Where Is Desirability’s Place In The Modern Age?

Photo: Kevin Tachman/Getty Images.
In 2014, Vogue declared in an article that “the big booty has officially become ubiquitous.” With that, the cultural behemoth ushered in what they termed “the Era of the Big Booty." (Unsurprisingly, the controversial story no longer exists on their website.) Fast forward eight years, and various publications are forecasting the re-emergence of the Y2K aesthetic. "Heroin chic” (cringe) is supposedly coming back in fashion. Some people are having revision surgery to reinstate their original pre-op features.
When it comes to the modern woman's body, and society’s concept of the ideal version of that, over the last decade we’ve witnessed in real time the pendulum swing from a silhouette reminiscent of a sand timer to that of a waif. It may be dizzyingly relentless, but it also poses the question: What does it mean to be desirable? And who decides what’s desirable in the first place?
“Beauty has always been a synonym for goodness,” explains Xine Yao, PhD, a lecturer of American Literature at University College London. “This goes back to the ancient Greeks, who saw this association between how beautiful someone was and their moral worth. But this is something we’ve increasingly complicated since then, because it’s not a neutral good. So much is dependent on disability, race, class, and gender norms.”
Maya, a 28-year-old Black woman from Miami, realized this when she first traveled to Europe and became aware of how she was being perceived differently due to her race. The cultural disparity — felt most acutely when dating — and how others treated her because it was novel at first, but ultimately jarring. As a Black woman, she was “the antithesis of what people back home found attractive," but had now seemingly metamorphosed into someone who could “date people who resembled those who never gave me the time of day back in Miami.” Being a Black American in Europe made her feel as though she had been reduced to “some exotic bird”; some non-Indigenous species whose newfound ‘exoticism’ was something that could be “exploited and weaponized”; some chick who’d migrated to new, unknown and distant lands only to discover that she “could be handled without care or deserved being violated."
While it’s possible that other factors may have played a hand in Maya feeling exoticized, it’s hard to posit that race didn’t contribute to her experience. After all, she was the same person regardless of the country she was in, yet it was the perception and how she was treated that differed. It is this incongruity that highlights the importance of interrogating the notion of desirability. Who is it that's doing the desiring and who is it being desired? Is being desirable about making myself desirable to and for me, or is it about the extent to which I am trying to be desired, and it just so happens that engaging in beauty practices is a way to achieve that?
Take, for instance, the way in which the fashion and beauty industries operate. When companies launch campaigns, they’re setting a precedent on what they believe is the cultural benchmark of beauty — marketing, packaging, and selling what is often one look to a vast array of demographics. So desire and beauty can’t be reduced to interpersonal relationships; they need to be understood and contextualized in terms of national identity and global markets.
But there are many more body types that exist. And so the politics of desirability becomes problematic, according to Dr. Yao, because “the media and the beauty industries, which are dominated by white, Euro-centric values, mute the fact that there are all these other forms of appreciation for different forms of bodies.” Although Maya doesn’t necessarily agree. “There’s been a shift in the industry where more Black and brown bodies are being presented and celebrated for their natural form,” she posits, “especially with womxn like Rihanna having a big influence on the zeitgeist.”

What does it mean to be desirable? And who decides what’s desirable in the first place?

