The Invisible Shackles

Image Credit:

Growing up in the 90s, when Britney Spears was the popular icon of beauty amongst young girls, I remember constantly comparing my reflection to her posters plastered on my wall. I wondered if I was as beautiful as her as I emulated her pose in my mirror, hoping to appease my inner critic. This sentiment was not unique to me; my friends also lived with self-doubt and often sought validation. We had to tick all the boxes in the standardized beauty checklist. Beauty seemed like the finish tape at the end of a race, a race that never seemed to end. How did such narrow standards of beauty arise and why do we get trapped in it so often?

Naomi Wolf describes the beauty myth as an intelligently designed mirage that women chase throughout their lives. As women broke out of domesticity, advertisers’ worst fears came true; household items promoting feminine mystique started becoming irrelevant. They quickly replaced these with the commodification of beauty1. While women won their reproductive rights and control over their bodies, weight loss advertisements and cosmetic surgeries stripped them of their control. Women became trapped by the perception of their physical beauty. The beauty myth was used as a weapon against women’s advancement; to divert women’s attention to physical obsession, self-hatred, and fear of ageing.1 Hence, reversing what the second wave of feminism achieved for women. 

wife works
Advertisement by Kellogg’s PEP cereal in the 1930s- depicting the role of women at home, performing household chores, and their secret-  ‘Vitamins’!

Wolf argues that men have used women’s beauty as a currency amongst themselves to maintain their dominance over women. A culturally imposed physical standard would leave women fighting harder for resources that men have allocated for themselves in a vertical hierarchy. The beauty myth enables the regulation of women’s behaviour and instils divisive competition; to make young women insecure of older and more experienced women while making older women fear younger women’s youth and beauty1. The growing insecurities gave birth to the multi-billion dollar cosmetic, weight loss, diet industry and cosmetic surgery.

How advertising expands the black hole of insecurity:

The media plays a central role in shaping the insecurities of women. In fact, they intentionally design their advertisements to reap profits at the expense of women’s insecurities. PHD worldwide, named the media network of the year 2016, published a report on the times women feel most physically insecure. Their clients exploit these studies to “concentrate media during prime vulnerability moments.” Kim Bates the head of brand planning from PHD remarked, “identifying the right time to engage with consumers with the right message is Marketing 101 – but when you are trying to connect with women on so personal an issue as appearance, it can be even more important to understand the wrong time as well.”2

85% of beauty magazine content is specifically targeted to ‘raise awareness’ in women about her physical imperfections and inadequacies. ‘You’re not good enough’, ‘something is wrong with you’, ‘another woman is better’ are the kind of hypnotic messages that resonate with women, resulting in 70% of these women feeling guilty, ashamed and depressed within 3 minutes of reading a fashion magazine3,4. Advertisements are designed to create a desperate feeling of need. Hence, encouraging women to ‘empower’ themselves and consume their products to fill up an infinite black-hole of insecurity.

Park Nicollet Melrose Centre, dealing with eating disorders in the U.S for a quarter of a century revealed shocking statistics where 80% of U.S women do not like how they look and 70% of women in the normal weight category want to be thinner because they grade themselves against  unattainable beauty standards.5 These issues affect women and girls very deeply at home, at school and work. It can no longer be overlooked as a ‘normal’ part of growing up. We need to consider the ill effects on health and morale seriously and intervene as a society to break the shackles that still hinder women’s freedom. However, it is also time that we highlight and valorize some women who are breaking these shackles and defining their own standards of beauty.

Campaigns that expel the beauty myth:

Tess Holliday took the modelling agencies, social media and the youth by storm when she launched her campaign, ‘Eff your beauty standards’. She is a size 26 woman with tattoos all over her body, who believes in her beauty with unwavering confidence. Her ground-breaking appearance as the first model over size 20 to be on the cover of People’s Magazines garnered over a million followers. She defied anyone who would set guidelines for the outfits that she could or could not wear. Through her campaign, she encourages girls who do not belong to the ‘standard’ body size to join her in dressing the way that makes them feel beautiful.6 Holliday was not just a token model in an industry often criticized for picturing size 0 models. Her campaign pressurized beauty magazines and the fashion industry, which, rapidly became receptive to different body sizes and launched several other plus-sized models.6

tess holiday.jpg
Tess Holliday in her Eff Your Beauty Standards Campaign. Image Credit:

Regulation of targeted advertisements:

Targeted advertising by popular media and beauty industries, which specifically aim to disenfranchise women from the right to feel content with their complexion, body size, and themselves, by selling unrealistic illusions should be criminalized. Given the tremendous detrimental effects they have on the health and identity of women, it should be treated as fraud or deception, mental torture and sexual harassment. This would be a strong obstacle that would prevent the spread of messages that belittle and diminish women’s confidence or jeopardize their self-esteem.

