3 TED Talks That Will Change How You Think About Beauty

"Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body than I do. Nobody calls her disabled."
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"Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body than I do. Nobody calls her disabled."

There are a lot of TED Talks about beauty culture—everything from videos on the power of glamour to the glory of fat positivity to the perils of caring too much about how you look.

There are three talks, however, that I found the most interesting and original. Each one will make you think about the role of beauty in society: who it empowers, who it excludes, and how we can use technology to radically expand our aesthetic expression.

Cameron Russell: Looks aren't everything. Believe me, I'm a model.

Victoria’s Secret model Cameron Russell breaks down the immense privilege that her beauty affords her and ties it to a legacy of racial and gender oppression. She talks about modeling with a rare honesty and self-awareness, noting that her fashion photos are not really photos of her, but complex constructions made by a team of experts.

Choice quote: 

“If you ever think, ‘If I had thinner thighs and shinier hair, wouldn’t I be happier?' you just need to meet a group of models. They have the thinnest thighs and the shiniest hair and the coolest clothes and they are the most physically insecure women, probably, on the planet.”

Rick Guidotti: Seeing beauty for a change.

Fashion photographer Rick Guidotti is the director of Positive Exposure, a nonprofit organization that challenges the stigma associated with conditions like albinism. 

This TED talk is a little long, but it’s really interesting. Guidotti photographs children with genetic conditions in an attempt to show their full humanity, and present them as more than victims or patients.

Choice quote: 

“I know that when I was a kid and I saw someone who was different walking down the street, if I stared, I got slapped by my mom. So the idea was, don’t stare, look away. And I think as an artist, it’s my responsibility, and all of our responsibilities, to steady that gaze a little bit longer … you’ll start seeing beauty in that difference.”

Aimee Mullens: It’s not fair having 12 pairs of legs.

Aimee Mullens is an athlete, model, and double amputee. She’s famous for running on technologically advanced prosthetics modeled after the hind leg of a cheetah. In this talk, she discusses her collection of prosthetic legs, many of which are designed for beauty, not function. Just like jewelry or hairstyle, these prosthetics are a mode of Mullens’ self-expression.

Personally, I have complicated feelings about Mullen. On one hand, she’s advancing an expanded definition of beauty, where being an amputee is an opportunity, not a limitation. She’s taken control of her body, and that’s an amazing thing. But Mullens also seems to enjoy many of the same privileges that Cameron Russell does. She’s conventionally beautiful, and when she puts on the extra-long prosthetics that give her the legs of an anime character, I wonder if she’s also advancing the same old beauty standards that favour women with tall, thin, “feminine” bodies.

The artistic high point for Mullens’ prosthetics may be her work in the Cremaster Cycle, a series of art films by Matthew Barney. For more of Mullens’ thoughts on aesthetics of prosthetics, check out this THINKR video.

Choice quote: 

“Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body than I do. Nobody calls her disabled.”

  • What’s your favourite TED Talk?
  • Does anyone else feel weird about Aimee Mullens’ extra-long prosthetic legs?
  • I would like to invite Cameron Russell to a dinner party of awesome ladies. Can one of you arrange that, please? Thanks.