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The Standards of Beauty - The More Things Change

The Standards of Beauty - The More Things Change

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A little less than a year ago, I became a father for the first time. Like many parents-to-be, I fell in love with my child well before I actually laid eyes upon her, and I required no evidence of her physical beauty to find her beautiful. Yet, looking back on the days following her birth, I recall feeling relieved, foremost because her health was improving every day despite her arriving two months early, but secondarily because she actually was beautiful. Her features were symmetrical and proportionate; her little face was luminescent and full of character. She appeared to have inherited the physical traits that were most desirable in her mother and me. And, though I felt a bit guilty for making the comparison, she seemed to me to put the other babies in the hospital to shame, at least by my aesthetic standards.

Even today, I find myself describing my daughter in terms of her physical beauty, almost by default. “She’s absolutely gorgeous,” I often state, invariably hastening to add, “and smart…and very, very talented.” Sometimes I scold myself for gravitating so naturally to something as superficial as appearance when describing her, particularly as I know that I am using the same metaphorical yardstick to measure her worth as millions of men throughout history have used to measure women. On an intellectual level, I accuse myself again and again of “lookism,” a despicable little word that describes an even more despicable form of prejudice. Yet, on a purely sensory basis, I continue to be gratified by and extremely proud of my child’s beauty.

So does that make me a shallow person beholden to the same superficial benchmarks that modern media uses to weigh a person’s value? Or is the modern concept of beauty, the one so often derided by those whose struggles of conscience are probably similar to my own, rooted in deeper soil, the blossom atop a long stem that has been growing for centuries?

Beauty Is Truth…Possibly

Of the many expressions about beauty that have entered our collective consciousness, one of the most widely known, and certainly one of the most poetic, comes from John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: Beauty is truth, truth beauty. Many people take this as a fine and noble sentiment; yet, ironically enough, T.S. Eliot found it to be the ugliest – and most potentially untrue – line in an otherwise beautiful poem. Although the meaning of this line is debatable and open to a wide range of interpretations, it does raise the question of whether things can be innately beautiful, of whether beauty as a concept can be as absolute and objective as truth.

The Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant drew a distinction between what he called “dependent beauty” and “free beauty.” As its name implies, dependent beauty is highly relative; a thing is judged as beautiful or ugly in proportion to a perception of its ideal form. Conversely, free beauty, while it is subject to judgments of taste, is not contextually weighted down by the notion of the ideal. When, for example, we see a stunning sunset that prompts a sensual response, we’re not necessarily evaluating it according to what a sunset should be, nor are we assigning any moral or utilitarian purpose to the sunset. We are simply moved by the sunset for what it is.

Whether one subscribes to Kant’s philosophies (which I am, of course, oversimplifying here), they do help to give name to what we might call objective, or at least sensually pleasing, beauty. A child, even before he or she is able to utter a single comprehensible word, is drawn to those things that appease the senses, taking delight in looking at and touching them merely for the sake of it. For the adult, the sensual pleasure to be had in these same things has probably been supplanted by a mundane conception of the purpose underlying these things. For a child, for instance, a red light might be perceived as profoundly beautiful, whereas for an adult, it simply means that it’s time to step on the brakes.

Perhaps because adults are so intellectually driven to find purpose in things, many of us associate the pleasure we derive from the objectively beautiful with guilt, if not self-loathing. Why should we take the time to stop and study a sunset when that same time could be used to make the money that will pay the bills, or to spend time eating a meal with our loved ones? Why should we admire the depth of color in a red light when doing so could cause us to run into the car in front of us? Why should I prize my daughter’s beauty when, truly, it’s talent, wit, and intelligence that will ensure the quality of her life into old age?

That last, not-so-rhetorical question throws a particularly troublesome curve ball into any discussion of beauty by introducing the human form into the mix. After all, nothing belongs in such equal measure to both the natural and the artificial worlds as human beings. Nothing prompts greater feelings of guilt or exhilaration than passing judgment on both the natural and artificial aspects of other people and seeing how neatly they fit into our own aesthetic codes.

Truly, if anything like an objective form of beauty exists, it must exist to some degree in the human form, even as it mingles with ancient instincts for survival as an ingredient in sexual attraction. This primal sense of human beauty, however, is quickly submerged beneath layers of emotional, rational, and social development, along with the development of expectations. As we age, we become increasingly unable to appreciate the human form for what it is rather than what it could, or should, be. We redefine human beauty according to our morals and our tastes, sometimes even denying what at first glance strikes us as beautiful simply because it calls into question our own often-rigid standards. Human beauty becomes less a matter of immediate sensual gratification than a matter of what the French writer Stendhal called “the promise of happiness.”

