It may not always be easy to describe exactly what makes a person physically attractive, but everybody recognizes beauty when they see it, right?
Well, yes and no.
Certainly, everyone knows what they personally consider to be beautiful.
But do we all share the same opinion?
Sure, there’s a certain type of face and body that most people will agree is attractive. And this often tends to follow a fairly consistent formula: a defined jaw, high cheekbones, full lips, facial symmetry, a healthy physique.
Yet there’s actually an array of looks on the fringes of this category where our opinions often overlap a great deal less. Indeed, beyond the “average good looks” of a TV soap star, you’ll often find that there’s quite a lot of disagreement about precisely who is and is not attractive; just as well really.
But what is it exactly that we identify in a person when we say that they are beautiful? Where do our ideals of beauty come from? Is an appreciation of beauty simply something we are born with?
Most studies seem to agree that this is at least part of the story: an evolutionary instinct urging us to seek out a strong and healthy mate in order to ensure the continuing legacy of our genes.
But if that were all there is to it, we’d expect beauty standards to be universally similar and to remain consistent over time.
They aren’t, and they don’t.
It also doesn’t account for the phenomenon of incredibly beautiful people partnering with much less obviously physically attractive ones (although here a convincing explanation is often to be found in the latter’s bank account).
Joking aside though, and even allowing for a degree of difference in subjective opinion between individuals, it’s obvious that there’s a lot more to beauty standards than merely a subconscious primordial intuition. Indeed, it seems much more likely that our concepts of beauty are in large part socially prescribed, culturally specific, and historically variable.
Even in our globalized and increasingly uniform world, very notable regional differences in beauty standards still persist. To be sure, no human population is ever so one-dimensional and predictable as to all think and behave in the same way. There are always disagreements of personal opinion over ideals of beauty wherever in the world you may go (again, this can only be a good thing).
Nonetheless, there are often quite clear geographical differences concerning general ideals of beauty to be found between different parts of the world. Or at least between those regions that have yet to fully submit to the tyrannically homogenizing influence of social media.
In fact, although above we suggested that a person with a strong jawline, well-defined features, and an athletic body might be almost universally considered attractive, arguably this is a very Eurocentric concept of beauty. Indeed, in many parts of the world, such a sculpted look is more likely to be associated with manual labor, and therefore with low social status. Instead the less-angular features and more “cushioned” body of the idle rich might still traditionally be considered much more desirable in some parts of the World.
In order to to confirm that concepts of beauty have changed dramatically throughout history, all it takes is the most superficial survey of the human form as depicted by artists across the ages. If a group of Renaissance, Pre-Raphaelite, or Victorian artist’s models were to be magically transported to the present-day by a time-machine, and dropped off outside H&M on a Saturday afternoon, some might indeed find themselves approached by a scout from Ford or Elite.
Most, however, would not.
But we don’t need to go anywhere near as far back in time as this to find that beauty standards have evolved: while some Hollywood stars of the early and mid 20th Century possess a form of beauty that has endured, others arguably fare less well today. And perhaps even some of those who retain their iconic status have nonetheless lost some of their shine over the years.
For example, is Marilyn Monroe as beautiful today as she used to be?
For an entire generation (indeed probably several generations) of North Americans and Europeans, Marilyn Monroe was the ultimate sex symbol. The yardstick against which all concepts of female beauty were measured.
But it might be difficult for many of us today to accurately understand just how beautiful Marilyn was considered to be when she was alive. Time has moved on, and other sex symbols have come and gone, each subtly adding to and altering popular beauty standards.
Certainly, even now, few of us would consider Marilyn anything short of attractive. But do we consider her to be as beautiful as people used to?
We don’t have any statistics to back this up, but perhaps in the little more than half a century that has passed since Marilyn’s death, our standards of beauty have already shifted somewhat, deadening Marilyn’s impact slightly?
The philosopher and historian Michel Foucault has argued that the way we think – or, more accurately, the thoughts humans are capable of thinking – are restricted by the times we live in and all that went before us.
In effect then, we today may not see the same person that anyone looking at Marilyn Monroe back in 1953 would have seen.
Or, rather, she is of course the same person, but our eyes perhaps view her quite differently due to the cultural shifts that have taken place since her time.
Let’s consider another example. The 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starred in its lead role an unknown ex-model – with no previous acting experience – by the name of George Lazenby. Despite only appearing in this single Bond movie, Lazenby nonetheless became a major star. A role he evidently set out to make the most of, claiming to have spent the next few years sleeping with up to 5 women per day.
