How Gen Z's Take on Beauty Made My Gen X Mindset Kinder

By Amy Wilde | August 15, 2019 

A funny thing happened when I turned 40 a few years back. For the next 12 months, the fact of my age bombarded me from within: I’d introduce myself to someone, and as we shook hands, my brain would silently add “...and I just turned 40” to the end of the sentence. On it went, on a loop in my head, this new piece of data stretched into a filter through which I now saw myself.

As soon as I turned 41, the loop stopped, and I began to forget my age. For much of my 42nd year, in fact, I found myself thinking I was 43. 

In a way, it felt like freedom. 

Born in the '70s, I was a kid in the '80s, a teen in the '90s and a fledgling adult in the early aughts, coming of age under the pressures of a slowly-evolving set of societal expectations about how a woman "should" look. Like so many others, I grew up stifled by a narrow definition of female beauty, the rigorous standards of which I internalized more than I care to admit. In my teens and 20s, I willingly devoured the Victoria’s Secret catalogs that arrived in my mailbox like clockwork. It wasn’t until they stopped coming – probably by my changing addresses too many times for them to catch up – that I started resenting how much time I was expected to spend attempting to look the way someone else thought I should. 

Long ago, I stopped reading glossy women’s magazines -- the same publications I’d grown up hoping so desperately to write for someday, the same ones responsible for those infantilizing “X Things to Do Before Turning 20/30/40” articles. At some point, it dawned on me that I’d never win the imaginary game I’d opted into, and that I might not care to, either. 

Around my 40th birthday, I overhauled my Instagram feed, unfollowing accounts that limit themselves to airbrushed confections exclusively depicting women with traits I’d long been taught to aspire to: “porcelain” skin, flaxen “tresses,” certain waist-to-hip ratios, long legs and teacup breasts. I replaced them with an array of people and organizations sharing images from all sorts of perspectives, many of which challenge what I grew up thinking I should emulate. 

Now, I let in more curves, lines and shades than ever before – not through a fetishized lens, but a considerate one. Humans celebrating humans. A coven with a covenant. 

Girlgaze, an organization promoting the work of female and nonbinary photographers and creatives, regularly shares gorgeous depictions of the human form in ways we’ve been conditioned to shy away from – a fat roll here, some body hair there – captured with an artist’s care and shared with 200,000 followers. I Weigh, a project of actor/activist Jameela Jamil, challenges self-hate with honest dialogue about body positivity. Illustrator Dom & Ink shares “digital hugs” – inclusive works of art that transcend tired norms and salute individuality. Advanced Style, photographed by author Ari Seth Cohen, invites us to appreciate the older woman in full command of her own joie de vivre.

Within weeks of letting these images into my feed, a sort of unfolding started taking place. I found myself being kinder to my reflection in the mirror. My attention shifted aesthetically, drawing my eye toward physical expressions of beauty I’d never dared to admire before. Soon, I couldn’t stop seeing it. Art was, and is, everywhere, in all of us. I see beauty in age and “imperfection” – what a misleading word that is – now more than ever. Cliches and caveats aside, I see a certain liberation in it, too. 

There’s still a lot to unpack; a lifetime of conditioning doesn’t undo itself with a little bit of scrolling. But it’s encouraging to look at emerging generations and see patterns of inclusivity and progress. Even amid the same old drumbeat of stale power structures and arbitrary rules, there’s something new taking place. 

“The babes are staging a revolt,” I find myself thinking when I reach for my phone each morning and buckle into the day. Because if you look closely, for each terrible old way of thinking, there’s someone pushing back, and publicly. This is true of nearly every social construct we’ve bound ourselves into, including how we see ourselves and one another. Say what you will about selfies and filters, but there’s something going on in parallel. A reclamation, maybe. A redefinition. And if we’re fortunate, a complete obliteration of the nonsense we’ve been fed.

Amy Wilde is a culture and travel writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in/on Refinery29, USA TODAY, The Collective Quarterly, Lonely Planet, The Hairpin, DAME, and more. 

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