A BuzzFeed video uploaded to YouTube this week has garnered more than 10 million views, and plenty of praise for reminding us that women’s beauty standards have changed throughout history. These standards are of our own creation, the video reminds us. Be free, women, it says, stop feeling like you must chase them.
The video, in case you haven’t seen it, features a series of women in what looks like a white one-piece swimming costume, each representing ideal body types from different eras. We have the plump beauty of the Renaissance, the boyish charms of the Roaring Twenties, the Heroin Chic of the 90s, and a few more in between. The women pose, and some of them smile at the camera. They wear make-up and are conventionally pretty. Writing superimposed on the screen tells us how wide or narrow the ideal hip, or how large the bosom was at a particular time. The camera zooms in.
This interesting and thought-provoking project has been lauded around the web. “Ideal Body Types Through History Could Teach Us All Something About Women’s Bodies,” rang out one Huffington Post piece. “Buzzfeed’s Ideal Body Types Video Shows That There Really Isn’t Any One Ideal Body Type For Women,” says a post on Bustle. “If there’s anything to be learned from this video,” writes Bustle’s Doyin Oyeniyi, it’s that the whims and fancies of society are just that: whims and fancies. And make no mistake, when I say “society,” I mean men. Because historically, and sadly, currently, men are often the determining factor when it comes to how women view their bodies.”
Huffington Post interviewed Eugene Lee Yang, one of the video’s creators, who told them that, “The key visual component of the video is an objective, diverse showcase of women’s bodies, and that alone sparks a strong reaction.” He added, “We’re so often preoccupied with current trends that we lose perspective on how fleeting our obsession with physical perfection has historically been….As demanding as our perception of an ideal body type may be, we should remember that yesterday’s ideal will, without fail, evolve into something completely different tomorrow.”
As for today’s standard, BuzzFeed tells us it is “Postmodern Beauty,” characterised by a “flat stomach, “healthy” skinny, large breasts and butt, thigh gap.” The video tells us that this is an impossible standard. “Women regularly get plastic surgery to achieve their desired look,” it says.
Beyond pointing out how fleeting beauty is, to my mind, the video raises other, far more interesting, issues. I will briefly address two of them. First, it reminds us of one beauty standard that goes completely unquestioned most of the time, by most western women: The body hair standard. Every single woman in the video, from the plumpest to the thinnest, has no body hair whatsoever.
While there is no hair, there is no writing superimposed on the screen telling us that silky, smooth, hair-free legs, armpits or upper lips were part of the ideal of the age. Having no body hair is timeless and unquestioned, a default beauty setting, the makers of the video imply. And while they may have drawn the attention of millions to the temporary nature of beauty standards, they have inadvertently upheld this one. Every woman who has ripped hair out at the root with hot wax knows that being hairless is no question of default, but one of expense, time and effort.
Secondly, the video reminds us of something art critic John Berger articulated in his book, “Ways of Seeing.” Berger wrote, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” (Read a fuller excerpt here). As women watch this video about their bodies over time and read reactions to it, whether in comments or articles about it, they experience this being-looked-at in an online hyperreality. Women experience being look at daily, whether we think about it or not. Here, however, this experience is simulated and recorded, almost like an experiment testing the timelessness of Berger’s description.
The video acts as affirmation and reminder of the fact that woman are “an object of vision: a sight,” as Berger also wrote. The camera zooming in on tits, thighs and arses, such a crude objectifier, might even be ironic. I’ll give Buzzfeed the benefit of the doubt that featuring silent women dancing, showing us their mostly naked bodies while we examine and analyse them, is intended as an ironic, clever comment on objectification. Ultimately, however, while the video may draw attention to how our framing changes over time, it ends up engaging in that very same thing. You could argue that every representation of women in popular culture does this, but BuzzFeed’s video specifically sets out to “objectively showcase” women, as Eugene Lee Yang told Huffington Post. We, in turn, watch it and react, and watch others react.