Every year, People Magazine releases their annual “World’s Most Beautiful” issue. The female counterpart to the famed “Sexiest Man Alive,” this issue highlights one woman that People selects as that year’s “World’s Most Beautiful Woman,” while also including quotes and tidbits from other, not quite as beautiful women of that year. Honestly, I do applaud People for attempting to tackle the ambiguous yet polarizing concept of female beauty. Because as much as I wish beauty was a less important and relevant trait for women and society in general, it unfortunately still very much is. And in a time where beauty standards are being questioned and reevaluated, asking what it means to be a beautiful woman is certainly not an easy venture.
Also yes, I’m aware that I’m reading People magazine. When I bust out my People while lounging poolside or during those ten minutes on a plane I can’t use my devices, I’m generally not looking for hard hitting journalism, but rather, pictures of really good looking people frolicking at the beach, posing in premiere gowns, and getting divorced. That being said, while reading through this year’s “Most Beautiful” issue I couldn’t help but laugh/cry at the hypocrisy present in the entire thing. While People includes a variety of beautiful, successful, intelligent women, it’s deafening promotion of superficial and stereotypical beauty standards turn any real insights from its subjects into trite and meaningless bumper stickers.
While definitely confused about its thesis statement, the message People seems to want us to get from this issue is that true beauty is internal; that being beautiful is really being confident and happy in your own skin. It would be a great message to get behind, if only all the other shit they include didn’t contradict it. The first thing that struck me when I opened the magazine was the sheer abundance of advertisements related to women’s beauty. Now, this isn’t exactly atypical of People, but they definitely bumped up the numbers to prey on us insecure regular-looking folk feasting our eyes on the world’s most beautiful. So I counted. Seven make-up advertisements, seven ads for anti-aging products, eight for other skin care products, seven for hair care products, three for hair removal, and four for dieting products. That’s 36 ads selling the commodity of beauty, if anyone’s keeping track, BUT YOU GUYS ARE PERFECT JUST THE WAY YOU ARE, REALLY.
This year’s selected World’s Most Beautiful Woman is the walking anti-age advertisement herself, Jennifer Aniston. (Who, interestingly enough, appears as spokesmodel in many of the ads offering to get rid of my wrinkles, while also professing in this interview that one must embrace their body. K.) Now, I’m definitely a Jen fan. She’s America’s sweetheart. She’s had a long career as both a successful comedic and dramatic actress in film and television. She is an outspoken feminist and has showed long standing support for other women in Hollywood. She’s a spokesperson and ambassador for a variety of philanthropic causes. But this is the beauty issue so we don’t talk about any of that. Items we do cover are her workout regime, her younger looks, what she eats in a day, her personal style, her make-up, her hair-care, what supplements she takes, tricks her glam squad does, her insecurities about her appearance, and how her husband influences her “look.” The only sort of information we get about her career is a small row of photos of her in different roles. Which, okay, fine. If this issue is about beauty products and how to get your shiniest hair and smokiest eye, fine. But, why then, do the blown up quotes of this article say this:
“Life is about embracing and loving yourself and being okay with your limitations.”
“The best compliment is someone telling me I make them laugh.”
What? Where were these sentiments included in the five page interview I just read? Don’t feed me an extensive beauty self-help guide and then throw some bullshit quotes about loving yourself on top in a pretty font. Honestly, I would have rather heard Jen’s responses that those snippets came from than her M-W-F squats routine, but that’s what you guys chose to include.
The subsequent sections are similarly contradictory. They are actually full of insightful quotes from women about the modern world of female beauty, but People manages to take a mascara covered shit all over them. In “Faces of the Year,” Amy Schumer discusses how women are made to feel unloveable if they don’t look like everyone else or aren’t stick thin. People follows her quote by describing her as “the Inside Amy Schumer star, 34, who’s dating furniture designer Ben Hanisch. Huh?? See guys she’s not that skinny and she even has a boyfriend! I guess her relationship status makes her beautiful and was the best way to define her! In the same section Gillian Anderson expresses how she’d like to embrace her aging face as something that doesn’t need to be fixed. Literally right next to an Olay Anti-Aging ad.
Speaking of age, that evil number, People has two different sections called “Beauty at Every Age” and “Half Their Age.” The first shows a beautiful woman at every age from 20-60 years old. (I mean after that, you might as well curl up in your grave and die). But what’s better than looking beautiful at your age? Looking half your age! In the latter section, the women get big blown up pics because they achieved the ultimate goal of looking forever 25 rather than a “good for her age” 50.
In another section, women are asked what the best compliment they’ve received has been. Rather than focusing on their physical traits, many women say the best compliment they’ve heard is about their parenting or the children they’ve raised. But wait don’t worry. Lest you think People can’t make motherhood about outer beauty, there’s the section “Pregnant in Heels!” highlighting beautiful women who are expectant mothers and also chose to wear heels. Because that’s important and relevant to the true meaning of beauty. It’s as if every meaningful moment that occurs is trivialized when put next to a ringing endorsement for gendered beauty norms.
Next up in People’s convoluted message of what’s beautiful, there’s a back and forth of sections emphasizing make-up but also natural beauty. The section “What I Learned from my Glam Squad,” includes tips like, “You can fake fuller lips,” and “Always fill in your arches.” Following this, we have the section “Not a Drop of Make-up,” to celebrate those stars courageous enough to show their bare faces, who can look beautiful even with just moisturizer. Several of them elaborate that they generally don’t use much make-up as they prefer to keep their look natural. And with that I throw all my make-up back into the trash once more, unsure if it’s the tool that I need to be beautiful or the evil paint disguise for the ugly, unnatural woman.
I get what they’re going for here, I do. Looking beautiful is complicated and unique from person to person. And yeah, if someone wants to contour their face everyday with makeup while someone else wants to go au natural, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. But rather than saying this, People seems to be that guy that doesn’t like when you wear too much makeup but likes the “natural” look, yet meanwhile the natural look should include bronzed blemish-free skin, soft shiny hair and smooth legs.
There were genuine and smart moments in this “Most Beautiful” issue. Unfortunately though, they were overshadowed by a smattering of beauty tips, tricks, and how-tos. Rather than relaying any meaningful message about the complicated construct of female beauty, People just managed to tell us all the things we should be, all the things we need to do, to be beautiful women. More importantly, never did it affirm its many quotes and surface level message of valuing the importance of inner beauty or being a beautiful person, as never once did it minimize or step away from the importance of being physically beautiful. Don’t try to get real about the problems with female beauty standards when you are a part of that problem, People.