Book Review: Ugly Giving us back our beauty standards

I grew up immersed in the world of magazines. From my first flick through Jackie, aged nine, to my present-day fondness for Psychologies and Grazia. There’s something about the aspirational imagery, the smell of print on high-sheen pages, and the promise they offer, that I find so very soothing. But magazines are much maligned, and rightly so. Many promote an image of beauty so narrow and prescriptive, that they leave most readers feeling a failure. A failure for not being thin enough, pretty enough, or stylish enough. And with a keen awareness of the damage magazines can wreak, beauty journalist Anita Bhagwandas, has penned her debut book Ugly: Giving Us Back our Beauty Standards.

First some background on Anita Bhagwandas. There are three things, she writes, that make her different from your typical beauty editor. One: she is of South Indian heritage. Two: she grew up in a predominantly white town in Wales. And three: her body is bigger than the beauty industry sample size six. Bhagwandas’ describes how these circumstances combine, to create an alienation from her own looks. For most of her life, she has felt discontented, sometimes disgusted, with her appearance. While simultaneously spending hundreds of pounds and thousands of hours on different products, in the the hope of an ‘improvement’.

This is a heartfelt and honest book, and Bhagwandas has really done her research in analysing what we consider beautiful, and why. The topics can be confronting. To really untangle the toxicity of our beauty standards is to take a hard stare at the ageist, sizeist, colourist ideals surrounding us. It’s to understand that many of these standards originate from slavery, or oppression. And they continue to exist, and hurt women, hundreds of years later.

The Ugly side of beauty ideals

It’s also uncomfortable to assess our own unconscious beauty biases. The way we automatically consider a good looking person to be kind, social, outgoing and honest. We assume they’ll be happier in life; enticing suitors with ease, achieving career success and earning lots of lovely money.

But, Bhagwandas does leave us with hope. And an array of tips to help celebrate ourselves, beyond our appearance. Here’s a summary of the strategies she uses to support her self-esteem, in a looks obsessed society:

  • Reclaim your tech
    It’s up to you to police your own social media, and make the Instagram experience as enjoyable and inspiring as possible. Just accepting the algorithm that social media serves up, and having your screen awash with white, lithe, young models, is a surefire way to see your self-esteem nosedive.
  • Celebrate yourself away from beauty
    Women are so often defined by their beauty, but we are all worth so much more than that. Steer the conversation away from your appearance and make time to celebrate your whole self. Your sense of humour, creative thinking or empathy towards others, are the real reason people love you. If you’re finding it hard to see the good in yourself, then consider counselling as a way to gain a more balanced perspective.
  • Give beauty standards back to others
    Whenever you flick through a magazine or attend a wellness class, be conscious of who’s not appearing. Is anyone being excluded? There’s beauty in all colours, ages and body types, so think beyond your own and note who’s got a seat at the table. If someone’s missing then either flag it, or find a more inclusive platform.
  • Create your own beauty rules
    Beauty can be a great way of expressing our inner self and having fun with creativity. So think about why you make the beauty choices you do. Are they to conceal or to reveal? Do you dress to cover up perceived imperfections. or to add some sparkle, fun and identity to your weekday work outfits?

If you’ve got any thoughts On Bhagwandas’ book, Ugly Giving Us Back Our Beauty Standards, or want to share your own experience, then I’d love to hear from you.

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