The One Problem With "Most Beautiful Person" Lists
On April 20, Jennifer Aniston was voted People's "Most Beautiful Woman" for the second time in her career. Although I can't help but find it rad that a babe in her 40s took home the prize, the moment felt more like a reminder of the fact that "most beautiful woman" and "hottest man" awards and lists still exist. Despite the increase in body politics dialogue we've been hearing in the last year or two, publications and individuals still regularly decide which sole person the world over best represents beauty. And, in 2016, this feels like a problem.
While Aniston is in her 40s, she's kind of still Western beauty standards incarnate. I know that women are often taught to value youthfulness and the preservation thereof above all, which is why it's kinda cool that Aniston is being celebrated here, but we are also often taught to place thinness, fair skin, and a light mane atop our list of aesthetic priorities, and appearance-based lists only tend to encourage as much.
Many of us grow up believing that these characteristics are the prime components of looking beautiful, feeling beautiful, and seeming beautiful to others. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel that the aforementioned "hottest" or "most beautiful" roundups only further perpetuate the notion that beauty is one thing. And, well, that conventionally defined beauty is still something we should be concerned with achieving.
The thing about beauty is that, contrary to popular belief, it doesn't just mean one thing. This is because we are all, in theory, individuals: Fully formed entities with unique tastes, preferences, opinions, and perspectives. As Google dictionary will tell you, beauty is "a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight." And our aesthetic senses are entirely our own. It's why some of us love wearing kitschy kaleidoscopic print dresses while others would never sport anything that wasn't a neutral. Or why some folks love cuddling up next to a guy with a "dad bod" while others would much prefer a bodybuilder figure or a lanky self-identified nerd.
Unfortunately, "most beautiful people" articles don't usually factor any of that in. Instead, the same handful of people seem to be chosen across media repeatedly — seemingly a combination of a publication's interpretation of beauty and a celebrity's availability to be part of such a story (People has not yet responded to Bustle's request for comment regarding the selection process). Most often, that means you get folks like Aniston, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Gwyneth Paltrow: All unique people, in their own right. But all largely attractive in the way Western culture at large tells us "attractive" looks like.
In the real world, not everyone would call these people beautiful. This isn't meant to be cruel or insulting, especially if you believe that each person possesses their own beauty — not to mention that beauty can be something both internal or external. It's just the reality of individuality. Some of us would much rather wake up next to Beth Ditto or Gabourey Sidibe or Seth Rogen. And that's OK. That's how it's supposed to be. Since we don't yet live in a dystopian universe in which the perpetuation of beauty standards has resulted in all humans being genetically manipulated so that we look precisely the same to one another, variations in tastes are essential.
The truth is that "beauty" will never look one way because people do not look one way. Or think one way. Or behave one way. Few things in this world are black or white, and the same is true for the way we perceive and react to bodies and faces. Ever had a moment in which you caught sight of a glorious-looking person, only to learn that your bestie next to you found the same person boring-looking or full-on unattractive? I'm willing to bet so.
Suggesting that beauty is easily or universally defined — that there can even be one "most" beautiful person — seems to further imply that preferences and individuality are wrong: That we should be striving for one aesthetic, so that we can then be effortlessly appealing to those around us. In fact, we should do all that we can to achieve that aesthetic, if we want to look and feel our best.
Paired with the endless cycle of diet talk, weight loss advertisements, aesthetic singularity in media, and the general negative connotations of not looking like Jennifer Aniston or Kate Moss, these lists certainly won't be doing us any favors.
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Besides the fact that these awards and lists play into sociocultural beauty standards at large, an issue with them lies in the suggestion that beauty = important in the first place. But not every person can or will ever look like a catwalk model.
As social change site DoSomething.org reported, "Only five percent of women naturally possess the body type often portrayed by Americans in the media." Some of us will remain "ugly" by any kind of contemporary standard of what is and isn't attractive. Some of us might not want to strive for beauty at all, choosing to place focus on our other interests and pursuits. All of these choices and ways of being should be allowed to coexist.
When we equate beauty to importance or value, we imply that those without it can have neither. We reinforce the idea that conventional attractiveness, by the generalized guidelines of whatever place you live in, is something that needs to be achieved before success or happiness or acceptance can be had.
The reality is that this simply isn't true.
If looking like a human who's been on a "most beautiful people" list is your goal — is something that will make you happy not because the rest of the world believes it will, but because you feel it in your bones — then great. The pursuit of those qualities is totally your prerogative.
But I believe that, along the way, it's important to remind oneself of the subjectivity of this B-word. Looking one way might attract certain people, while detracting others. And this is why we must define beauty for ourselves. We must choose what it means for our own bodies.
I know I want to have kids someday, and I know that I want them to believe a simple truth: No one else ever gets to tell them what "beautiful" means. And no one else gets to tell them how much they should or shouldn't prioritize beauty in the first place.
I worry that so many of us are completely detached from our own opinions and perceptions and preferences because we're so often bombarded by one predominant message: Beauty looks like a blonde, thin, white, cis, able-bodied babe. Beauty looks like the buffest of dudes. Beauty looks like fat in the "right places" (i.e. the boobies and butt). Beauty looks like whatever any given authority says it is.
Except it doesn't. Beauty looks like whatever is true for you.