A story published on the Bright Side website showed the struggles of Nyakim Gatwech, a Sudanese model who, because of her skin complex, found it hard to either fit in society or pursue her career.
At the age of 14, she moved to the USA from a refugee camp in Africa. Children in American schools always trolled her for being “too dark”. They made ugly comments like, “You don’t take showers. That’s why your skin is dirty,” or “Smile so we can see you!”
She recalled crying herself to sleep every night and even wanted to bleach her skin. She had dreams of becoming a model, but because of the bullying she endured due to her skin colour, Nyakim wanted to give up — but she stayed strong and learned to love herself as she entered the modelling world.
Nyakim’s glowing appearance helped her stand out from the crowd when it came to modelling, and she has been able to work with famous brands like Calvin Klein, Fashion Nova, Aldo, and Cosmopolitan.
Her struggles, nonetheless, kept on even with her modelling success. But Nyakim had learnt to accept herself.
She once found herself in an unpleasant situation. An Uber driver asked her whether she would bleach her skin if she was given $10,000, citing that it would be easier for her to be in a relationship and she would get more job opportunities if she was lighter in skin tone.
She laughed and told the driver, “Even if being lighter would make my life easier, I’d rather take the hard road.”
And just like Nyakim, many people (men and women) find themselves at crossroads when it comes to how they feel about their bodies. They wonder if they are too fat, too small, too dark or too short for society’s ‘beauty standards.’
Richard Mugabo believes that a number of factors contribute to this.
People desperately want to conform to these standards, and it’s not their fault because society has for so long been operating like this, he says.
“But this is not fair; people are different and cannot be measured up to a standard for them to be considered beautiful,” Mugabo says.
Sudanese model Gatwech struggled to fit in society because of her skin tone.
Former Miss Rwanda and motivational speaker, Jolly Mutesi, says that while it’s articulated that beauty falls in the eyes of the beholder, we are in an era where our societies have been brainwashed and socially conditioned to believe that our weight and the shape of our body is a critical component of our worth.
So often, societies we live in have set beauty standards that we need to conform to, to be considered beautiful or handsome, according to their desires. These unrealistic beauty standards such as, slim waist, oval faces, thigh gaps, curvy body, cheek bones, sexy boobs, sexy lips, six packs, muscular arms and so much more, set by our societies for women and men, have become a must-have to an extent that those who don’t endorse them are considered ugly, Mutesi says.
She believes that its mostly young women who are affected on a larger scale due to women’s desire for compliments.
“They have gone as far as starving to have tiny waistlines that are considered ‘sexy’ from their idolised movie stars, singers and others they look up to as beautiful, forgetting that the online image they see is sometimes fake through photo edits. This pressure to conform and endorse the so called ‘ideal beauty’ to young women has massively led to low self-esteem, eating disorders and sometimes depression because of the need to strive too hard to look a particular way,” she says.
Mutesi argues that it is so important to understand that we cannot change the negative impact caused by society overnight, for this calls for a gradual process.
“It is true that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. So we, therefore, need to critically understand that beauty differs from place-to-place according to cultures and norms of the area, furthermore, it is more important to be confident, believe and embrace who we are! Confidence is built and nurtured, let not society’s opinions of who or what we should look like determine your self-worth, everyone is created in the most perfect image, just embrace it,” Mutesi counsels.
Social media has a role to play
Gender activist Ange Ashimwe says the trending norm of unrealistic beauty standards is one of the biggest dark sides of social media.
She says, many people have developed mental health issues, identity issues, some have committed suicides, and others have developed body disorders trying to emulate unrealistic beauty that is simply unattainable.
Ashimwe also believes that its women who are mostly under incredible pressure of having an ideal body, reasoning that society expects them to meet those unrealistic beauty standards more than men.
“It is crucial to remember that these unrealistic beauty standards are rooted in capitalism. They make you feel bad about who you are so that you can buy their products to change who you are. You can never meet these beauty standards as long as they want to sell their products, they will invent other beauty standards,” she explains.
Men too succumb to the pressure by wanting to attain certain body goals.
She is, therefore, of the view that the best way of one finding themselves, or accepting who they are amidst these unrealistic beauty standards, is to remember that one exists firstly for themselves and that they can’t please society.
“In the meantime, we as a society should stop the conversation we have about women and their bodies. Instead, work to remind the world that we are allowed to love our bodies the way they are,” Ashimwe adds.
Valens Munyaneza, a cashier, is of the view that social media has made this even worse.
The different types of apps that allow filters, editing, and photoshop are worsening the problem. People can never post a photo that is not edited, they want to be more and this cuts on one’s self esteem in the process. Many are not realising this but most of these apps make people look lighter, in the process, conforming to western culture, he says.
Overcoming the stereotypes
In her article, No perfect body! Why we need to stop stereotyping beauty, Psychologist Neerja Birla writes that being dark skinned shouldn’t give anyone an inferiority complex, and being fair doesn’t make anyone more beautiful. All skin colours and tones are attractive in their own way. Why be judgmental about them?
Being slim or a size zero should never be considered the gold standard for being beautiful. Every body type and shape is different and has its own balance.
“Social media tends to impact mind sets as well. The phenomenon of air-brushing and editing photos of naturally beautiful women to make them look unnaturally stunning puts immense pressure on women everywhere, and makes them insecure about their own bodies. In fact, there is no such thing as a perfect body. The concept of perfection is in itself a flawed concept,” she writes.
She counsels that people need to understand that real beauty comes from within. One’s identity should never be swayed by social conventions. One’s self-esteem should never be dependent on one’s appearance. Appearances aren’t everything. Character, values, skills — these are attributes one must seek to acquire or develop.
“Don’t try and emulate someone else’s looks or personality. Be authentic — that’s what will make you stand out. If you feel good about yourself on the inside then, no matter what, you are beautiful,” she adds.
WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON TODAY'S BEAUTY STEREOTYPES?
Society puts unfair pressure on both men and women to look a certain way.
This is only exacerbated with the rise of social media, where people post their heavily photoshopped and filtered photos, creating even more unreasonable expectations of what people should look like.
Amanda Fung, Senior manager at Karisimbi Business Partners
Media literacy should be added to the curriculum in elementary schools so that young girls and boys are better equipped to handle the media environment that surrounds them.
If they are widely implemented they can create a healthier media environment and put an end to the unattainable beauty standards that harm us every day.
Boycotting companies that misinterpret society, especially women in media, is one way that everyday people can fight back. This will encourage companies to change how they represent people in the media.
Doreen Kakuru, Cashier
People need to accept who they are and refuse to conform to these values.
Different people, especially those who own companies that make beauty products, have played a big role in creating these standards, but it's upon society and people to stand firm in who they are.
Wilbur Bushara, Medic
No one has a say in how he/she should look like, and for me, this means that the first thing is to accept yourself as you are.
We need also need to mind that beauty is relative and nobody should have an inferiority complex, beauty is also a perception that varies from one person to another. Society may make up baseless characteristics of beauty, according to a number of factors, but they are not standard measures of one’s beauty.
Theogene Uwiringiyimana, Assistant director - Centre Marembo