Today's pontification comes to your courtesy of this post over at Ultraviolet, that covers a lot of ground but achieves very little depth. I'd ignore it, except the issue is important, and deserves something more analytical than a garbled regurgitation of half-chewed ideas.
So. It seems to me that underlying all this talk about stereotypes of female beauty there are really two distinct issues: a) the significance we attach to female beauty and b) the way in which that beauty is defined. Think of them as the weight a subject has on your overall grade and the way that you're marked on that subject. It's my opinion that the real problem, indeed from a gender perspective the only problem, is the former, not the latter.
The trouble is that we live in a world governed by the assumption (shared by men and women alike) that women are supposed to be beautiful. Years of systematic social conditioning, liberally aided by propaganda from clothing and cosmetic companies makes us attach undue importance to female beauty, making it a critical if not defining part of a woman's identity. And that is just silly.
The comparison with male beauty (or handsomeness, or good looks, or whatever) is instructive. It's not that standards for male attractiveness are any less stringent or outlandish. Take a look at your standard underwear model with his rock-hard abs and / or his pretty boy good looks (ooh! yum...errr...sorry, got distracted there for a minute) and you have a template of male beauty every bit as unachievable for the ordinary guy as any that applies to women. The crucial difference is that with men, society makes the eminently more sensible assumption that most men aren't going to come close to that standard. Oh, I'm sure there are men out there who care a great deal about their looks. But this vanity is not (or to a much lesser extent) socially imposed - nobody seriously cares that you're not good looking. Or rather, it's a small part of who you are - along with intelligence, professional success, personality, sense of humor, etc. - and not something to get too fussed about. Nobody, for instance, would call me handsome (except perhaps a short-sighted aunt or two), but I can't say that I've ever been anxious about this, or felt the need to invest time, money or effort into doing something about it. And based on my (admittedly unscientific) observation of people I'm friends with, I think that's an attitude generally shared - on average, female beauty is a much bigger deal (to men and women both) than male beauty.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not for a moment suggesting that the more sensible attitude to male beauty is in any way a reflection of the relative smartness (or not) of men; notice it's the attitude to male beauty, not the male attitude to beauty. You might just as well argue that the fact the male beauty is less critical is a tribute to the greater maturity of women when it comes to looking for a mate (though I don't seriously believe this). No, on the whole I think we're all products of an inherited set of social norms that unfairly emphasize the physical attractiveness of women. As Germaine Greer puts it:
"clothes are expected or altered to fit the man; women have somehow to try to fit the clothes. There are a few male fashion victims; all women are victims of fashion. Men will not buy cosmetics; in the United States women spend more than $ 10 billion a year on make-up and beauty aids" (The Whole Woman, Anchor Books 1999, pp 150)
All of this is patently ridiculous. And mouthing platitudes about how "all women are beautiful" or "every woman is beautiful in her own way", while expressing a pretty sentiment, does more to devalue beauty than to help women. Let's face it - most women are not beautiful. They are at best vaguely nice looking, frequently plain, occasionally ugly. Pretty much the same distribution, in fact, as you find with men. And the point is that this doesn't and shouldn't matter. Physical attractiveness shouldn't be the defining characteristic of any individual, it should be a valued but minor trait, like good driving skills, or the ability to juggle or remember phone numbers.
What we need to fight then, is not a particular definition of beauty but the conspiracy of beauty itself. And yes, this means ensuring that we weed out the role of beauty as a selection mechanism in the workplace; it means that we ask ourselves tough questions about media reports that place undue emphasis on a woman's looks or manner, that, for instance accuse Hillary Clinton of "having a grating voice and bad taste in clothes"; it means that we work to change masculine attitudes that evaluate women purely or primarily on the basis of their looks. It also means that women need to make a conscious effort to deny the feminine privileging of beauty, to keep themselves from being manipulated into an emphasis on their looks that is, frankly, unnecessary. It's easy to say "oh, but looks do matter" (just as it's easy for men to say "oh, but it's women themselves who are obsessed with looking beautiful") but real progress will only get made if we attack the perverse selection mechanism from both sides.
Of course, none of this is new, and all of it is easier said than done. But I think it's a critical first step to recognize that it's not really about how we define beauty - whether it relates to skin color, or to a particular shape or body type. The simple fact is that beauty must, by definition be exclusionary. A world where everyone is beautiful is a world where no one is. We can certainly replace one stereotype with another (as an aside, would someone care to explain to me how a currently common definition of beauty can be an 'ancient' stereotype?) but all that achieves is some minor reclassification of who gets to be beautiful - it's a bit like (forgive me, I can't resist) rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
But surely, you're going to say, judging people on the basis of the color of their skin is a form of discrimination? It is if we use beauty to judge people (especially women), if we make our assessments of their physical attractiveness a basis of providing access to opportunities or selecting for jobs. But if we were to get over our obsession with female beauty and relegate physical attractiveness to the position it deserves, then the whole question of fairness' relationship to beauty would become largely irrelevant. I personally have never understood the obsession with lighter skin, but there are certainly things I find attractive in a woman (though I'm obviously not going to be stupid enough to list them here) and, by extension, women who I think are beautiful. But I don't (or at least I think I don't) base my friendships or my relationships with women at work, or even my romantic relationships (few and far between as they are) on how the women in question look, simply because in the big picture that hardly matters. And that, I'd argue, is where we want society to be headed. The more time we spend debating what makes a woman beautiful rather than why this matters, the longer we stay trapped in a reductive emphasis on beauty that serves little purpose except to bolster patriarchal power.
see also: Fair, though hardly lovely
 Is it just me, or do other people find the media coverage of Hillary Clinton annoying? I'm not really a supporter of Ms. Clinton, but just reading all these articles about how she dresses and whether she's "too hardened" to be a leader (because how can a tough woman who never cries possibly be 'inspirational' tchah!) I'm rapidly getting to the point where I'd vote for her (if I had a vote in this country, which I don't) just to spite the people who write these stories.