Illustration by Vivian Tong and Eva Morgenstein
Physical beauty is only skin deep — but humans have been lightly mutilating their natural being in search of beauty for thousands of years. In the Legion of Honor, an art museum in San Francisco, the exhibit The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Grande 1860s – 1900s portrays the Aesthetic Movement, a period in cultural history where artists sought to live a holistic life by surrounding themselves by beautiful things. Showcasing from Feb. 18 – June 17, The Cult of Beauty examines the philosophy of what was considered beautiful in that time period, as followers connoted pretty objects and people with morality and goodness. In other periods of history, trends of attractiveness also changed with people’s mindsets. Even when homo sapiens barely had a spoken language, women would color their bodies with red ocher paint to advertise fertility, according to the Elle magazine’s website coverage of a L’Oreal book. In the suffragette era of early 1900s, feminism was in the air and powerful women, with the hourglass figure impacted fashion trends, hence the plunging necklines and full skirts. In the present day, being tall, tan and thin is considered attractive. What is it that made these trends “beautiful” — and why do we care?
Going with our gut
Humans may be the most sophisticated creatures on the planet, but we are still animals and therefore have animal instincts. Despite modern-day lifestyles, all living species’ number-one goal is to produce sufficient offspring, and humans are no exception. Hence, the manifest of beauty has roots not only in our minds, but also bodies.
What women and men are charmed by has to do with the physical characteristics of potential mates that trigger attraction in the brain, which are chemical factors called pheromones. Women’s pheromones are usually set off by men who have square faces with masculine jaws, which are signs of high amounts of testosterone, a steroid hormone that stimulates the development of male secondary sexual characteristics, according to the book Decoding Love: Why it takes Twelve Frogs to Find a Prince, and Other Revelations from the Science of Attraction by Andrew Trees. In the prehistoric era, someone who could protect women and offspring against the elements and predators of their environment were preferable partners, according to Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?: Bodies, Behavior, and Brains — The Science Behind Sex, Love & Attraction by Jena Pincott. Big hips were a sign of fertility to cavemen, and remain so to the modern man, due to a subconscious duty to carry on the species. Not only are men interested in the build of a woman, but women are also thought to look more attractive when they are ovulating or menstruating, according to Trees, a trait that isn’t consciously seen. A 2007 study on female strippers by University of New Mexico researchers showed that women who were ovulating made more tips than those who were not, according to Scientific American’s website.
Pre-1800s, finding food was difficult, and if you were bigger, that means you had the wealth to eat dinner every night. In the 1900s, World War I and World War II provided women with the opportunity to economically support their families, along with a taste of independence. In the following period of feminism, taller, athletic women became attractive. “When being skinny became attractive, human beings had a surplus of food and didn’t have to worry about survival,” Girling said.
How the “Barbie-and-Ken image” warps our minds’ eye
Today, advertising companies and the media have distorted the face of beauty, especially in terms of women. “In my mind, models aren’t very attractive people but they are very striking people, and what advertisers seek is to get your attention,” social studies teacher Richard Girling said.
With modern perception of unrealistic measurements of waist to hip ratios, both women and men alike feel pressure to conform to a specific image of physical beauty. Everyone has looked into a mirror with a more than critical eye. Usually, the main reason they want to change theirselves is to match a look advertised in Vogue magazine— not their own.
Although the public may think society has determined the “perfect look,” that “look” varies across the globe. Different cultures also differ on the traits that would make one look twice. For instance, in European countries like England and France, men prefer petite small-busted women, according to the Indian Express’s, an Indian newspaper, website (www.indianexpress.com). In New Zealand, tattoos are considered a symbol of status and in Japan, people feel that fair, smooth skin was the key to beauty, according to Oprah Winfrey’s website (www.oprah.com). Even in Mauritania, Africa women are brutally force-fed a diet of up to 16,000 calories a day — more than four times that of a male body builder — to prepare them for marriage, according to Advanced Placement Psychology teacher Adam Michels. All over the world, the perception of beauty varies and so does the pain of achieving it.
The standards set by the modeling and advertising industries are also not a realistic image for people who have different genes and characteristics that make them unique. Eating disorders like binge-eating, bulimia and anorexia plague America today. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that eight million Americans have an eating disorder — seven million women and one million men. The mortality rate of eating disorders if the highest out of any mental illness yet only 1 in 10 people who have an eating disorder receive treatment, according to the NEDA website (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org).
Not only are diseases like bulimia and anorexia harmful to the physical body but they also harm mental health. “This is one of the deadliest psychological diseases,” Michels said. “For someone who has anorexia or bulimia, they think that they’re fat even if they look perfectly fine.”
The media plays a huge role in the perception of beauty. “I suppose we all have our influences in what we like,” freshman Zak Langford-Do said. “When you watch TV, you notice there are a lot of people that you might find quite hot. Some people might take this the wrong way and think of themselves as not pretty enough, and try to make themselves pretty.”
Nowadays though, most models are stick-thin, making girls who may be healthy and even athletic yet do not have the same twig-like figure question their weight. “In commercials, like Victoria’s Secret and whatnot, they tell women they have to be skinny and tall with a figure, but if you look around no one is like that,” sophomore Giselda Perez said.
Though girls do receive a lot of direct pressure from the media, men also feel the weight on their shoulders, literally. “I feel pressured to be in shape because I play sports,” Rowson said. The pressure to look like The Gladiator could even lead to cosmetic surgery. According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jan. 20, 2008 print article “A Chest of Gold,” 409 pectoral implants were performed on men in 2006.
Being pushed by parents and educators to be successful, smart and accomplished, one would think the modern-day teenager has no time to worry about their looks, but they do anyway. Of course, the goal to be healthy and fit is a positive, but media images don’t stop there. “Society is unfair because it expects you to be perfect, and no one is perfect,” sophomore Lauren Taylor said.
The perception of beauty
The time old phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” reveals an honest truth. Although love can start with physical attraction, personality is a huge factor in deciding whether a person is a potential relationship interest. “Beauty doesn’t pertain to how a person looks on the outside but how they act and who they are on the inside,” Taylor said.
Society has put such an emphasis on being attractive that individuality becomes lost, such examples such as stars like Michael Jackson and Cher who rid themselves of their natural characteristics, becoming totally different people. “In my opinion, there are no defined boundaries for beauty. Everyone is unique in their own way,” Perez said.
At risk of sounding like a corny pep talk, beauty really is on the inside. By being comfortable in your own skin, you radiate your own beauty. “I went to a workshop recently that told me that I just had to believe in myself,” Perez said. “I can’t put myself down and I have to tell myself that I am beautiful.”
The world is changing, even some beauty product companies have started campaigns to celebrate inner beauty. Dove’s Movement for Self-Esteem revolves around self-confidence and Bare Escentuals’s philantrophy is not beauty by make-up but beauty by what you make — creating and doing good works. Being who you are is what really makes a person attractive, and no physical characteristics can change that.
And a mirror on the wall is never the way to measure how attractive you are.
Photo Illustrations by Vivian Tong