When we take a step back from the ‘pursuit of beauty’, the impossible race becomes ludicrous. We all know of the media’s influence on the general population’s perception of body image and beauty — when repeatedly exposed to doctored images of models, it is overwhelmingly reported that self-satisfaction and confidence is reduced, dissatisfaction with our own appearance increases and people are more likely to engage in unhealthy and destructive eating behaviours.
The tiny circle of industry-deemed ‘beautiful’ people, whose idealised image infiltrates seemingly nearly all aspects of life, have chosen an occupation in which they are paid to obsess over their appearance, weight and diet. The vast majority of the population, who are influenced by these chosen few, are not. Doctors, teachers, cleaners, scientists, journalists, artists, accountants, dentists, politicians, gardeners, athletes and 90% of all professions do not depend their occupations or profits upon beauty. This is not to naively suggest that appearance is of no consequence — it has as great an influence on personal mental wellbeing as it does on the way others view us, but the point is, the majority of us are not paid to obsess over our appearance. For most people , the pursuit of beauty is not our occupational calling. Yet a vast proportion of the population (in particular the female-identifying population) spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to adjust and control their weight, image and dress.
We’re working overtime for no pay, no possibility of career development and on a menial task which overwhelmingly achieves discontentment. As long as people have been searching for happiness, people have been searching for beauty. But beauty exists in the present continuous tense; there is no definite end to be found. The search has continued — and fashion has thrived — for millennia, because beauty cannot be definitively achieved. Beauty is an antithesis of gravity — one we cannot see, yet can definitively prove the existence of; the other we say we see, yet cannot define. One grounds us, while the pursuit of the other distracts our minds from substantial occupation and prevents us from planting our feet on solid worth.
If the majority of our time is spent occupied in an attempt to emulate the lifestyles and appearance of those being paid to do so, we’re being short-changed. If a jockey spent most of their time lifting weights and taking steroids in order to emulate the appearance of a bodybuilder, or an artist spent the majority of their waking hours studying algebra because they envied the way mathematicians’ equations looked, it would be evident that this division of time was counterproductive to their own professional success. It is bizarre to invest so much time on something that will return so little substantial personal reward. Yet the pursuit of a socially-defined beauty is so universally pervasive, it is not questioned that we should disproportionately expend temporal, monetary and mental resources upon this elusive objective.
Aside from the damaging health implications, an obsession with appearance is counterproductive to more substantial and productive output in other, more significant areas of life. Your brain uses one fifth of total body energy. Obviously, if you’re not fuelling your body adequately, your mind suffers. For those whose occupations require considerable mental expenditure, nutrition is as much about fuelling the brain as it is the body. Especially for students and academics, one would assume that adequately feeding the mind — as this is the engine of their occupations — would take priority. Yet eating disorders are disproportionately reported in high-achieving people, ‘perfectionists’ with notable academic attainment and often great potential. Why then, do so many apparently intelligent people starve themselves to the point of reducing their mental capacities; that which their actual occupations and success depends upon? It’s not just a waste of our time. It’s intrinsically damaging to our sense of self-worth, health and personality. Malnourishment doesn’t just affect the body, but fertility and cognitive function as well. There are days and some weeks from the middle of the year which I just cannot remember, as if storing memories requires calorific expenditure which my body couldn’t afford to give away for free. There are hollows in my memory which, unlike weight, can’t be regained.
This is not to say that media proliferation of idealised images of beauty cause an eating disorder — they are mental illnesses which stem from more substantial causes than the superficiality of media — but such prolific propaganda makes recovery an awful lot harder. It is incredibly difficult to overcome the immense guilt in the initial stages of weight restoration; the feeling that you are doing something wrong, that you are committing a felony for not obeying the socially prescribed laws of beauty and starvation. The more frequently LOSE WEIGHT FAST is seen plastered across magazine covers, websites and adverts, the greater the deliberate and conscious attempts to gain weight feel like a perverse act of rebellion. Just as eating disorders are disproportionately reported in persons with high academic attainment, so too is a conscientious inclination to obey rules and order. When the most pronounced precept of acceptance in society preaches thinness and beauty, to resist feels like an unnervingly deliberate segregation of oneself from the onslaught of this doctrine.
Staying in the flow, however, is senseless, especially when that stream breaks bodies within its current. While considerably more arduous, swimming against those tides makes one considerably stronger. Or, to rephrase Philip Larkin, ‘get out while you can’- spend your time pursuing fruitfulness, rather than beauty.