is perfect skin the final beauty standard we can’t break down?

We swear we loved things natural, but while we accept our crooked teeth and wild eyebrows, why can't accept less than perfect skin?

by Wendy Syfret
17 December 2014, 2:15am

For all the beauty and fashion trends that emerged and ruled over the past couple of years, one thing was clear: the public loves perfect imperfection. Braces break our hearts, ugly shoes have proved unstoppable, gappy teeth shine, and knobbly knees are everywhere. Suddenly the physical attributes that haunted as us children are reflected back on the runway.

Could you really imagine It girls like Lily McMenamy being as popular 10-years ago? Where the industry once craved perfection now we desperately want something fresh, new, and challenging. We're so in love with awkward we even returned to original weirdo beauty—and Lily's mum—Kristen McMenamy for inspiration. The message is clear, come as you are; don't even bother putting on mascara.

But while magazines, TV, movies, celebrities, and designers all lauded our flaws one thing remained very much in place—our obsession with perfect skin. Although it's never easy to accept ourselves, we have role models for most things we don't immediately love about our appearance. But less-that-perfect skin is rarely discussed let alone celebrated. While there are some exceptions such as model and vitiligo sufferer Chantelle Brown-Young, we're still loathed to explore alternative interpretations of the idea of "beautiful skin". You can be tanned, pale, freckled, or flawless, but diversion stops there.

Beauty and our perceptions of perfect ebb and flow; over the past hundred years we've changed our minds over ideal weights, shapes, heights, and hair styles—but why can't we budge on our skin? Less of us are born with clear complexions than straight teeth, but any flaws are still seen as wrong.

If you told someone a decade ago that wild eyebrows, underarm hair, and under eye circles would be the height of casual cool they'd laugh. But maybe we're finally ready to break down this final barrier, although we'll have to change our own perceptions first.

The reason why acne, rosacea, and other conditions remain difficult to accept while chipped teeth are desirable is because many—but not all—beauty aspirations begin with our perceptions of health. Very few trends, say perhaps corsets and heroin chic, weren't at least partially weighted in the desire to look like a picture of youth and vitality. Years ago bad skin was thought to be tied to diet, but we now know it's not totally true. It's laid out by our genes along with long toes or grass allergies. And by first accepting that it's natural and normal we can begin to change the way we see it.

If there is anything that tough skin can be equated to it's youth. But while the aforementioned braces have left the school yard and been the latest teenage accessory metabolised by fashion and regurgitated as a sign of youth our skin is less lucky. Although has there ever been a better time to bring natural skin in than when we're already accepting our difficult teeth and pre-teen baby hairs. Dewy skin doesn't evoke teenage dreams, the smell of Clearasil does.

Like all things, change starts with the tastemakers whose names you don't know. Girls and boys around the world are posting realistic skin positive selfies celebrating their natural skin and challenging us to see beyond it to their natural, unaffected beauty. Even previous years' #nomakeupselfie trend can be seen as a step in the right direction.

And people are beginning to catch on. The art world has been enjoying a body positive wave for sometime with photographers like Petra Collins, Zara Mirkin, and Lina Scheynius shooting their friends and themselves without a stylised haze.

History has shown clear and strong beauty shifts can be powerful and constructive. In the 60s Twiggy brought in skinny but it also brought in the idea not all women needed to be bombshells. In the 90s Jenny Shimizu challenged gender stereotypes and perceptions of female beauty. And today we can hope that Chantelle Brown-Young will be the first of many models reframing one of the last strongholds of traditional and arguably oppressive beauty standards. Because as so many unusual beauties have shown, you need to break standards down to build something better. 


Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Harry Carr
[The Beautiful Issue, no. 334 Winter 2014]

chantelle winnie