About two years ago I decided to dye my hair back to my natural hair color.
It was a pretty unremarkable decision except for the fact that I hadn’t seen my natural hair color since I first dyed it platinum blonde when I was 14.
When I finally took the leap I expected to feel sort of like a 80’s supercut montage of self love soundtracked to Lizzo while my monthly haircare costs plummeted.
Steph 1, modern beauty standard 0.
Except there was a catch. As my hair began to grow in, staring back at me was not the beginnings of naturally blonde highlights as I had expected, but normal brown hair, punctuated by more than a few grey ones. Not fierce, own your age silver streaks, but wire-y, poking-out greys that refused to be straightened or subdued.
Fear spread like a wave through my body.
The fear grew and grew until I was sunk into a ball in the corner of my bathroom, crushed under the weight of it, contemplating whether to run out to my hair salon and declare an emergency mulligan or sit in the bathroom for the rest of my adult life.
Modern beauty standard 1, Steph 0.
As my thoughts raced and tears streamed down my face, another emotion started to creep in past the fear. At first it was a tinge of frustration, but it quickly ballooned into full blown rage.
Rage at the ways the modern beauty standard had made me so alien to myself that I’d never in my adult life seen my real hair color, and by the time I finally had the courage to do it, I couldn’t begin to cope with the ways my body deviated from what I’d been conditioned to expect from it.
My fear made me furious and my fury made me ashamed of my fear. I think the technical term for this particular cocktail of emotions is “hot mess”. But it was also a revelation.
Not a particularly new one, as far as revelations go, but the first time the depth of it really hit me: the modern beauty standard is one of the most powerful lies that we have ever been sold.
Zadie Smith rightly wrote,
“This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies — it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.”
The thing is, there is a way to control it. Especially in advertising.
Because despite the wide propagation of the modern beauty standard, somewhere deep inside ourselves we know this is a lie.
We know what beautiful means to us, and that this limited aesthetic definition of beauty isn’t it.
We know a beauty that is nurtured within our guts, within our muscles, within the books we take in, the orgasms we allow ourselves, the sleep we don’t deprive ourselves of, the patience we have for those around us, within the trust we have in our point of view.
Somewhere inside of us, we understand deeply that the unwillingness to be hurtful or exploit is real beauty. The spark in your eyes when you discover a new thing is real beauty. The slurping of noodles is real beauty and the enjoying it is also real beauty.
Dove’s aptly named Real Beauty started to scratch the surface of this as did Savage x Fenty, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So much of the world of advertising still showcases a limited idea of beauty that is predominantly aesthetic.
Honestly, why does a model need to have perfect teeth to sell you a sofa?
And have you ever noticed that even in our “inclusive” work — talent is only allowed to subvert one beauty ideal at a time? They can be hairy but never fat and hairy, have a gap tooth, but never skin blemishes and a gap tooth, and so on and so forth until infinity.
We love to give ourselves credit as an industry for how far we’ve come. But we so rarely talk about the ways the same old shit is still hiding in plain sight.
We may no longer champion Jenna Jameson or Pamela Anderson as our single idea of beautiful, but we’ve absolutely replaced them with the Kardashians and instagram face — which is exacerbated by Facetune.
It’s exactly this type of subconscious reinforcement that makes us hate what we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror.
That teaches us to place more value on who we aren’t than who we are.
And I just think that sucks.
My skin is itching with the values that sit in me that are not my own.
Our industry is constantly telling us that we need to bend in a way that’s different to our body’s natural inclinations to be beautiful, that we must dye, and shrink, until there’s less of us.
But I believe the trick is not about becoming less.
It is about becoming more.
More present, more principled, especially in our work in marketing.
Not just for ourselves, but for our mothers, our friends, our sisters, our brothers, our daughters, our sons, so that when they look in the mirror, they don’t hate themselves for the ideas they’ve been sold — and so that we can be confident we weren’t the ones who sold those ideas to them accidentally.
So that when they look in the mirror, they feel compelled not to shrink into a small sobbing ball (okay, maybe that’s just me), but expand their presence, point of view, their laughter, their voices.
We and especially us have the power to stop selling this lie, and instead put our energy into giving a platform to things that are truly beautiful.
Because mostly I’m just fucking tired of being afraid of what happens when I stop buying into somebody else’s idea of what makes me beautiful and feeling that crushing weight of insecurity when I inevitably fail at it.
And by the way, I still haven’t dyed my hair back.