It appears to be the million dollar question that seems to defy even the most valiant attempts to define it. For many women, beauty is more of an emotion as opposed to an aesthetic quality. When we ‘feel’ beautiful, then we are beautiful, the underlying premise being: as we feel, so we are. For others, however, beauty transcends this and is more objective. In other words, beauty is seen to be something that has to be attained, as opposed to something that exists from within. The question becomes, if beauty is something that has to be attained, how is it to be attained?

This quest for what is seen to constitute ‘beauty’ has driven millions of women all across the world to all sorts of lengths to reach that invisible standard of what beauty is. It appears that this invisible standard gets higher and higher with each new beauty product that comes on the market. This in turn drives the booming beauty industry, which increasingly thrives on the insatiable quest for beauty. According to the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association (CTPA) in 2013, the total value of the UK’s cosmetics market rose by 1.6 percent from 2012 to £8,438 million. In addition, according to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (Baaps), more than 50,000 cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in the UK last year, with liposuction procedures recording a 41 percent rise.

In an age where we are constantly being bombarded with images of what constitutes the ideal woman, more and more women appear to be taking such quests to the extreme. The increasingly younger ages swept up in this led to the 2011 Bailey Report, “Letting Children be Children”, which highlighted issues in relation to children being exposed to images that distort – very early on in life – their perceptions of themselves and the concept of beauty as a whole. Furthermore, a report published in 2013, highlighting the government’s “Body Confidence Campaign”, cited goals which include developing young girls’ aspirations, improving their resilience to the images they are subjected to in the media and talking to key high street retailers to get them to champion the issue of body confidence amongst other measures.

In many instances, depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem, self-loathing and sometimes suicide can all arise as a result of this bid to conform to what beauty, as projected by the world, demands. According to a 2013 research study carried out by King’s College London and the UCL Institute of Child Health, about 4,610 girls aged 15-19 and 336 boys aged 15-19 develop a new eating disorder in the UK every year. It appears that the twenty-first century young woman spends more time ‘striving to become’ beautiful, rather than simply ‘being’ beautiful. A redefinition of the concept of beauty has been attempted by the likes of Kristen and Bethany Baird, sister-founders of the website, GirlDefined.com [http://www.girldefined.com], which explores the concept of beauty as that which emanates from within and naturally is.

In other words, beauty is not in how straight we can get our hair to become or how much we can adjust our skin tone or stopping at nothing to be as thin as we can or losing those distinctive features that separate one woman from the next. Rather, beauty is the reality of who we are. Beauty is in the tight kinky Afro curls that stand upright, it is in the pale, freckled skin, it is in the generous body shape, it is in the mature woman’s lines and delicate wrinkles that show she has lived life. More than that, the essence of beauty transcends the typically superficial encapsulation of beauty. This is expressed in the words of Audrey Hepburn, “True beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul”. It’s the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows and the beauty of a woman only grows with passing years.

According to this more unconventional reformulation of beauty, there is space for imperfections, in fact, our imperfections are where true beauty curiously springs up from. This fixation with the hollow ideal of beauty, which the present generation of girls and young women appear to be falling prey to, remains a contentious aspect of our social discourse. What is clear, however, is that a new encapsulation of beauty, which shuns both convention and conformity, appears to be running alongside the societal ideal. How will tomorrow’s generation of women define beauty. According to what standards, if any, will beauty be measured against? Only time will tell.