Many times, I encounter the question, What would your superpower be? My answer constantly changes. However, each time, I can’t help but remember my first answer: to be invisible.I was in elementary school and I wanted invisibility. Even though I didn’t yet understand why, I wanted to whittle my body away until there was nothing left.
In middle school, I began to lose myself to the expectations of femininity. I worried excessively over how others would judge me. The curtain was pulled back to reveal everything I had not known about the world. Shocked, I realized that I was not typically skinny or tall enough to be beautiful. I practiced carving out a longing for a body that would be deemed attractive.
I didn’t understand that the burden I felt stemmed from a history of beauty standards. Despite the perception that I cultivated these ideas on my own, the reality was that the seeds were sown long before. They had been germinating, waiting to bloom. Society has a way of planting foreign concepts and calling them “truths.” It has become a truth that a person must be tall (but not too tall), skinny and white to be beautiful.
In Susan Sontag’s essay “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?,” she points out the self-oppression beauty standards can cause. She writes, “What is accepted by most women as a flattering idealization of their sex is a way of making women feel inferior to what they actually are — or normally grow to be. For the ideal of beauty is administered as a form of self-oppression… Nothing less than perfection will do.” Beauty norms are perpetuated by society, then further internalized by each person. Self-oppression then manifests in various ways; from dieting to eating disorders, or excessive stress and depression to small, personal put-downs.
Societal beauty standards root deeply. Living in a world where you are constantly reminded of what you should be is difficult to escape. It is nearly impossible to not be a victim of implicit and explicit messages saying that at least some part of you isn’t beautiful. We carry these beliefs obsessively, nurturing weeds disguised as flowers.
Beauty standards are integrated at a young age. We are influenced widely by the intimate societies we live in. Constructed on a foundation of cultural norms, we craft intricate fortresses of insecurity. While society’s views are high, not many expectations can surpass the walls we build for ourselves. The necessity to fit in caused me to disregard the true norm of body variation and individual beauty.
Although I asked for invisibility, I now understand that I actually wanted the complete opposite. I wanted to be seen, just not in the way society stamped me. I didn’t want to be faced with comments like, “Oh, she’s pretty, for a thick girl.” I was so below the social standard that I was knocked to the level of “despites,” the idea that someone (or you) will love you despite your physical flaws. But even if your reflection isn’t a mirror image of the standard, it’s possible to be visible and beautiful.
I’m constantly battling myself for what I simply, “normally grow to be.” Although expectations are ingrained in us, they can be unraveled. It is important to remember that patience is critical to the growth of new ideals. Healing from a lifetime of bombardment against your body is a slow process, and weeding out fallacies is not easy. We should be taught that growing pains are part of the resistance against narrow-minded exclusion, while stretch marks are battle scars. And both act as proof that it is possible to grow into your own definition of beauty.