Conforming to Beauty Norms
BY VAISHNAVI MURTHY '24
In 2020 alone, Americans had over two million cosmetic procedures done: over two million people felt the need to change their appearances. With social media’s prevalence, we’ve turned to likes for validation, and changing how we look has become less of an option and more of a need. Many people view conformity as a form of self-improvement, but this mindset only masks social media’s unattainable standards. Additionally, conforming to beauty norms harms self-esteem and mental health, as it unconsciously forces a dysmorphic or distorted self-image. Marketers exploit this insecurity, tempting us by advertising products that can supposedly fix our “flaws.”
We’ve all conformed before, whether it’s in changing the way we talk, dress, or act, but what makes it so common? In a social influence study, researchers Morton Deutsch and Harold B. Gerard discovered two significant types of conformity: informative influence, or the desire to be correct, and normative influence, or the need to be accepted. For example, if you agreed with the majority of people on the solution to a math problem despite being unsure of the answer yourself, you would be acting under informative influence. If you wore jeans that cut off your circulation because it's “cool,” you would be swayed by normative influence. Teens are hypersensitive to peer acceptance, so we’re more likely to base our identities off what we view as socially “acceptable” in order to avoid rejection. When we prioritize changing our appearances to please others, we normalize valuing outside opinions over our own.
Social media, in particular, promotes the notion that beauty will give us respect, success, and perfect relationships. Beyond that, our conceptions of beauty and how to conform to today’s standards are more dangerous. Before apps like Instagram and Snapchat, we would look at a picture of a celebrity and think: “I wish I looked like them.” Now, we look at versions of ourselves through filters and think: “I could look like that,” or “why don’t I look like that in real life?” Snapchat filters, for example, allow users to adjust their jawlines, smoothen blemishes on their skins or even create unrealistically large eyes or lips. Medical journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery explains that filters confuse our brains, blurring what is plausible. Ultimately, this can lead to issues such as body dysmorphic disorder (commonly coined “selfie dysmorphia”), a condition where individuals are constantly preoccupied with their bodily imperfections. Unfortunately, this insecurity regarding natural appearance and the pressure to look like our “flawless” selves normalizes the use of cosmetic intervention, skin-color-changing creams, and specialty makeup products.
So, what drives the continuation of beauty standards? According to New Times, they’re rooted in capitalism. The goal: to make us feel bad about how we look so that we will buy products to conform to current beauty ideals. If “beauty” is achievable, then cosmetic industries will go out of business. When customers buy into the conformity mentality, makeup brands and cosmetic surgeons continue to profit. As time passes, standards change, and we follow suit. But if “normal” is not possible anymore without physically changing ourselves, is it really normal? We can never really meet our society’s ever-changing standards. And they’re designed that way.
We’ve established that everyone conforms at some point in their lives, knowingly or unknowingly. Why is it such an issue, then? Well, the idea of who we are becomes muddled over time, and we lose the best parts of growing up. When we look back on our childhoods, do we only want to remember how we were constantly trying to fit in? While conforming isn’t always wrong and is a natural instinct, we have to make sure that we aren’t compromising parts of ourselves to be included. It’s important that we accept our true selves before changing how we look.