I didn’t set out to find the Marilyn Monroe of my generation, the one beauty icon that speaks to us all — but then I saw her staring at me.
With her imperfect teeth, messy, bleached hair and morning-after complexion, musician Liza Thorn is the anti-Marilyn, and we need more like her.
Thorn’s unlikely ascent as a style icon — she has an affinity for ripped stockings and tattered coats — was featured last month in The New York Times’ fashion app The Collection.
“She is a beguiling presence,” writes NYT’s William Van Meter. Thorn likely won’t capture our attention for long, but the fascination with her carefree look is symbolic of a change that’s occurred within the beauty industry. There is no longer a single beauty or style icon that captures our admiration. Bombshells explode onto the scene, we become enraptured, then quickly move on to someone else.
“We used to look to magazine supermodels and to Hollywood celebrities and starlets to define iconic beauty. But not only is Hollywood a little bit more diverse, our definitions and expectations for beauty are far more diverse,” says Sidneyeve Matrix, associate professor of media and film at Queen’s University.
Matrix says the online space has “democratized” the beauty industry.
“Social media is now a mainstream broadcast platform for us,” she says. “We can all chime in and vote for what we think is interesting and smart and beautiful.”
Thanks to Instagram, Tumblr and YouTube, we’ve dethroned the beauty mavens with our own, more diverse images and content, Matrix says.
You don’t have to be a magazine editor to review makeup, attend Fashion Week or participate in trunk shows or store openings.
Those are some of the perks Kerrilyn Wong has enjoyed since she started writing her blog, There’s Something About Kerri.
Wong, 26, has a knack for spotting unique pieces and putting together enviable outfits. But she gravitated to beauty blogs for another reason — at five foot four, she couldn’t relate to the leggy models in magazines.
“Their body proportions were not similar to mine,” writes Wong from Vancouver, where she’s a student at BCIT. “The hemline of a dress on a magazine model may fall above her knees, but for shorter girls, it may fall to their calves and make them appear stubby.”
Beauty blogs are seen as more relatable than mainstream publications because the writers have insecurities similar to our own. Wong, for instance, has shared about her own dieting and exercise, writing openly about the body parts she’s focusing on toning up.
But that “realness” factor is deceiving, argues Sabrina Maddeaux, managing editor of Toronto Standard, an online publication that covers urban affairs, style and culture.
Most popular bloggers are not challenging the status quo, she says.
“I think blogs, social media and ‘street style’ started off as positive forces for diversity in beauty and fashion, but as they’ve become more associated, supported and controlled by mainstream media outlets, brands and advertisers, they’ve become quite harmful,” Maddeaux says.
“A lot of these bloggers have risen to fame through the support of major media outlets and brands, who then turn around and use their association with them to say: ‘Look at us! We’re being real!’ But they’re just different versions of the same girls they’ve always featured in magazines and campaigns.”
Maddeaux sees a superficial improvement when it comes to diversity in magazines.
Stars like Kim Kardashian, Christina Hendricks and Beyoncé are praised for their “curvier” bodies and accept their stardom as proof that Hollywood supports a healthier body image. But while those women are exceptionally attractive, their beauty — doe eyes, puffy lips, large breasts — is ultimately rather conventional.
“Plus-size models still have to fit into a very specific size range — one that doesn’t reflect the majority of women — and even the ‘quirky, intelligent’ celebrities like Tina Fey still look like most people’s prom queen,” Maddeaux argues. “Clearly, editorial teams are still way behind the curve on this.”
Even though we don’t have a single icon, there’s still a standard of beauty or of physique that’s hailed by the media as being attractive, says Kimberly Moffit, a Toronto-based psychotherapist. “I think that can be discouraging for young women.”
Both Moffit and Maddeaux are concerned about the idolization of single body parts — Pippa Middleton’s butt, Scarlett Johansson’s lips, a skinny runway model’s “thigh gap.”
“The rate at which we speed through icons, and fragmentize them, is actually much more de-humanizing than what we saw in decades past,” Maddeaux says.
The transient nature of beauty icons has come with its own problems, but there is still a healthier balance than once existed.
“Think about Twiggy and how specific that body type was,” Moffit says. “There were probably some women that really struggled because they saw pictures of Twiggy and wished that they could be like her.”
When there is a dominant ideal of beauty — whether it’s a blond woman with large breasts or a waifish woman with round eyes — we are less likely to see our own qualities as attractive.
A U.K. study published last year found evidence that our “visual diet” affects our acceptance of larger shapes and sizes. The authors say women who were shown pictures of heavier models were afterward more likely to accept theirs as an ideal body type.
If the study is right, then seeing more women with peculiar features like Thorn’s praised for their looks may make us feel more accepting of our own.