By Natalie DeYoung
People have written volumes on the subject, so much you’d think we’d be tired of it. Many have made terribly poor decisions while under its influence. People have died for it, foolishly or otherwise. In today’s culture, it is such a powerful factor that it has become its own giant of an economic industry. As of 2013, the beauty industry netted $426 billion in sales, $40 million of which was spent by girls ages 8-12, and $100 million by girls ages 13-17. Cosmetic surgery costs? $11 billion dollars in the U.S. alone. Women are taught from a young age to above all else, be beautiful. Men are taught to revere a woman’s beauty to the point where they learn to objectify women, a harmful psychological practice that results in disrespect, systemic inequality, misogyny, rape and even murder.
It seems silly to care so much about beauty, to the point where it becomes a cultural obsession. Have we always cared this much?
The short answer is, yes.
Anyone who read The Iliad or Doctor Faustus in college knows about the woman whose face “launch’d a thousand ships:” Helen of Troy, who purportedly started the legendary Trojan War. The Greeks and Romans did their utmost to capture beauty in sculpture, though it wasn’t just the beauty of women (fun fact: during antiquity the male form was considered to be more beautiful than that of the female). Ancient Egyptians thought Nefertiti encompassed the epitome of beauty; indeed, her very name means, “the beauty has come.” Fairy tales of all ethnic persuasions throughout history usually include some variation of the beautiful princess, whose goodness is exceeded only by her extraordinarily pleasing appearance and perhaps her good fortune with animal friends. Beauty has always been a significant value.
This is not to say that ideas about what constitutes beauty have remained static since that time. Actually, it’s quite a fluid concept. Aside from valuing symmetry in facial structure, very little about beauty remains constant. The women of the Elizabethan era famously plucked and scrubbed their hairlines to achieve a high forehead, as well as using makeup that contained lead to whiten their faces. This unfortunately resulted in scarring and illness, but hey, in the name of beauty there have been worse crimes. Curves have pogoed in and out of style every few hundred years, from times when breasts were bound to when corsets squeezed waistlines in order to accentuate the bosom. Makeup likewise goes in and out of fashion depending upon social conceptions. While a must during the Renaissance, it became taboo in the demure Victorian age; where it blossomed with the advent of cinema, it died off again during the days of bell-bottoms and free love.
Also, what is considered beautiful in one culture may not translate to another culture. In areas where food is scarce, heavier women are lauded for their beauty and young women are sometimes force-fed to attain this standard, like in the Mauritanian region. Women of the Kayan tribe in Thailand prefer necks lengthened by a series of rings. The Chinese famously bound girls’ feet until the practice was made illegal in 1915. Despite the ubiquity of nose jobs, face lifts and breast implants, contemporary America does not have the market cornered on extreme beauty practices.
All joking aside, what are we as women to make of this legacy of obsession with beauty? It appears to be a part of all of our heritages, regardless of nationality. How are we to teach our daughters and granddaughters to rise above it, to value their characters and souls above their appearance, when every aspect of cultural values instruct otherwise?
Personally, I take comfort in the fact that ideals eventually change, and even when under the influence of a powerful social norm, there are always exceptions.
Beauty remains as subjective an experience as it is arbitrary. Just in the past hundred years, it has changed so drastically that certain standards can be broken down by decade: Marilyn Monroe curves in the 50’s, Twiggy angularity in the 60’s, all-American Farrah Fawcett in the 70’s, Barbie-like Christie Brinkley in the 80’s. Western conceptions of beauty have unfortunately remained Eurocentric until very recently, and still resists the inclusion of dark-skinned women into mainstream media, a topic of great discussion amongst both feminists and advocates for racial equality. But I’m hoping that in the not-too-distant future, beauty will celebrate more inclusiveness within its coveted ranks. Maybe once we get to that point, we will learn to see beauty as a depth beyond the shallowness of mere appearance.