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The Changing Concept of Beauty

In America, as well as around the world, women and men are bombarded by ever changing images of “beautiful women.” In magazines, television shows, music videos, and all other forms of media, the ideal body type is transformed by the media and perpetuated by the consumer. The images have varied throughout the history of media, occasionally reaching physically damaging levels. Images have spanned from the voluptuous bodies in ancient and renaissance art, to antebellum corset wearers, to the blond bomb-shell of the 50s, to the “waif” and “heroin sheek” models, to finally the revival of curves from Jennifer Lopez. These popular images of beautiful women are a constant thread seen in art and are ever changing, leaving women forever trying to keep up at all costs.
These images are seen by the world as the physical attributes that make a woman beautiful. This ideal image has always been depicted by the arts but, has drastically changed through the centuries and, on occasion, has taken a less realistic, unnatural, and unhealthy turn. The questions “Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?” and “What are the effects of unnatural beauty images?”
Today, many women would prefer to be thin than healthy.5 The psychological impact of models like Kate Moss and Pamela Anderson is evident in the number of recorded eating disorders and plastic surgeries. In the United States alone, in 2004, approximately 7 million girls and women were

eported to struggle with eating disorders.6 During 2003, Women had nearly 7.2 million cosmetic procedures, 87 percent of the national total and the top 2.

The subjects of love and beauty are of particular interest to me because I can't say that I understand either in the least.

Concentrating just on the beauty part of it, the following questions come to mind. What makes someone attractive to another? Is there a difference between physical attraction and sexual attraction or does the latter necessarily underlie the former? What factors influence a person's perception of beauty? How do cultural ideas and ideals of beauty change over time?

The following excerpt addresses the last question above. It comes from the book About Faces, by Terry Landau (Anchor Books, 1989), p. 216.

To give beauty a face and capture that elusive and ever changing value that we understand as beauty, video artist Nancy Burson created two composites. ``The First Beauty Composite'' is a combination of the great beauties of the 1950s: Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, and Marilyn Monroe. ``The Second Beauty Composite'' is a combination of Jane Fonda, Jacqueline Bisset, Diane Keaton, Brooke Shields, and Meryl Streep. These videographic composite portraits capture and epitomize the differences in the ideal of the 1950s and that of the 1980s. Note, for example, the arched eyebrows and heavily made-up mouth of the fifties beauty versus the more ``generic'' natural look of the eighties.

[1950s composite] [1980s composite]

One might also observe that the 1980s face looks younger and, perhaps, less Western European.

Which reminds me of another composite face in the same book (p. 272). It's a ``racial composite weighted according to population statistics for the three major racial groups: Oriental, Caucasian, and Black.''

[racial composite]

To me, this looks almost completely Chinese (and, yes, I mean Chinese, not Japanese or Korean -- although I've been told I can't really tell the difference).

Personally, I can't see any ``White'' or ``Black'' features in the picture at all.