In an age that sees companies desperate to appear inclusive, the increased diversity seen in campaigns has been remarkable. But an increase in the visibility of Black and brown bodies invariably sees a similar increase in the number of incidents of cultural appropriation. Problematically, this cooptation of a minority aesthetic can be seen via surgical and non-surgical augmentation. “I don’t believe non-Black people are willingly seeking an aesthetic suggestive of Blackness, but I do believe people are undergoing procedures because they’re influenced by what their favorite non-Black social media influencers or celebrities are doing,” Maya says. “Everyone should have the freedom to modify their bodies without judgment, but I have a problem with people that engage with Black culture like it’s a tourist destination.”
It’d be difficult to have this conversation in the depth it deserves without bringing up the Kardashian-Jenner family, the cultural touchstone of this generation, who’ve significantly impacted how many of us view our own bodies, and what we choose to do with it. From their (what now seem to be shrinking) orb-like backsides to their use of African hairstyles, the family is routinely accused of blackfishing, and the fox-eye trend often attributed to Kendall Jenner has been criticized as cultural appropriation of Asian people.
According to research into Google Trends, the average interest level in lip fillers rose 30.31 points after Kylie Jenner revealed she received Juvéderm lip injections. Kim just about single-handedly ushered in the age of BBL, and since 2015, the procedure’s popularity has increased 77.6%. And yet, after all the highly publicized conjecture of the work she has or hasn’t had done, back in July, Kim gave a controversial Allure interview in which she claimed that, apart from some Botox and some laser facials, she has “never done anything.” No filler, no surgery, no eyelash extensions, no nothing — she claims.
Sweep the futile speculation of has-she-or-has-she-not to the side, and what is perhaps inadvertently conveyed is the insidious and uncomfortable message that a woman may be more desirable when she is 'natural.' But a survey conducted by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery showed that, from 2019 to 2020, face and head procedures increased 13.5%, eyelid surgery became one of the most popular cosmetic procedures, and the use of non-surgical injectables rose by 8.6%. 
Undergoing surgery isn’t showing any signs of slowing down — in fact, quite the opposite. The global cosmetic surgery industry was valued at $63.4 billion in 2021 and is predicted to be worth a staggering $145.7 billion by 2030. So what’s going on? Why is a message of naturalness being perpetuated when the world is seemingly increasingly unnatural?
For a long time, the model of the beauty industry was to make an aesthetic feel attainable, but ever so slightly out of reach; on the margins of feasibility. It flirted with the idea of otherness without ever being other. “It’s about a difference that’s desirable, but one that gets translated back to a dominant group that allows them to partake in difference, but not in a way that actually leads to a change of power,” Dr. Yao says.
The proliferation of surgeries which hope to artificially reproduce the naturally occurring features of some ethnic minorities allows for such features to become signifiers of beauty, which then allows for their commodification and capitalization. The exponential popularity of the Brazilian butt lift (BBL) is a prime example. The surgery’s desired results — a bigger, more shapely butt — allows for the fetishization of Brazilian bodies while ignoring the violent colonial history of the country. 
Think of the supermodel Gisele Bündchen; culturally Brazilian but, because of her German ancestry, ethnically European. Dr. Yao says it’s telling that the world’s image of a Brazilian woman has a tinge of exoticism, a tinge that has its roots in racial mixing. “[Gisele] isn’t Afro-Latina, nor Indigenous,” Dr. Yao says. “She’s a white woman who has this proximity to a type of racial otherness which allows for the commodification of what is considered ‘Brazilian’ that then gets marketed to the rest of the world, but doesn’t actually have to do with emancipating all Brazilian women.”

Desire and beauty can’t be reduced to interpersonal relationships; they need to be understood and contextualized in terms of national identity and global markets.

So where do we go from here? In an attempt to dissect the mechanisms of desirability, we’ve walked down a long and winding road of media consumption and its ties to self-worth, and somehow arrived at the sordid destination of consumer capitalism. Is it, then, as simple as rejecting standardized beauty and embracing radical self-love instead? Not quite. The seemingly innocuous democratization of the beauty industry can actually be counterproductive. There’s something particularly insidious in how some companies, like Dove with its Be Real Beauty campaign, have readily appropriated and sloganized a defiant sort of self-love in order to appeal to an even broader range of consumers. 
But even then, as Dr. Lucy Glancey, an aesthetic doctor and cosmetic surgeon, says, “It’s human nature that we are never happy with what we have. People are very self-critical and have more time to analyze themselves.” What’s more, the way that we see ourselves is never neutral as so much has to do with how we are trained to think and perceive ourselves.
So although we may be a long way from being able to destabilize society and undermine the beauty standards that confine us to a limited lens of perception and interpretation, we can at least desire that one day we’ll have freed ourselves from the horrors of want… right?

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