COMMENT: Who gets to say who's beautiful and who's not?

·Contributor
·7 min read
Fashion magazine 'Vogue' celebrates its 90th anniversary with a exhibition of giant magazine covers on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, October 2, 2009. The covers feature work by some of the world's best known fashion photographers, including David Bailey, Helmut Newton and Patrick Demarchelier.   REUTERS/Charles Platiau  (FRANCE)
FILE PHOTO: Fashion magazine 'Vogue' celebrates its 90th anniversary with a exhibition of giant magazine covers on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, October 2, 2009. The covers feature work by some of the world's best known fashion photographers, including David Bailey, Helmut Newton and Patrick Demarchelier. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

My mother had always bought and read Cosmopolitan back when I was a kid, and that women’s bible had always standardized what was supposed to be beautiful and sexy. The cover girls always looked the same, it seemed as though there was a formula already to be a Cosmo girl: tall, slender, with unapologetic big boobs and Hey-come-to-me eyes. So, I grew up with the mindset that only the women who made it to the billboards or glossy magazines are beautiful; those who cannot make it – or those who do not look like the billboard and magazine girls – are ugly.

The 2021 swimsuit edition of US magazine Sports Illustrated, however, has recently been released with three different looks of women on three versions of the cover: tennis champion Naomi Osaka, rapper Megan Thee Stallion, and transgender model Leyna Bloom. At least in my eyes, none of them looked like the usual magazine cover girls I was used to seeing.

SI has been known for releasing steamy photographs of the hottest bikini babes since 1964. So, the 2021 issue goes off on a tangent from the magazine's usual route: Bloom, who identifies as Black and Filipino, is the first trans woman to ever appear on the cover, while Megan Thee Stallion is the first rapper to also grace the magazine's front page (not to mention that she is also a plus-size, Black person, too!).

In the clothing industry, meanwhile, lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret also announced last month that they are putting their VS Angels – or those models with Barbie figures and incredible talents of winking and flying-kissing – to rest already. Instead, the brand is introducing the VS Collective that is, according to their website, “an unparalleled group of trailblazing partners.”

Pioneer members of the VS Collective have very different looks, and they all come from very different backgrounds, too. They are not just models per se but they are many things, too: there is a soccer star and a gender equity campaigner, a freestyle skier and soon-to-be Olympian, an actor and a tech investor, and a bi-racial model and inclusivity advocate. They represent the new version of "sexy": empowered and phenomenal.

The woke Twitterverse likes calling this kind of shift "character development."

In this photo taken on May 7, 2021, products from makeup brand Pat McGrath are on display inside a Sephora store in New York. Sephora recently announced a commitment to devote at least 15% of its store shelves to Black-owned brands. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)
In this photo taken on May 7, 2021, products from makeup brand Pat McGrath are on display inside a Sephora store in New York. Sephora recently announced a commitment to devote at least 15% of its store shelves to Black-owned brands. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)

Many clothing and cosmetic brands have also taken a step forward in diversifying their models. Fashion website theFashionSpot examined 791 cover appearances across 50 major beauty and fashion magazines in 2020 and found a dramatic increase in representation. 48.8% of the magazine covers featured a woman of color – higher compared to 2019’s only 36.9%. Plus-size models had 2.66% appearances on the front page of glossies – higher than 2019's 2.01%. Meanwhile, transgender or non-binary models recorded 12% appearances last year – again higher than the prior year's only 7%.

These recent events do not come as a surprise anymore. After all, “beauty” has been getting a redefinition. Gone are the days when only the girl with a slender figure, overwhelming bosom, defined jawline, sharp cheekbones, angular nose, long and flowy hair, and pearly white skin was called beautiful. Now, even women of color, obese women, women with physical disabilities, and elderly women are also beautiful. Your sister who has obvious pimples and tattoos is beautiful. Your mom who has gray hair and wrinkles is beautiful. Everybody has simply become beautiful. If you call out someone and say she is ugly, expect a public humiliation on social media. You are evil for calling someone ugly! Your attitude is ugly! Expect that and more.

This is the result of how the more informed later generation has been demanding and protesting for diversity and inclusion, which has essentially become part of any modern discussion. Giant fashion and beauty brands have been quickly integrating diversity and inclusion as part of their branding; they hold runways and photoshoots featuring a diverse group of women to tell the world, “Hey, we are more diverse and inclusive already!” This is supposed to show that we are now a better society than, say, 10 years ago, although I, as a writer who has been covering and writing about gender and cultures, personally do not think that we have come to the finish line just yet.

In the first place, I am not even sure what the finish line is. What again are we celebrating?

Models, diversity campaigners and social media influencers protest the lack of female curves in the fashion industry outside 180 Strand in London, Friday, Feb. 16, 2017.(Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)
FILE PHOTO: Models, diversity campaigners and social media influencers protest the lack of female curves in the fashion industry outside 180 Strand in London, Friday, Feb. 16, 2017.(Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Are we celebrating having a redefinition of “beauty”? What is the new definition? And who is supposed to set its new meaning? Is everybody automatically beautiful already? If yes, then has “beauty” lost its meaning, because nobody is ugly anymore and everybody is just beautiful by default already?

Beauty is being redefined by who else but the far more multicultural generation. We are the generation that has easier access to information (thanks to social media), and that has given us a wider understanding of race and gender, particularly. We are in an age where to think of a tall, white, demure woman as beautiful and to think of a short, colored, plus-size woman as ugly is opening a can of worms. It is disturbing, embarrassing, and well, even deadly if you do it in front of watchful, critical eyes.

This beauty revolution is not just a matter of a change of taste, but it is actually political. What we say about who is beautiful and who is not says a lot about what we are as a society. Are we progressive, accepting, and intelligent enough? Are we understanding already that a Black woman is not being untidy and unprofessional when she let her big curls loose because it is just simply how it is? Or that a fat girl is not fat by choice but because of many factors, like genetics, for example? Or that a thick woman with six-pack abs is not “manly” but is actually just impressively strong?

If yes, then that is only when we can say we are a better society already.

I would not say, though, that we are moving at a dramatically positive speed. While many people are calling for diversity and inclusion in the legacy media (print media, film and music studios, advertising agencies, TV and radio, among others), the truth is many people also still remain skeptical of this beauty revolution. They are the Karens who look at a plus-size bikini model in a campaign display and ask, “That is sexy?”, or who see a colored person on the cover of a fashion magazine and ask, “This is beautiful?” I do not need to go too far: while watching a Filipino film on Netflix last time, my aunt kept commenting, “She is ugly! What happened to her? She looked pretty before, but now she has become so fat already!”

Many people, like the Karens and my aunt, are not yet buying this new definition of beauty. Hold off the celebrations – as consumers and as a society, we still have got a long way to go.

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines. The views expressed are his own.

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