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Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

(Trigger warning: dieting, body shaming)

Q: To you, what is the meaning of beauty?

A: A: Defining beauty is quite hard, and I believe the definition is different for every person. Therefore, I strongly agree with the popular expression beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as cheesy as it sounds. The physical appearance of oneself is usually the first thing anyone notices when meeting someone for the first time, and everyone will have a certain preference when it comes to that. They could find curly hair, or green eyes, or tall people, attractive. Personally, even though I also find certain attributes attractive, I tend to find people truly beautiful when they're good people. It has happened before that I meet someone and I do find them physically attractive, or let's say beautiful, but then I later find out they're rude and disrespectful. In my mind, my image of them changes completely. So, in a few words, I would say that, for me, beauty is when you're beautiful on the inside, because that will definitely shine through.

Q: How would you describe the mainstream beauty standards in Portugal, or Europe as a whole?

A: Portugal, as yet another European country, is highly influenced by European beauty standards. Portugal is an old country, with mostly old people, and while there are many movements and initiatives now trying to change people's perceptions of old beliefs and stereotypes, it is very hard to change old people's minds. And some of those beliefs are eventually passed down to younger generations and never challenged. 


Growing up, I was never a chubby kid, but I wasn't skinny either. And yet, every time I had a family dinner, the adults in my life would always comment on my weight and that of my cousins. Because my cousin X had gained too much weight in the past months and that isn't healthy and he should exercise, and my cousin Y was so skinny you could see her bones, that isn't healthy, she should eat more. And, depending on my family's mood, I should either eat more or exercise more, because whatever I was, that wasn't healthy. And yet, the three of us were happy children, we ate well, we were good at school, liked to do sports and play with our friends outside, and we were not obsessed with computer games and social media and staying inside the house all the time (this was back in 2010, we were around 11 years old). Even though I noticed some kids at school sometimes made mean comments about other kids' appearance (weight, how clean they look, their hair, teeth, if they wear glasses, ...), back then, it was mostly adults commenting on children's appearance, always on the pretense of being healthy. 


When I got to my teenage years, though, I noticed the small changes. It wasn't only the adults anymore. We couldn't avoid social media anymore, and so we started feeling self-conscious of our bodies, especially the girls in my class, who wanted to grow up too fast. Once in 7th grade, I was called out by another classmate, who I considered a friend, and she told me that if it wasn't for my long hair, everyone would think that I was a boy. Because I had never shaved my legs (I was 13 years old) and I wore shorts that showed half of my legs for P.E. class. The week after that, I showed up to school with shaved legs. And I regretted my decision for a couple of years, and wished for so long that I could go back in time and stand up against the girl. 


I grew up then, listening to stupid popular expressions such as "we [Portuguese] want our women as we want our sardine, fresh and small", and I was always a tall girl. And the small girls I knew told me they wished they could be taller, like me, like the models they saw in magazines. My mother, a hairdresser, always straightened my hair to make it look pretty on special occasions, because we both hated my frizzy hair, and my friends with straight hair wished they could have my curls, because they thought their hair was boring. At the same time, boys started paying attention to girls, but were never aware that what they saw in magazines and online wasn't reality, and made girls feel bad for not having enough boobs or enough butt, or for having them and not being skinny enough in the "right places". Obviously, boys felt pressured too: they wanted to be just like their favorite celebrities and were afraid that their classmates would grow up before them while they were stuck looking like children, and they were scared girls wouldn't notice them. But they were encouraged to hide those insecurities, and so the beauty standards have always been harsher on girls.


As of now, I believe social media plays a crucial role in the beauty standards in Portugal. Society wants women to look clean and shaved, have perfectly styled hair (preferably straight or perfect curls only), wants them to be skinny but be, what Portuguese men like to say, "avantajada" (this means big, as in big boobs and big butt, but it comes from the word "vantagem" = "advantage", so you can understand how incredibly annoying and sexist this is), to choose her clothes and makeup carefully (not too bold or she's definitely asking for it), between many other categories. And not only do these comments come from men, worst of all, they come from women, from mothers, aunts, friends. It is like we can never fit in, just the way we are. 

Q: You mentioned that currently, there are many Portuguese movements and initiatives challenging people's traditional perception of beauty. In what ways do they achieve this aim?

A: Since Portuguese youths are becoming more and more aware of social issues, not only beauty standards and body shaming, but also racism, homophobia, transphobia, gender inequality, poverty, and many others, there has been a rising of movements, initiatives and campaigns, all aiming to shape a better world and society. 


Many of them start in academic environments, schools and universities, and I can give you two examples from my previous university: the HeForShe group of the university and Coletivo Feminista de Letras (@coletivasdeletrasup). Both of these aim to educate, mostly, students, and give information on history, on campaigns and protests around the world, organize events, give recommendations of books and movies, and they focus on the feminist area, which includes fighting against beauty stereotypes, for all genders. 


There is also a rising awareness between social media influencers and public figures, and I see many of them sometimes discussing beauty standards. Most of them are women, and so they share their own struggles: battling against the pressure of social media, society's criticism of their bodies after giving birth, etc. There is a person I follow, also named Marta (@miss.curlytips), who runs an IG account dedicated to curly hair. And what I love about her account the most is how she shares her "bad hair days" as well, standing up against the society's beliefs that her wild hair isn't beautiful and how she's also learning how to accept herself and her appearance, despite everyone else telling her otherwise. 


