an evolution of beauty

by Kristie Peoples

For every poet, painter, singer, dancer and opinionated person who has ever lived, there have been as many lasting tributes to the ever-changing face of beauty. Despite the wide range of what’s considered “good looking” around the globe, one fact remains the same no matter where we are or how willing we are to admit it: Beauty truly resides in the eye of the beholder.

Regardless of where you are in the world, each culture has its own ideas about physical attractiveness. For some, it’s the full-figured curves of a woman’s body that determine her appeal. For others, it’s a pair of sparkling eyes and soft features that determine her allure. While there’s no real consensus
on what makes a woman outwardly beautiful, science has repeatedly attempted to gauge this persistent question.

One of the earliest measured explorations of beauty appeared in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 1983. Participants were given pictures of several women with varying degrees of attractiveness. When asked to match each woman’s picture to “suitable” jobs, the attractive women were repeatedly paired with higher-paying occupations and were recommended for higher raises than the so-called less appealing women.

Similar examples of beauty and assumed privilege are continually reflected in our media outlets and have motivated some companies to expand the standards of beauty from within the cosmetics industry. Innovative movements like the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty
and its Self-Esteem Fund were established to widen the narrow standards of beauty, which the company believes have harmed the self-perceptions of young girls and women for decades.

Currently, the American cosmetics industry generates more than $2 billion in sales each year. Big figures like these might suggest our obsessive interest in looking good is a 20th-century phenomenon, but that assumption wouldn’t be entirely accurate. When the rise of Hollywood’s film industry created glamorous silver screen legends that American women wanted to emulate,
who better to help them do that than celebrity makeup artists like Helena Rubenstein and Max Factor who made their wares available to average women?

It was the ’40s, and for the first time in this country’s history, mainstream American women were working outside the home while their husbands went to war. They had disposable income and a strong desire to be as glamorous as the actresses they envied. Even so, the movie industry can’t take all the credit for giving us a collective complex about our looks. Neither can the growing presence of ladies’ magazines, which gained a serious following during the ’20s.

Women have been enhancing their appearances long before any of us showed up. In fact, the quest for beauty is at least as old as the pyramids. Strange as the ancient beauty tips and tricks might seem, we’re still carrying on some of the traditions our cosmetically inclined predecessors established long ago. So the next time somebody tells you their product is brand new and cutting edge, you’ll know it was more than likely inspired by a potion that’s old as the hills. From the medieval days of breathtakingly cinched waists and dramatically emphasized hips to fleshy bellies and flowing hair extensions, we took a good look at what passed (and currently passes) for pretty around the world.

As early as the 14th century B.C., ancient Egyptian and Mayan cultures drastically deformed the shape of their babies’ heads in a practice currently referred to as cranial molding. In 1998, the American Medical Association published findings that showed most modern-day women across racial and ethnic lines still used a much milder form of this technique for “beauty, health or intelligence” reasons.

Instead of using pads and heavy bindings like the ancients did, these women said they shaped their babies’ heads by applying saliva, egg or olive oil to their hands and gently rubbing or pressing their babies’ heads in the desired directions. Many also cited the use of headbands and tightly knit caps.

In this study, Serbian women defined beauty as having a “long face with a long head that’s flat in back,” while Chinese, African-American, South American and Italian women preferred “a nice round head.” Jamaican and Panamanian women favored long heads, although Panamanians disliked “cucumber-shaped” noggins.

Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans are recognized as having some of the most elaborate practices for perfuming and protecting skin with natural oils. They also went to great lengths, along with ancient Chinese cultures, to lighten their skin. In addition to using minerals and kohl to accentuate their features, Ancient Egyptians also traced blue veins on their arms to simulate translucent skin. Elizabethan-era women favored extremely pale skin as well and often used dangerous chemicals to get their results. In contrast to these women who were largely among the elite and upper classes, our current culture provides similar treatments and creams to lighten skin, erase wrinkles and perfume the body.

Another beauty ritual that defined a culture and influenced our current ideas of beauty is Chinese foot binding. For more than seven centuries Chinese women endured an agonizing process that involved breaking their toes and folding them under the soles of their feet. Strips of fabric were tied around their warped feet to encourage compression and the “binding” that made them look drastically smaller.

This practice was outlawed in the early 20th century, but the fact that women suffer and manipulate their feet for the sake of beauty is alive and well. During the ’60s and ’70s, many women suffered from sprained ankles and broken bones that resulted from wearing dangerous platform shoes. A generation before that, many women suffered from bunions, corns and other foot problems associated with sharp-toed pumps.

Today, the recent rise in popularity of pointy toed shoes and stiletto heels has driven lots of women to extremes in order to make their Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos more comfortable. Procedures like removing pieces of bones from toes and surgically eliminating baby toes altogether are not unheard of.

Other customs of marking the body go back as far as 5000 B.C. when prehistoric remains revealed tattoos on preserved skin. Just like the definition of beauty itself, there is no singular explanation why this long-held practice of marking the body has existed. For some cultures like the Maori, tattoos made warriors more appealing to their women and later served as rituals during rites of passage and to commemorate major events in a person’s life.

This latter reason is often used in our own contemporary culture as a rationale for getting tattoos – to literally mark special moments on the body. Also seen as body art in general, reasons for getting tattooed and pierced are as varied and unique as the recipients who have this work done.

Whether the work being done comes via the knife or out of a bottle, the process of beautification has often been political as well as personal. In our own culture, the ancient African practice of elaborate hair braiding has influenced many popular hairstyles today. And although cornrows, Afros and dreadlocks were seen by many as a display of natural beauty, others considered it rebellious or politically charged. Hair extensions, however, which have also dated as far back as ancient African cultures, are also a popular mainstay of our beauty industry.

In the late 1700s, Britain’s parliament made it illegal for women to wear makeup, claiming it was akin to witchcraft and trickery. Around the same time, men also refrained from wearing makeup and cologne. Today, however, many men who are often referred to as “metrosexuals” enjoy their own cosmetics and fragrance lines. And as the massive revenue generated from this industry shows, plenty of women don’t mind a little cosmetic “witchcraft” now and again.

Historians have found evidence that some of the earliest humans used mud packed with insects, vegetation and animal waste to heal, moisturize and protect their skin from exposure and the elements. These days, entire spa and retreat centers boast of mineral mudpacks and various seaweed and grass-related body wraps. As for the crushed insects and animal excrement, to the extent that it exists at all in our cosmetics, let’s file it under the broad term of “botanicals.”

As our culture and ideals are constantly changing, so too are the attitudes we have about what constitutes physical beauty. At best, we are left to decide for ourselves. At worst, we are left to let institutions and people other than ourselves determine for us. Actually, that’s not such a bad thing if that judgment sounds anything like Nancy Baker’s, who wrote in “The Beauty Trap”: “A truly beautiful woman makes the best of her physical assets but, more importantly, she also radiates a personal quality which is attractive.”