Documentary Series 'Pretty' Trumps Beauty Myths

When it comes to beauty standards, our ideas of what "beautiful" means can be very finicky. That's what Antonia Opiah is trying to show her audience with the documentary series Pretty : A weekly set of videos that explores just how fluid our ideas of beauty are by taking a look at how the standards set vary not only from country to country, but from city to city.

As Opiah writes on the series' homepage, "How we define beauty and the role we let it have in our lives can be the difference between beauty undermining your identity and confidence or bolstering it." By showing women that there isn't just one idea of what is beautiful out there, they might feel inspired to move past the narrow box of "aspirational" standards.

But as the Pretty crew traveled from city to city, meeting and interviewing three to four women in each location, Opiah found an interesting pattern among the women she was meeting: Many of them had grown up with more than one culture and, as a result, experienced more than one standard of beauty.

In a press release for the documentary, Opiah noted: "Evelyne, who was born in France, raised in Italy, but has Ghanian origin, discusses being considered skinny in Ghana but ‘obese’ in Italy. Fatima, who was born in Sweden with Gambian heritage and has lived all over Europe had a similar experience as Evelyne. Meanwhile, Melinda from London, whose parents are from Uganda, talks about how her mom would tell her to stay out of the sun because she was too black. I really loved hearing these girls’ stories and also learning how they navigated the different worlds that they were exposed to."

If beauty standards are so cut and dry, how can a woman be skinny in one city but then obese in another? The efforts of this series prove just how nuanced our norms are. They're constantly changing and, because of that, hint at a wider, far more subjective definition of beauty than we sometimes realize.

To give you an idea of what this documentary series can offer, take a look at some of the best quotes from Pretty.

1. "Beauty is associated with a sense of freedom. Beauty here is the way you own yourself, the way you think for yourself, and act for yourself. When you think about the society we live in — we're always blaming the society for having a narrow mind, for having a narrow idea of beauty — but who is society? It's us."

In episode 11 we meet Frédérique, who discusses how she became more free and experimental with her style when she moved from the classic, understated city of Paris to free-thinking, anything-goes London. Once she began to poke around the neighborhoods of London, she felt more comfortable to explore the different sides of herself that she felt she had to hide in her hometown, which just goes to show that the city you live in can help you either grow or change your idea of beauty.

2. "If you want to be the woman you want to be, you are beautiful. Because you're comfortable with yourself."

In episode six, Fredamily speaks about the obstacles she had to overcome when trying to make it as a black model in Italy. The photographers told her it'd be too difficult to break out into editorials with her skin color, but Fredamily knew that if she believed in her own beauty and stayed comfortable in her skin, she could achieve her goals.

3. "The premise of beauty shouldn't be measured by your exteriors, but by the depth of your character and humanity. If that happened more, women would unite more, and empower each other more. But as long as we're having 400 advertisements bombarding us each day how we should look, what weight we should be, what our hair should be like, I think that's one of the biggest things that creates friction between women really uniting."

In episode 14, Londoner Alma Eno talks about how hard it was to accept that she was beautiful when she was one of the only black girls growing up in white London schools. She explains that it's hard to realize you're beautiful when you don't have examples of people who look like you in media or adverts. But the more she sees her body type, facial features, and idea of beauty in ads and on TV, the more she accepts who she is.

Pretty is about more than showcasing just how varied beauty standards are country to country, and city to city. It's about showing just how varied they are person to person, and proving that this sense of individuality is just as it should be.

Images: Courtesy Antonia Opiah/Pretty