Linda Evangelista Shows Us That No One Is Immune From The Impossible Beauty Standard We Place On Women

Society’s pressure to conform to an unattainable standard of beauty has a large physical and mental toll on many women. As Linda Evangelista shows us, even supermodels are not immune, says Rose Stokes.

Linda Evangelista

by Rose Stokes |
Updated on

In the 1990s there was no woman in the world whose face was more famous than Linda Evangelista. As a young girl in that decade, making the awkward transition from child to adolescent, she was the image of everything I wanted to be: adored, desired and completely ‘perfect’ in the physical sense. So ubiquitous was the Canadian model’s face that it has apparently been featured on over 700 magazine covers over the years, and she is often referred to as one of the most influential supermodels of her era. In the same way that Jennifer Anniston’s character Rachel from Friends inspired her own haircut, The Linda became a popular do that women begged their hairdressers to give them, hoping, I imagine, to look something — anything — like Evangelista herself. To access some of her perfection. She seemed untouchable, and her beauty the benchmark by which many women young and old measured their own. We’d all been taught that beauty like that was the only real key to happiness. How could someone so flawless ever feel sad?

Unfortunately, as it turns out, she both could and has felt very sad since those days, particularly over the past five years. During this time Evangelista has, in her own words, been left depressed by her own poor self-image after a beauty procedure that she says has left her looking “unrecognisable”. In an emotional Instagram post published on Friday, Evangelista, now 56, explained to her followers why she has consistently eschewed the spotlight in recent years while her “peers’ careers have been thriving”. In the post, she describes undertaking a cosmetic procedure called CoolSculpting by Zeltiq (a subsidiary of a big US-based multimillion dollar pharma called Allergan), which purports to use a “medical device” to freeze what it calls “stubborn fat” deposits in a process called cryolipolysis. The FDA-approved brand’s promises on its site to treat “visible fat bulges in the submental (under the chin) and submandibular (under the jawline) areas, thigh, abdomen, and flank, along with bra fat, back fat, underneath the buttocks (also known as banana roll), and upper arm.” But Evangelista says that for her it did the opposite to what it promised, and left her “permanently deformed”.

The model goes on to explain in the post that as a direct result of this procedure she developed something known as paradoxical adipose hyperplasia (an adverse reaction to the treatment of which she says she was never made aware). As a result, she says, she has lost her career and since fallen in and out of a “cycle of deep depression, profound sadness, and the lowest depths of self-loathing”.

It is impossible to read her statement and feel anything other than the profound sadness she describes. But as someone who grew up trying and failing to keep up with the impossible beauty standards placed especially on women and girls, while reading this incredibly harrowing statement I also felt moved by a very deep and specific compassion. Because I, too, like so many others know what it’s like to hate myself because of how I look. It provoked in me a sort of kinship I would never have imagined to feel with the Linda Evangelista. The woman whose mere existence has served to make me and so many others feel so imperfect for so many years.

So how on earth did we end up here? In a situation where a woman who was once recognised (by an albeit very narrow beauty standard) as one of the most gorgeous people in the world says she loathes the way she looks?

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to imagine why we all gripped on so tight to such a narrow idea of beauty in the days before the words “body” and “positivity” had ever found themselves placed next to one another in a sentence. But when beauty campaigns all featured the same, white-faced, very slim women, holding their aesthetic up as the one we should all be striving towards, regardless of our size, race or individual attributes — we all learned that our mission was to try to conform to this ideal. There was a commonality to it; no matter who you were or what you looked like, the thing that tied us all together was that we were all aspiring, all lusting for something we would never, ever attain. Because it didn’t exist.

It was brutal, really, and brought with it an immense pressure that many of us still feel the negative impact of today when it comes to our self-esteem and mental health.

In some ways we have come a long way since those days. Brands have found financial (and, OK, maybe some moral) value in emphasising diversity in their campaigns — and representation is certainly much improved from what it was in the 90s... although that really is a very low bar. The definition of beauty in fashion, the media (and therefore society) has, at least, been widened compared to what it once was. But make no mistake, we still have a long way to go in some areas — such as colourism and real fat acceptance, for instance.

Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, though, the benchmark of beauty has somehow become even more impossible at the same time. Though there are more diverse ways to be considered beautiful than in the 90s, the introduction of a new, highly edited and polished standard in the online world has given way to new insecurities. New unreachable standards for everyone to adhere to. Alongside this (and completely, in my opinion, related to it) an explosion in plastic surgery and “tweakments” has become not only available — but affordable, socially acceptable and, in some cases, to be expected. Now, thanks to botox, we needn’t age gracefully, because we can be unwrinkled well into our 50s. We needn’t simply make peace with our thin lips, beacuse we can pump them full of Hyaluronic Acid to make them appear more plump. We don’t have to live with eyelids that hang down over our eyes, because we can pin back our foreheads to make this problem disappear. And we can do all of this without being a millionaire or travelling further than our local high street.

So what are we left with? Well, in many ways an environment that is more dangerous than ever in terms of the mixed messaging we all get, which tells us that accepting ourselves as we are is the true key to beauty, while simultaneously creating new and different ways to make us feel lacking.

I should say here that by no means do I disagree with tweakments or cosmetic procedures; I really do believe anyone and everyone should do whatever they want and need to do to feel good in themselves. But I can’t help but wonder where this is all heading, especially when those who set a standard we were rejecting ourselves in search of are caving under that very same pressure. When people whose literal job it is to make us all strive to look a certain way are admitting to strong feelings of inadequacy when judged by the very same metric?

If there is an answer, I honestly don’t know what it is. But what I do know from the hundreds (if not thousands) of hours and pounds I’ve been privileged enough to spend in therapy is that the biggest mistake we all ever made was to allow ourselves to feel imperfect in the first place — although it’s also completely understandable that we did in an environment of such strong and persistent messaging. We were never flawed or lacking. Not you, not me and not Linda Evangelista.

In the meantime, I am focusing on building my own self-esteem and that of every child (and grownup for that matter) with whom I come into contact. For her sake, I really hope that Evangelista is doing the same — and that she finds peace in realising that her beauty as a person really has very little to do with how she looks.

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