Beauty and the Beholder

Hillary Smith

It has always fascinated me how certain types of female bodies have gone in and out of fashion throughout history. It’s like bodies are fashion trends, and we can just cast off the old and adopt the new when we notice a new body we like better.

This slide show on Discovery News goes all the way back to ancient beauty ideals, tracing them throughout the centuries until present day. We go from an ancient representation of Nefertiti, which has the almost perfectly symmetrical facial features that have always been an aspect of our definition of beauty, it seems; to Venus as portrayed by painter Peter Paul Rubens in 1635, a Venus that today we would deem “plus-sized”; to the Gibson Girl of the late 1800s, with a corset and a slim waist; to slender flapper girls of the 1920s; to actress and icon Marilyn Monroe, who was considered to be fuller-figured and curvy, although more evidence is surfacing that proves she was likely smaller than she was made out to be; to Bettie Page, who was also considered, apparently, the “Queen of Curves”; to ‘60s-era Twiggy, stick-like model and actress; to white and blonde Christie Brinkley of the ‘80s, considered to represent the “all-American” look; and finally, on a more positive note, to Michelle Obama, who has epitomized healthiness both in her appearance and in her advocacy for healthy living nationwide.

It could easily have ended with this photo of an extremely skinny runway model.

Seeing Rubens’ painting of Venus made me think about all the paintings picturing nude women that I have seen in museums. Every single one of them is painted with a plump body, smooth curves, and soft folds of skin. And they’re beautiful. No one looks at those painting and says, “Man, those women sure are ugly.” No one says, “Those women are kind of fat, right?”

When you think about it, it’s absolutely fascinating that we as a society have developed such polar opposite perspectives on what beauty is, just in the span of a few hundred years. In 1635, a beautiful woman had a curvy body and a flushed face. Then, our beauty ideal started to inch toward the skinny, no-curves spectrum-with the exception of Betty Page and, now dubiously, Marilyn Monroe. This exception is interesting. It’s as if we stopped for a decade and said, “Hey, curvy women are actually pretty attractive” and altered our perspective for a little while. But then we went back to our skinny preference and here we are today with that runway model.

I’m focusing on the body, but the inclusion of the Nefertiti representation in the slide show sheds light on our perception of what constitutes a “pretty face.” It seems that we have always deemed symmetry a component of this perception. This gets me thinking about all the kids in school who endure bullying based on certain physical features. And this is not limited to females. Clearly, we have enough of a subconscious perception of what sort of physical features make up “attractive” that we’re willing to bully those who don’t fit our perception.

Can anything explain our capacity as a people to alter our perspective so arbitrarily? I’m trying to contemplate an answer to that question, although I don’t expect to have one any time soon. To me, it just proves how easily swayed we are by ourselves and by each other, by what we see in magazines and in the media. Because all this, of course, is what makes up society. Our perception as a society is kind of like Playdough: malleable, easily molded and altered, but with the capacity to hold a certain shape for a little while.

Of course, the problem with our beauty ideal today is that maturing girls, self-conscious about their appearance, look to women in the media-like that runway model-for an ideal to strive for. This spawns unhealthy habits, a distorted body image, and terrible self-esteem.

It comes down to this: can we, as a society, consciously change our perception of beauty? There has already been backlash against the use of such emaciated-looking models on runways. We are starting to see more plus-sized women grace the covers of magazines and the pages of catalogues. This would seem to be the first step toward changing our perception of skinny as beautiful. But can we ever fully get over this perception? Or will plus-sized models always be considered, consciously or sub-consciously, an alternative? An appeasement to some niche of people? Not the “normal” beautiful?

Perhaps this is simply not a question that can be answered right now. Perhaps all we can do is keep in mind this evolved perception of beauty. And when we’re looking at a 17th century painting of a nude woman, we can remind ourselves that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.