Of course, we only have Lazenby’s word for this, and even back in the 1960s not everyone would necessarily have agreed with Lazenby’s own opinion of himself as “a handsome guy”. Nonetheless, Lazenby was clearly considered something of a sex symbol at the time, and enjoyed a very successful international modeling career. Good for him.
Yet, while there’s certainly nothing objectionable about Lazenby’s physical appearance, it’s quite difficult to imagine him having quite the same degree of success as a model today.
The reverse of this is probably also true. Models such as Lara Stone, Cara Delevingne, Godfrey Gao, and David Gandy are likely viewed as the epitome of physical beauty by those who grew up surrounded by images of them. But would their careers have taken off to the same degree if they had been born 50 years earlier?
In Gao’s case the answer seems pretty clear: without wishing to be too cynical, it’s undoubtedly no mere coincidence that the Eurocentric fashion industry only acquired an appreciation for Asian male beauty when it suddenly saw an opportunity to sell more clothes to the increasingly lucrative Asian market.
While Gao is clearly exceptionally handsome, untold numbers of Asian males have fit this description just as equally well since time immemorial. But until there was large amounts of money to be made by employing these men as models, none of the major European or North American fashion houses paid them even the slightest degree of attention.
Look at illustrations of men’s fashions from the 1940s and ‘50s and they will probably strike you as absurdly box-shouldered, their long-coated bodies little more than huge rectangles with tiny little heads on top. Or, if you’ve spent any time rummaging around in vintage or thrift stores, at some point you’ll likely have come across an attractive looking jacket or two from the 1908s, only to discover that it’s shoulders are filled out with enormous angular pads that make you look like a walking signboard.
Thankfully the dominant and aggressive physical ideal expressed in ’50s and ‘80s “power dressing” didn’t extend beyond the superficial level to also include surgical intervention. Nonetheless the fact that such a body shape was considered highly desirable just a few decades ago illustrates just how quickly concepts of beauty evolve.
Indeed, the rapid pace of societal change can lead to a generational gap even when it comes to beauty. So while the malnourished “heroin chic” look may still appeal to those who grew up in the ‘90s, among a younger generation today, the unstoppable rise of yoga within mainstream culture has lead to an obsession with healthier and more evenly-toned physiques.
Meanwhile, many of today’s more athletic male bodies tend to be fed on dietary supplements and have been heavily worked on in the gym. The slightly swollen, triangular appearance of a modern weight-pumped body is nothing like the old-fashioned silhouette of a person made muscular through hard physical labor. Yet to those who’ve come of age in the last few years, such a body will appear entirely normal, and is likely something to be emulated. However, to anyone accustomed to looking at the toned bodies of working men or athletes from an earlier age – such as Bruce Lee’s highly proportioned figure for example – today’s male body ideal may take some getting used to.
Which is not to say that either one of these body types is objectively superior or inferior in any way, but merely intended to illustrate that as our lifestyles change, so too do our aesthetic ideals. Indeed, as the tendency is for less and less of us to do physically demanding jobs, what we expect a healthy body to look like is also changing.
The Ancient Greeks are well known for having idolized beauty. Unfortunately for the black-haired and bronze-bodied Greeks, two of the physical traits they most found attractive were pale-skin and red hair.
In an attempt to bridge the disparity between fantasy and reality, the Greeks often applied white lead to their skin – with predictably toxic results.
Meanwhile, for over 300 years European women had to endure the extreme discomfort of wearing a corset in the hope of achieving a desirable hour-glass figure – with very little regard for their natural body shape. To give an idea of just how widespread this practice was, in the 1860s, at the peak of their popularity, an estimated 1,200,000 corsets were sold per year just in Paris alone.
However, many people have argued that the restrictive nature of corsets had a much greater effect upon women’s lives than simply pushing their bodies into an unnatural and painful shape: corsets were so tight and uncomfortable that they stopped the wearer from engaging in sustained physical activity of any kind. Even walking a hundred yards or so, or up stairs, in a corset would require the wearer to stop for a rest.
Similarly, in China the tradition of aesthetic foot-binding continued for nearly a thousand years, right up until the last century.
Whether in China or Europe, what more effective way to maintain clear gender divisions and exclude women from full activity in society than by tying them up so that they can barely move? In this manner women were effectively confined to the home, while men were free to do as they pleased.
