Beauty standards and gender roles damages our self-esteem

Illustration by Amelia Madarang

When I was in primary school, a girl used to call me “skeleton” regularly during class breaks. That was our only interaction. She would call me a skeleton and I would either ignore her or say, “Don’t call me that!” Today, I do not remember her name or what she looked like, but I remember how bad it felt being judged based on someone’s beauty standards. I remember how much it hurt when one of my friends called my body that of a “small, unhealthy boy” and made me self-conscious about my appearance. For months, I would look at the reflection of my body on any reflective surface and judge myself.

Most of the time, we do not give that much importance to small things like this because they are momentary. However, this does not mean that we are not affected by them. Cultural patterns aside, there are general beauty standards that exist everywhere around the world and most of the time they are accompanied by gender roles. Growing up with a twin sister made me realize how gender roles were at work in our lives. Initially, these norms are not as obvious because pink and blue are just colors. But, over time, you are expected to do different things based on your identities and that is okay because your parents say so.

Most people do not even realize that gender roles can be highly problematic. Gender identity is not problematic in itself as that is just how you feel and express yourself. However, when you use it to get what you want in a culture that has strict gender roles, you do so through a system of abusing yourself. For instance, when someone with a female identity tries to be “sexy” and when someone with a male identity tries to be “macho” in order to get something, they do two things. First, they objectify themselves under predetermined cultural standards, and they push others to engage in similar behavior. This creates a toxic culture wherein people abuse themselves and others in very subtle but problematic ways. Just last year in September, a father committed suicide in Turkey, which is where I am from, because he thought it was a shame to be a man and not have any money to buy his son pants. It is exactly the same mentality that obligates people to be certain ways when it comes to how they look. That is why strict beauty standards accompanied by gender roles can cause mental problems like eating disorders and depression. 

There are other ways these standards cause discomfort in people’s lives. Apart from feeling “not good enough” for the beauty standards in Turkey, I was also disliked by my female friends because I ate a lot but I could not put on any weight.  For them, that was a good thing, but it was not for me. Many people impose their own standards on others and think that they are universal truths. However, we cannot determine the relationship someone has with their body so we should respect how they feel. Even models have valid insecurities. That is why we should not make anyone conscious of their body unless we know they are comfortable with it, simply because we do not know what we can trigger. 

We might still make mistakes because the notion of beauty standards is so ingrained in our cultures and talking about how others look is a very automatized behavior. However, being aware of the problem, engaging in conversation and trying to change ourselves is a pretty good place to start.

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