Of course, the very idea that human beings are born with a genetic sense of the beautiful, one that has evolved through history at a pace similar to that of other inherited traits, is debatable. The rational sense of the beautiful, and in particular of what is beautiful in other humans, is easier to identify through history, even as it morphs into different, sometimes wildly new shapes. As tastes change, so do the collective and individual ideals of beauty by which we measure ourselves and others.

Can a Man Be Beautiful? – The Historical Perspective

Traditionally, a concern with one’s own image was seen primarily as a feminine trait, something to which men were, or at least should be, immune. Indeed, the Latin word bellus, the linguistic descendant of the modern term “beauty,” was intended as a compliment only to women and children. When used in reference to a man, it was meant as a form of mockery, a connotation that affects our usage of the word even today. Although the concept of “male beauty” has gained societal acceptance, it is still relatively rare that one would describe a man as “beautiful,” at least in terms of his appearance.

Perhaps because beauty has primarily been seen as a feminine matter for centuries, instances of men seeking resolutions to body-image issues are still relatively uncommon. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, only 5 to 15 percent of those who have come forward with serious eating disorders are male, while the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery found that less than 10 percent of the surgical and non-surgical aesthetic procedures performed in 2005 were performed on men.

This is not to suggest, of course, that self-image isn’t, and hasn’t always been, a problem for males, but rather that males have generally felt compelled to resort to different, often less overt means of dealing with the problem. For men throughout the ages, the most consistently acceptable method of attaining the ideal body shape has been through exercise and conditioning. Whether for sport or as part of battle training, contests of strength and endurance between men have been integral parts of many societies dating back to at least the 6th century B.C., when the first Pythian Games were held. Since then, male beauty has had as much to do with the physique as with the face, a standard that has changed little since the establishment of the “Greek ideal.”

Indeed, how little the standard of male beauty has changed over time can be measured in perhaps the most famous representation of aesthetic perfection, Michelangelo’s David. What is perhaps most striking about David in 2007 is how well the five-century-old statue conforms to our modern conception of what constitutes an attractive male. He is youthful, strong, symmetrical, muscular; his head is crowned with full, thick, curly hair. He is a man fit for competition (not surprisingly, since Michelangelo was trying to capture the Biblical King David just before his battle with Goliath), yet he does not intimidate on sight. His pose is almost humorously similar to that of a GQ model; one can almost imagine his raised hand clutching the arm of a coat draped casually over his shoulder.

It is worth noting that Michelangelo seems to have modeled his David on the ancient Greco-Roman ideal of male beauty, right down to the (historically incorrect) uncircumcised penis. This ideal has proved to be extraordinarily durable, particularly in the Western world, where it has remained the standard even through sometimes extreme shifts in male fashions. From the seventeenth-century preference of French males to wear extravagant, flamboyant clothing in the style of the Sun King to the modern preference of young professionals to wear neatly tailored suits, clothes have often, indeed, made the man. However, it is the form beneath the clothes that has traditionally been seen to make the man beautiful.

Interestingly, the standard by which heterosexual women evaluate male beauty may be dependent to a large extent on physiological factors, according to the findings of a recent, controversial study conducted at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Researchers found that women were more attracted to more traditionally masculine-looking men during the fertile stages of their menstrual cycles, while they tended to prefer more feminine-looking men during less fertile periods. While this research does not suggest that a woman’s choice of mate is necessarily influenced by her menstrual cycle, it does at least give some support to the notion that beauty may not be entirely subjective.

The “Fairer Sex” – Female Beauty through the Ages

While male beauty remains a relatively unexplored topic, one could fill several libraries with the volumes of books, papers, and periodicals that have been devoted to the subject of female beauty. The beauty of the female form has been a preoccupation of both men and women for as long as human history has been recorded. Yet, the question of whether standards of feminine beauty have been thrust upon women as a tool of oppression in male-dominated societies has led to much debate and controversy, particularly since the 1960s. In her 1991 book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf goes so far as to assert that there is a cultural conspiracy afoot to keep women so focused on insecurities over their appearance that they are unable to concentrate on more productive goals.