Finally, even though I have yet to watch this (it's on my watchlist), there is a children's show named "Destemidas" ("Culottées", "Brazen"), originally French, that a national TV channel has decided to translate and air on TV. This show is about 30 women who have somehow contributed to change History, battling against society's stereotypes, including beauty standards. 

Even though there are more initiatives nowadays, most of them are all online, which is a step towards progress already, but doesn't really reach the older generations, unfortunately. 

Q: Is dieting culture common in Portugal, and Europe as a whole? Do you think it motivates people to be healthier, or does it create unnecessary pressure for people who are already healthy?

A: I'm afraid I'm not educated enough on this particular topic in order to give you a satisfying answer. From what I can understand, dieting culture is somewhat common in Portugal, especially the need to strictly label people's diet, such as 100% vegetarian/vegan. I do follow some Instagram accounts related to plant-based eating, and the people running those accounts often get asked if they [the followers] shouldn't eat certain foods. So there are people still afraid of eating certain things, even in small/moderate doses, because of strong stereotypes associated with them. Besides, I have some friends who have tried dieting before, in order to achieve their preferred weight and appearance, and not because they considered themselves unhealthy. It's also, sadly, extremely common for family members to suggest dieting to people of the younger generations when they look just a tiny bit chubbier. I'm afraid that's the case for many other Portuguese people: the pressure to fit into society's standards leads them to try several diets, many of them without professional supervision.

Q: In Portugal, do TV shows, books, and other forms of popular culture play a role in reinforcing these beauty standards, and if yes, how are they doing so?

A: Yes, I'd say so. Generally speaking, Portuguese media subtly reinforces these beauty standards.


Portuguese people, especially the older generations (my parents' and grandparents' age), love watching TV shows. Reality TV shows are incredibly popular. A black girl appeared on a recent edition of Big Brother, and in one of the first episodes, she points out how the bathroom inside the house has products fit for the other girls' hair, but not hers (which shows that Portuguese media try - but fail - to incorporate diversity, falling into stereotypes most of the time)

Speaking of Big Brother and reality TV, there's hardly any diversity and everyone always looks the same (young skinny girls with straight, long hair, probably models; and tall, fit boys with abs) - admittedly, this has been SLOWLY changing over the years, but even the audience shows a preference for the participants who fit inside the beauty standards.

Q: As a book blogger, what do you think the publishing industry could do to promote self-love and body positivity? Are there any books challenging the mainstream beauty standards, and can you recommend a few?

A: The publishing industry should be on the lookout for harmful representation and hire sensitivity readers, since most of the time, the hurtful comments are in the details, and go unnoticed by editors or readers who fit in the beauty standards.

For the same reasons, publishers should hear the voices of readers who do not fit inside society's beauty standards. Authors should be careful and conscious when promoting body positivity in their books: since they often only do so to please the audience instead of genuinely caring about the subject, and end up being more hurtful than helpful

One of the biggest and ongoing struggles in the book community is the erasure of characters who do not canonically fit inside these beauty standards (in fanart and in tv show or movie adaptations - for example, casting a skinny actress for Nina Zenik from Six of Crows, when it is clearly stated she is not thin).

A few books I'd recommend are: You'll Be The One by Lila Lee, You Should See Me In a Crown by Leah Johnson, Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert, and The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta because they're powerful books showing people living their best, happiest life, making their dreams come true, loving and being loved, despite not fitting in the society's beauty standards.

I also recommend this blog post written by my friend Alison about fatphobia in books: 

Q: Some people have said that beauty pageants set unrealistic beauty standards for women and men alike. Are these contests common in Portugal, and do the general public pay much attention to them? Should they be banned?

A: I'm not quite sure how common these contests are in Portugal. They do exist, but they don't get a lot of media coverage on the big channels. 

Every once in a while, I come across them, but I can only remember two cases right now. One of them was a participant in a recent edition of Big Brother - and they made a big deal out of it in her presentation. The other was my classmate, who posted on social media when she won the regional beauty pageant of the town she lives in, and then moved up to the next stage. The idea that I got from my classmate's posts was that they [the participants] also needed to show themselves volunteering, so at least they seem to promote good actions (even though we never know the reasons behind for each participant, of course). 

The problem with these contests is that they seem to be looking for beauty that fits inside the same molds. And if you win one of these then you're automatically popular and good-looking, so it sets the idea that everyone should aspire to look like them, setting unrealistic expectations. They wouldn't be entirely bad if they celebrated beauty in all forms.

Q: To wrap up the interview, can you share your thoughts on whether these issues (homogenous beauty standards, body shaming) will likely be solved in the near future, and if yes, how?

A: That's incredibly hard to answer. Despite all the initiatives and projects and ideas, Portugal is still majorly constituted by old(er) people. And it's hard to change old generations' beliefs, the ones they were raised with and deeply believe in, even if unconsciously, and those they passed on to their children and grandchildren. I do believe the best is being done, and we're slowly changing the norms, we're slowly walking towards that goal of solving the problem, but that's the keyword: slowly. Sadly, it's not likely things will change in the near future, since there will always be people refusing the change.

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Marta Costa is a 21-year-old first-year master's student, studying International Business. She was born and lives in Porto, Portugal.


Interviewed and edited by Chloe Yeung

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