The days of ‘heroin chic’, the pale, androgynous, stick thin look popularised in the 1990s, are over. Beauty standards have come a long way, but the journey hasn’t been easy. Kate Moss caused a ripple of change by being short for a model, standing at only five feet seven inches, but even the black models breaking onto the scene in the 1990s kept to the unwritten rule book. Beverly Johnson, Naomi Campbell, and Tyra Banks stuck closely to the western beauty ideals of the time: tall, skinny, with luscious flowing hair.
Alek Wek, a Sudanese-British model who rose to fame in the late 1990s, was one of the first to truly challenge the status quo. Her beauty was shocking to western women, with her broad nose and natural coiled hair. More than this, her beauty was shocking to black women too. In a time where so little diversity was celebrated, some with similar features dismissed her, unbelieving of their own beauty as well as hers. The underrepresentation of women like Wek in British society caused an unease at her presence. In many ways she laid the first stones on the path to today, where inclusive beauty standards are starting to be celebrated.
The question beneath the evolution of beauty standards is: What does that mean for women? How will a world of inclusive beauty standards impact women’s everyday lives and opportunities?
The future of beauty
As National Geographic describe it, we are heading toward a society of “big-tent beauty”, an ‘anything goes’ mentality where women of every shape, size, and colour are celebrated. Social media has made space for this change. For the first time, all women can show who they are on a world stage. Instagram in particular has opened the doors, with its focus on photo and video sharing. The platform has become a marketing hub, and diversity sells. Companies can no longer afford to only market their products to the cis-gendered, white woman. As more and more businesses show an inclusive face, pressure rises for others to follow suit, or risk being left behind.
Social media popularity means that beauty standards are changing constantly, sped-up by short form content like Instagram reels and TikTok videos, where beauty trends live for just a couple of months. Picture and video content on platforms like Instagram have also created a space where women can share about taboo subjects freely, shifting the narrative towards open conversations on body hair and aging, bringing a sense of togetherness with it. Essentially, women everywhere are becoming public storytellers.
The Gen-Z generation are using their social media platforms to show the realness of everyday life. Influencers like Emma Chamberlain have rendered the perfectly curated, colour coordinated feeds of Millennials irrelevant. They favour an unfiltered look into their lives. As a consequence, two main styles have emerged: ‘ugly’ and ‘domestic cozy’.
Fashion has long been about creating a polished and coordinated look. Now, with the rise of feminist movements pushing for women to be seen as more than their bodies, ’ugliness’ is taking centre stage. The look is about no longer dressing to satisfy the male gaze. It’s about comfort, subverting beauty norms, and shaking up the notion of femininity.
In some ways, the ‘domestic cozy’ trend is the opposite; Gen-Z face unique challenges compared to generations before, particularly around the shared trauma of the climate crisis and the uncertainty it brings. While the ‘ugly’ disrupts beauty standards, even turns them on their head, ‘domestic cozy’ style is about creating a safe space that’s comfortable and nostalgic. Coziness is celebrated through thick knitted sweaters and Instagram feeds of wholesome images of baking and being at home with a small group of friends. It’s all about self-care and the needs of the person, not the audience. Both ‘ugly’ and ‘domestic cozy’ styles represent “big tent beauty”.
Technology is at the forefront of changing beauty standards. The blurred line between beauty and health has made space for companies to monitor our health — and then recommend us beauty products to complement it. An example is pills for better skin, based on information about a person’s nutrient levels.
3D printed-skincare is also on the horizon. Neutrogena’s MaskID is a bespoke face mask made to fit your face shape, with specialised ingredients personal to you. It’s both scary and exciting to imagine how technology could change the beauty industry in the years to come. The new focus on creating solutions specifically to each person fits into the broader shift towards breaking down set beauty standards and focusing on unique beauty.
Funmi Fetto, a British-Nigerian beauty journalist is determined to change beauty standards for women of colour. Appalled by the lack of beauty products available to non-white women and fuelled by their underrepresentation in magazines growing up, Fetto is a refreshing voice for change. She’s invested in rewriting the struggle many women of colour face in finding makeup that matches their skin tone, or hair care products that are suitable for Afro hair.
However, there is still a strong link between beauty and opportunity: both in personal life and work. One study found that weight gain decreases both women’s job prestige and income level. Meanwhile, men’s weight gain doesn’t seem to affect their career prospects.
What changing beauty standards mean
Beauty standards are evolving at a million miles an hour, but there is some consistency. The world is becoming a more inclusive place, with social media at the forefront of this change. For the first time, every person has a platform. Every person can show who they are, and create a conversation around their differences. Continuing to make the beauty space less restrictive will in turn create more opportunities for inclusivity and voices like Funmi Fettos’ to be heard.
As Kari Molvar writes. “Gen-Z have a good way of making us question these things that we’ve been doing forever.” Social media is the stage that connects us and confronts us. The challenge now lies in translating online inclusivity into real life, and in representing all women in all spaces.