Sadly not all of these unpleasant practices have been left in the distant past. Indeed, we’ve had our fair share of destructive beauty fetishes more recently too, with cases of anorexia peaking in the 1920s and 1980s: decades when the ideal female figure was exceptionally thin.
In recent years criticism from the public has kept excessive idolization of an unhealthy body weight somewhat in check. In fact, if anything the trend has become more about augmenting – rather than decreasing – bodily curves. Often by means of surgery.
Yet it may only be a matter of time before the population suffers a new wave of eating disorders as the stick-insect look becomes à la mode once again.
We might say that the meaning of beauty is defined by society’s most privileged members; often in their own image. For this reason it’s difficult to discuss the subject of beauty in a manner that is entirely removed from politics.
Tell me who is considered beautiful in a given society, and I’ll tell you who has the economic power.
At least up to a point.
Things are changing though, and there’s been a lot of talk recently of the increasing diversity of popular role models and contemporary beauty icons. Much, too, has been made of the fact that some models now continue to work into their 40s, and even well beyond.
Perhaps never before in history has African-American popular culture been so widely valued and emulated on a global scale. The rise of hip hop and trap as the musical genres of choice for most teenagers around the world has largely replaced the once dominant influence of (predominantly white) rock musicians as default style icons. This has fortunately and undoubtedly led to a greater promotion of black beauty standards among the world’s population.
From the tragedy of black rock musicians trying to straighten their hair with an iron in the 1960s, we’ve moved to the now apparently widespread phenomenon of whites attempting to make themselves look black by using Instagram retouching apps.
For better or worse, the Kardashians have no doubt played a major role in changing perceptions of what is considered to be a desirable body type (although it’s worth noting that they themselves have not been immune from accusations of appropriating black culture). There’s certainly a huge difference between the body shapes of ‘90s super models such as Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell on the one hand, and that of Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé or Rhianna on the other: arguably some of the most influential female beauty icons of the present day.
So yes, there is growing diversity – of a kind. But as we’ve seen, just like any other form of fashion, standards of beauty come in waves and cycles.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that, even way back in the late ‘80s, many people were making almost identical claims regarding the increased equality and inclusiveness of the fashion industry. At the time, some fashion editors argued that mainstream standards of beauty had clearly changed quite radically, citing the fact that women from more diverse backgrounds had begun working as models. Similarly, other industry commentators asserted that a model’s age had become much less of an obstacle to success.
While this may be entirely true in relation to what went before the 1980s, it highlights the fact that progress is a relative concept. And seen from our vantage point 30 years on, it’s obvious that neither the 1980s nor any decade since then has been an egalitarian paradise; either in the fashion industry or anywhere else.
So while we’re certainly pleased to see that beauty standards are shifting once again – in a way that more accurately reflects our heterogeneous society – it seems reasonable to assume that people looking back on these times from 30 years in the future will likely not find our age any more enlightened than we find the 1980s.
There’s always room for the improvement of society, and the fashion industry is rarely anything but a reluctant and late adapter to the outcomes of social and political battles that are largely fought elsewhere. In short, perhaps we shouldn’t be too self congratulatory just yet as there’s still plenty of work to be done on this front.
As the saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But we need to keep in mind that this eye doesn’t enjoy a privileged and neutral view of the world, free from outside influence. Instead, our individual understanding of what we see is filtered through societal pressures.
Bombarded daily by images depicting only one general type of physical perfection, the eye quickly learns to value this particular kind of image over all other possible forms of beauty.
Ultimately, what this all demonstrates is that – beyond just looking reasonably healthy – physical beauty is largely a moveable concept. Highly susceptible to shifts in thinking and changes in society more generally.
Not to mention the influence of a few high profile individuals.
People aren’t born beautiful, so much as they are born lucky enough to coincide with the beauty norms of their day. The exact same person born in a different age might not feel so fortunate.
Given enough evolutionary time, then, it’s likely that almost any kind of look will eventually enjoy its moment of fetishized glory. Essentially, we’re all beautiful in our own way; it’s just that the rest of the world hasn’t necessarily caught up with our beauty standards yet. Those enjoying their moment in the sunshine today, take note: our time will come!
What never goes out of style, however, is a great personality. There’s not a single kind of arbitrarily fashionable bone structure that will make up for a lack of charm and charisma or beat being an all-round likable person.