards that surprised me and so I decided to write about them.

  3. 5

    You want more bits of headfuckery, look up eyebrow shaping. Just in the past couple decades we’ve gone from thin, barely perceptible brows which arc, to bushy, full ones, to brows which are wide and angular on the inner portion then thin out dramatically, to brows which gently taper, and more. Sorry to all the folks who plucked out their eyebrows then drew them back on with pencil, five years later you were supposed to magically grow them all back in again! What do you mean you can’t.

  4. 6

    Heina: I have virtually no interest in make-up* and cultural beauty standards. You have managed to write a column about make-up that I found interesting, entertaining and engrossing, and which held my interest to the end, and through the comments section too, all the while inducing me to think about things. You manage this feat consistently. This is the mark of a great columnist, and one I cherish when I find. Thanks for the writings!

    *: It would be ‘no interest at all’, but my wife, who normally prefers to go without, sometimes goes all-out, and I like the way that those brief sorties into self-coloring invariably make her feel good about herself, so then, I like make-up, too.

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