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Opinions in Dialogue: Unpacking beauty standards and its effects

How cultural beauty standards affected our self-perception

PHOTO: Linh Ha / Unsplash

By: Izzy Cheung, Staff Writer and Gurneet Lohcham, SFU Student

Perceptions of beauty tend to change depending on where you are. Notions of “ideal” and “desirable” features change over time, too. Media, pop culture, and even colonialism can play a role in what is defined as “beautiful” across different cultures. Some people may use skin whiteners, while others use a tanning bed. In reality, there are multiple forms of beauty — which is subjective — but beauty standards can still weigh on our perception of self. In what ways do we view different beauty standards, and how does this affect us?   

Izzy: Growing up in Vancouver, the beauty standards I’ve been exposed to have typically been very North American and Eurocentric. As a young child, race wasn’t really a thing to me — some people had dark hair, like me, and others didn’t. There was no such thing as an “ideal” or “perfect” look, and that was a simple concept to me. I didn’t start to really put thought into what I — as a Chinese Canadian girl — looked like until I was in middle school. This change came when I developed my first real crush on someone who was a different race than mine. He had blonde hair, bright eyes, and tanned skin like all his other friends. It was then I began to wonder why my hair was so dark and so straight, why my skin was so pale, and why my eyes were smaller and darker than everyone else’s. As I look back now, I find it ironic (and almost amusing) that the very traits I questioned about myself were considered to be beautiful in China at the time.   

Gurneet: I also grew up in Vancouver, and as a little girl I never really placed much importance on how different or similar I may have looked to my peers. However, growing up in a Sikh household was very different than the life I saw outside my home. I remember being treated a certain way because I didn’t look like the other girls in my school, which was very odd to me because many of my peers were also from different backgrounds. I didn’t understand how people who were South Asian themselves could see me as so different from them. I thought going to a new high school would change that, because there’s no way high-schoolers would be that childish and silly. But, I ended up in a school where I was one of five South Asians. It seems that most girls tend to start thinking about the way they look when they start having crushes. And that was the same with me. I, too, had a major crush on a boy from a different background. It was the same thing: blue eyes, blonde hair, and in a band. That’s the first time I put makeup on. 

Izzy: Same with me — one of the big reasons for why I started wearing makeup was because of a guy (which I have my qualms about, but that’s a topic for another day). Middle school was when I started trimming my eyebrows, wearing eyeliner, and experimenting with mascara. In my own mind, my features were too “light” or “gentle” compared to my peers, and makeup became a way of “resolving” that. This has always intrigued me, because so many different cultures use makeup in order to enhance or reduce specific features in order to align with their respective beauty standards.

I’ll be the first to admit that I used to care a lot about what other people thought of me. I used to wear winged eyeliner in middle school, but began applying less and less every day because social media made it seem like winged eyeliner was only something that “emos” wore. Thoughts like that followed me through highschool, where I started buying trendy clothes — like the iconic Adidas Superstars and bomber jackets that ruled this time period. I started doing my makeup a certain way so I wouldn’t stand out. At the end of the day, I feel like we’ve all had a period in our lives where we want to fit in so badly — but we shouldn’t compromise our own happiness to do so. 

Gurneet: I completely agree; sometimes we get so wrapped up in being accepted by others that we forget who we are. I remember seeing girls in my highschool with their eyebrows done, legs waxed, makeup on, and thin figures. Coming from a South Asian household, I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup or partake in hair removal until much later in life, because my family still followed what they were taught in India. This was the idea that girls should be “simple.” If they wore makeup or removed body hair at an early age, they weren’t “good girls.” It became very difficult to love myself because I wasn’t fitting into the “popular” group at school, which was what so many people cared about at that age. Looking back, I realize that many of those who were a part of that group were never true friends. When I started wearing makeup, it still wasn’t enough for my crush or my peers to stop making fun of me for not looking the ideal way. It shouldn’t require a change in physical appearance to be respected. Had I been as confident in myself as I am now, highschool would have been a much different experience where I wasn’t so worried about catering to everyone else. It’s really difficult being a part of two cultures, one where the ideal woman is much different than the other. In the South Asian community, girls are often meant to be quiet and family-oriented, but in school I learned the importance of girls being independent, confident in themselves, and having the freedom to express their thoughts openly. 

Izzy: Yes! Often, many of us will base our own appearances or even how we act around how we think others will perceive us. But just like differences in each cultures’ beauty standards, we need to remember that “beauty” is a subjective term. Art is subjective and dependent on the eye of the beholder — and I think beauty needs to be held to the same standards. 

Gurneet: If only more of society and media understood that. The world would be a little less cruel. But not many people realize that, at least I didn’t until in my 20s. But I’m still thankful for all my experiences, good and bad because they’ve all taught me to love myself.


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