• nadia milford

Felt Cute Might Delete Later

A question about the ambiguity surrounding the practice of self love and vanity, plus the impact of the beauty standard.

I was recently reminded of one of the strange things I did during the depths of Covid. My iCloud storage was, once again, almost full and I was clearing out space deleting most of the random collections of things I’d gathered over the past few months when I came across my hidden folder. I experienced a weird feeling as I looked over this selfie. In the scheme of things the picture was pretty standard. I had posed in the mirror in a way that I felt I looked good and admired the result. I felt strange because this is something I wouldn’t normally do. I would have considered it a bit embarrassing, maybe vain, or just not true to me personally and how I present myself. It’s not something I’d judge other people for doing but it never felt quite right for me. Why? Good question - let’s revisit later.

I took the picture but instead of deleting it, hid it. I remember thinking it was just for me and nobody else and at the time I felt liberation in that validation of self, for self. I thought that maybe this was a practice of self love - not needing anybody else to tell me I’m beautiful other than me, pocketing this “proof” for my eyes only.

But then I thought some more. Perhaps this was me proving to myself I can look like the images I saw online. So I can feel like I’m the same... I fit in. I find it interesting that it’s something I seemingly needed to feel. Caught up in the online world, I’d forgotten I was seeing a stylised version of reality. My rational mind knew it wasn’t real, but it’s like my subconscious was still lost in the fantasy. I noticed during Covid that things did become more warped for me. I wasn’t going out and my social world became screen-based. I never wore any makeup or nice clothes. I’d forgotten I could look any different. Meanwhile I was being fed images day after day of the beautiful versions of people. Slowly, very gradually, I started to feel a little less pretty, a little less stylish. That delightful effect of the beauty standard - you know the one.

I thought about it again later that evening when I found myself in a conversation with a woman about the complexities of choice feminism. Essentially this is this idea that any choice a woman makes, from enhancing her sexuality, to fulfilling household duties or dominating in the workforce, is feminist because it’s free of our patriarchal past where choice wasn’t an option. For instance, this makes me think of when I’ve heard people talk about how they got plastic surgery for themselves, not to please anybody else, but just for them. As a feminist I would never want to take away anyone’s freedom or liberty of choice, and I certainly wouldn’t judge someone for making those decisions or want them to feel less empowered by any choice they make. But I question, are we ever really making these choices for ourselves? Was I really taking that selfie for myself? Would I have felt any need to take it had I not been fed the social media reel and its encompassing beauty standard?

Being real with myself, the answer was a pretty resounding ‘no’.

I wouldn’t have posed at all because I wouldn’t see that as a way of honouring my body. Real, un-influenced me would see honouring my body as dancing freely, practicing yoga, eating delicious food or even using nice soap... not contorting my body in a mirror.

This 2D concept of beauty is something I think we all absorb to some degree - however unwillingly. When I created the dance piece @_WHY with an awesome bunch of dancers we laughed and laughed until we cried about some of these ridiculous concepts we’d taken on. When you step back and acknowledge it, you see how absurd it is. As a dancer I know my body is my home. My work. A creative vessel that carries me through life. It’s so much more than this 2D image.

Our conversation moved towards discussing nudity and our experiences of situations where it was a comfortable (rather than a sexual) thing and how freeing and telling it was. We talked about spas we’d been to where women walked around the baths naked with breesy ease. Or skinny dipping adventures where bodies were just bodies and there was no need to feel uncomfortable, or at all sexualised. It felt natural being amongst a range of bodies of all shapes and sizes, lumps and bumps, all completely different but one in the same. All perfectly unique and beautiful.

I compare that to the little diversity I see on my screens. I think of all the people who may take a selfie, like me, but don’t feel a sense of validation (however warped) because it isn’t at all like what they see online. We scrutinise and categorise ourselves into tone, colour, shape or size dictated by fashion fads led by the West which dominates pop culture so much that we have people bleaching their skin, cutting their eyelids, shaving their bones and injecting themselves under the guise of body positivity. While there is more awareness around diversity now and brands are being more conscious, I think the beauty standard is still as rampant as ever - it’s just more complex now. Extra choice doesn’t necessarily equate to freedom. This is particularly damaging for women, who unfortunately still withstand the most pressure under the beauty ideal... but it’s building its power over all gender identifications.

Now I think it’s not about being beautiful as much as it is about fitting in. It’s human to feel pressure to be like each other. To belong somewhere. To feel accepted. Morphing yourself into a stylized image of beauty, be it selfies, plastic surgery, fashion... it isn’t self love and it isn’t vanity, it’s a result of the human condition - our pack mentality. Unfortunately we've created a world where keeping up with the beauty standard is near impossible. I thank capitalism for that.

Will skinny dipping solve our world’s woes? We can dream.

So to selfie or not? It’s your choice! Choice is important and a basic human right. But the way I see it is, we need to consider how our choices impact others. We need to realise that unless we reject the beauty standard we are going to fall victim to it over and over again. The world needs diversity. It needs people who are comfortable being who they are, who celebrate their differences and others’ too. Our differences are what make this world exciting.

I think perhaps I should take a selfie again. This time not to look like something I’d seen on Instagram. Sure, I can post me looking my best, I shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed for doing that. I can celebrate all forms of me so long as what I choose to celebrate is a representation of me - vulnerable, real, different and uniquely me - not the stylised version of myself I think people want to see.

I know that’s what I like to see on my social media: people who are bold enough to unashamedly be themselves. I certainly want to be one of them - do you?

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