Regardless of the fairness or social implications of the standards of female beauty, the origins of many of these standards can be found in ancient civilization. Indeed, even the exaggerated modern male fantasy of the ideal woman, as found in countless graphic novels and video games, can be traced back to early artists who tended to overemphasize the physical traits that they found most appealing. In the case of women, whose value in patriarchal societies has traditionally been proportional to the number of children they have borne and raised, large breasts were seen as not only feminine, but the trademarks of an ideal mother. The earliest known statue of a human, the “Venus” of Willendorf, is approximately 25,000 years old and depicts a faceless woman with extraordinarily large breasts that, nevertheless, are seemingly firm and do not sag. While it is unknown whether this statue was meant to represent a specific person or a universal ideal, or even whether it was carved by a man or a woman, it does appear to be a tribute to the female form.

Although the Venus of Willendorf is possessed of large breasts, her sculptor gave her a proportionately large stomach and wide hips, imparting to her a warmer, more maternal air. The ancient Egyptians, in contrast, appear to have esteemed women who were leaner, yet still shapely; even sculptures and drawings of mothers portrayed them as having relatively slender post-pregnancy forms. Since then, the weight of the ideal woman has fluctuated, generally representing a compromise between the large-breasted, broad-hipped mother and the trimmer contours of a young adult female. Indeed, as this compromise seemed increasingly to lean toward fulfilling the male’s image of what a woman should look like, female fashions began to, somewhat forcefully, recontour the body into a more aesthetically pleasing shape. By the nineteenth century, many women would squeeze themselves into dresses that accentuated their breasts while making their waists appear almost impossibly thin.

Of course, cosmetic surgery has made it possible and even quite simple for modern women to strike the balance between having voluptuous, shapely breasts and a trim midsection. And an increasing number of women are taking advantage of this technology that was not available to their foremothers. According to American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, more than 10 million cosmetic procedures were performed on women in 2005 alone. Of these procedures, the most commonly performed was liposuction, while the breasts were far and away the area of the body most frequently treated through cosmetic surgery.

In the Western world, the beauty of a woman’s face has mostly been measured by its softness, symmetry, and lack of blemishes. In early Egyptian and Greek societies, women experimented with cosmetics, often derived from such unsavory sources as copper ore and animal marrow, to lighten their complexions, conceal aesthetic flaws, and highlight the eyes and the lips. As cosmetics became more widely available, women of high social standing, as well as women who had entered middle age, were almost expected to wear make-up in order to present “proper” faces to the world; however, to be less than discreet in applying this make-up was considered an affront to femininity. The first-century Latin poet Ovid famously characterized the “art that makes [women] beautiful” as having to be secret lest it be seen by men as repulsive.

To a degree, feminine beauty is still portrayed as something of a secret art in the media. Even with today’s sophisticated and relatively inexpensive cosmetics and the increasing prevalence of plastic surgery, there is an emphasis on the results rather than the process behind the results. This is a reflection, many would assert, of our current culture of superficial idealism, one in which vanity and an obsession with image have become the norms.

Vanity, Thy Name Is…

But is the human race really any vainer today than it was, say, a hundred years ago or even a thousand years ago? While tastes may change, the human impulse to pass judgments of taste on the appearance of others dates back thousands of years. What has changed in the last century or so is that beauty has become a commodity, and an increasingly marketable and profitable one, at that. As a result, age-old standards of beauty have become narrower and more rigid; it’s difficult, after all, to successfully market any commodity that is too broad in its appeal or scope. Perhaps not coincidentally, this change has corresponded with advances in technology that make it possible for anyone with the money and the desire to come remarkably close to his or her physical ideal. As always, marketing begets further marketing.

In addition to this somewhat cynical appropriation of beauty by capital forces, there have been a number of philosophical changes in the way that humans consider beauty, as well. More and more people strive to find beauty in all things and in all people, doing away with whatever objective standard there might have been to measure the antithesis of beauty – ugliness, if you will – in the process. This tendency underlies perhaps the most persistent standard of beauty through the ages: we find beautiful in others what we find, or would like to find, most beautiful in ourselves. In a sense, other people serve as our mirror, and we judge ourselves accordingly. If we find beauty in others, we must surely be possessed of some beauty, ourselves.

And so I return to thinking of my daughter, now nearly a year old and looking more and more like her mother every day. Still, she has my nose, and a beautiful nose it is. Am I vain for caring that her nose is beautiful and being proud that it resembles my own? Perhaps. Is vanity necessarily a negative thing in moderate doses? If undue or false modesty means reducing beauty to the role of a frivolous luxury in an increasingly pragmatic world, then let vanity continue to have its seat near the head of the table. I’d sooner have my daughter embrace the beauty I discern in her than to turn a blind eye to it.

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