Protein World, which, runs Britain’s largest protein facility, launched an advertisement that flaunted a tanned bikini clad model, on a yellow background with bold black letters reading, ‘Are you beach body ready?’ to encourage consumers to purchase their weight loss products.7 This led to backlash from the public who labelled their message as sexist and body shaming. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London made an exemplary move by banning such body shaming advertisements from its public transport, which won the praise of several gender equality groups.8  He further enforced that Transport for London (TFL) and major advertising partners set up a steering group and apply the rules of Advertising Standards Authority to new advertisements submitted.8 This sets an example for governments who have the authority to make these changes that will help to lift the detrimental effects on women’s health.

While Sadiq Khan was in the limelight for passing such a mandate, it is inspiring to see that women are refusing to succumb to these standards and are taking pro-active action against them. Charlotte Baring started a petition against Protein World to remove the ad and the petition garnered the support of 70,826 people who rallied behind her.9 People are noticing the manipulative messaging from the media and are standing up against it.

Positive role models:

Girls and young women often look up to celebrities in the entertainment industry when searching for role models or inspiration. Artistes should utilize this platform to encourage women and girls to choose their own identities and love themselves in what makes them most comfortable. There are several celebrity women who are taking this initiative and making a powerful statement about the freedom of choice. Alicia Keys, a famous American singer and songwriter had announced her decision not to wear make-up in the journey. She empowered herself and broke the stereotype that women need to wear makeup to to be accepted in her industry. Women were brainwashed into thinking that they need to satisfy certain criteria to be perfect and that made her insecure, affecting the quality of her work. However, she was also careful to mention explicitly that if wearing makeup makes one feel happy, then that should be their course of action.10

On the other hand, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a celebrated author, feminist and aesthete, chose to do the exact opposite, embrace her love for makeup with the same goal as Alicia Keys; to break stereotypes and embrace one’s identity. Adichie initially believed that her role as a feminist demanded that she sacrifice makeup and the high heels that she loved dearly. It was also established that women who want to be taken seriously, cannot give importance to their appearance. She soon realized that she was masking her true identity and began to do what made her feel more confident and truly happy; to obtain the perfect cat eyes for instance. She also became the brand ambassador for No7, a makeup brand.11 These female activists are doing their part in illustrating how choice is more important than adhering to beauty norms. They aim to bring about a change in the attitude and mindset of people who constrict the definition of beauty to a narrow set of ideals rather than expanding it to enable greater inclusivity and freedom of choice.

We need to teach the girls who will inherit the future to embrace their real beauty, derived from being themselves, free from fear of judgment about what others would say or think, without having to fit themselves into a scaffold that they were never meant to be moulded into, where imperfections become a normal part of life and becomes an asset to our diversity. Being beautiful should be defined by each individual and can be transformed as desired over time, not dictated by anyone else. With celebrities in the limelight and brave women on the ground working to make this a reality, I envision a positive world as Steve Maraboli says, “There is nothing more rare, nor more beautiful, than a woman unapologetically being herself; comfortable in her perfect imperfection…”, so that no woman is ever bound by the invisible shackles. I hope that one day, young girls will look at their reflections and aspire to become strong and inspiring women like Michelle Obama and not just crave beauty and superficial excellence.


  1. Wolf, N. (2013). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. Random House.
  2. O’Neill, N. (2013, October 4). Marketing Folks Know When W. Retrieved from
  3. Powell, C. (2012, July 12). 70% of Women Feel Depressed After Looking at a Fashion Magazine for 3 Minutes . Retrieved from
  4. Make Peace With Complicated Relationships; 70% of Women Depressed After Reading a Fashion Mag. (2016, October 10). Retrieved from, Westchester Woman
  5. P, H. R. (n.d.). Teens, Social Media And Body Image. Retrieved from, Park Nicolett Melrose Centre
  6. Gordon, B. (2016, May 14). ‘Eff your beauty standards’: Meet the size 26, tattooed supermodel who is changing the fashion industry. Retrieved from
  7. Hackman, R. (2015, June 27). Are you beach body ready? Controversial weight loss ad sparks varied reactions . Retrieved from
  8. Jackson, J. (2016, June 13). Sadiq Khan moves to ban body-shaming ads from London transport . Retrieved from
  9. Baring, C. (n.d.). Remove ‘Are You Beach Body Ready’ Advertisements. Retrieved from,
  10. Scott, A. (n.d.). The real reason Alicia Keys stopped wearing makeup. Retrieved from 1., NICKI SWIFT
  11. LaBouvier, C. (2016, October 21). Why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Beauty Campaign Matters. Retrieved from