The Truth About Beauty
A tremendous burden that predominantly challenges women in modern America is the struggle to meet the nationwide expectations of beauty, resulting in experiences of the sickly pressure for acceptance by society and the validation of physical beauty from others. Due to the presentation of women represented by media, the idea of beauty has become standardized to an unreal expectation for the majority of women, leading to stress, anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders. This brings into question what drives the human obsession of being beautiful. Many philosophers, psychologists, authors, and journalists grapple with the definition of beauty, and examine whether our ideals and desire of being beautiful stem from nature or nurture. Taking both sides of beauty philosophy into consideration, the desire to achieve beauty is rooted in nature but driven by nurture.
Beauty standards arise from what we are exposed to by media. The trends and ideals of beauty that media focuses on are constantly evolving with every era depending on who and what the cameras chose to focus the spotlight on. It is inevitable that not everyone will fall in line with beauty expectations set by media, which leads to some women believing they are ugly rather than beautiful. Ultimately, this causes a decline to their self worth and confidence.
A national evidence-based data collection and rating system site, rehabs.com, claims that the increase of mass media that arose in the 20th century glamorized body figures that were considerably slimmer than the average American woman. This trend in size became a popular beauty standard, which is still enforced in modern American society. In, “Vanishing Point: The Evolution of 20th Century American Beauty Ideals,” (2015) rehabs.com displays how popular culture icons dictate this beauty trend. The site states that in the 1950s, the icon of the century was the curvaceous actress and model, Marilyn Monroe. A vast majority of women desired to possess Monroe’s full figure, for she was labeled as a “bombshell” and “sex symbol” by the media. However, by the 1960s, Monroe’s idolization declined and the ideal image of a beautiful woman was reinvented by the model, Twiggy, who was naturally incredibly thin, thus setting an unreal expectation for the average sized American woman to meet. This trend carried on to the 1970s and was popularized by the popular singer, Karen Carpenter, who publicized the trend of starvation dieting. By 1983, diet pills were created as a way to curve women’s’ appetites so they could achieve their desired figure. Eventually, the desire to be thin led to the emergence of eating disorders.
The beauty trend of being incredibly thin led to a mass dissatisfaction of body image amongst American females, which evidently is still an issue today. The source claims that today, most models weigh approximately 23% less than the average American woman. Plus size has shrunk as well. Ten years ago, plus size ranged from size 12–18. Now, plus size is only represented in size 6–14. However, over half of American women are size 14 or larger, which clearly shows that even plus size women no longer represent the average American woman, let alone an actual plus size woman. This is setting an example for how the average women should look, since models are found everywhere from billboards, to advertisements, television, movies, social media, and magazines. Overtime, the overexposure of this body type becomes internalized by women, which influences them to adapt to an extremely slim body type, which can be unhealthy if one develops an eating disorder.
Body image is just only one way the media has shaped our ideas of beauty. Exposure to popular faces on social media sites like Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube influence how women manipulate their facial features with makeup to look beautiful. For example, the iconic reality star, Kylie Jenner, birthed the trend of plump, defined lips by sporting her signature pout in countless numbers of selfies posted on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. Her sister, Kim Kardashian, started her own face contouring trend based on her bone structure, which became highly glamorized on her social media accounts, as well as through her selfie book, Selfish. Along with their self solicited exposure in social media, the sisters also share their own reality show, which has been on air for what is now eleven years. The consistent overexposure of celebrities like Jenner and Kardashian is what creates this standardized trend of beauty.
Global Director of the Dove Self-Esteem Project, Meaghan Ramsey, surfaces evidence of how young women in particular have been consumed by the influence of social media, in her Ted Talk, “Why Thinking You’re Ugly is Bad for You” (2014). Present day, teenage girls and young women are under the pressure to be available on social media at all times to the point where their self confidence is determined by the amount of positive comments and likes they receive on their photos. This is training these girls to value beauty based on how much attention they receive on media. If this is the case, there’s no doubt that celebrities on social media like Jenner and Kardashian who are highly popular are the ones to set beauty expectations since it is obvious that famous celebrities will receive a copious amount of media attention.
Ramsey declares that the impact social media has on young women has the power to make or break their confidence. Furthering her research, she states that girls are beginning to not participate in daily activities like school, work, or engaging with their friends and family because of their low self esteem caused by media, which displays how beauty plays an important role in female succession. Along with mentally preparing for an interview or test, women have trained themselves to look good in order to feel good. It is obvious in popular sayings in our society like, “dress to impress” or “dress for success”.
In support of this claim is philosophy professor at Northwestern University, Renee Engelen, in her philosophy of beauty, “An Epidemic of Beauty Sickness” (2013). She believes our overexposure to extraordinarily rare women crafted by our media warps our idea of what it means to look normal, and presents the objectification theory, which states since our appearance is chronically observed by others, overtime we internalize that same perspective by becoming an observer of ourselves too. According to Englen, females subject to beauty sickness spend too much of their time imagining how they look in the world, rather than living in it, which limits their success and participation in society like Ramsey found in her research.
While Englen makes a strong case for why society is so focused on beauty, she fails to define why we experience beauty. To answer that question, art philosophy professor from Canterbury University, Denis Dutton, examines our natural attraction to beauty in his philosophy, “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty”(2010). Dutton discusses Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, focusing on the development of anatomy, which leads into his explanation on how sexual selection dictates our aesthetic attractions. He uses the example of the peacock’s tail, which evolved for the purpose of sexual selection. Since the peacock’s tail arouses and sustains the interest of the peahen, the peahen ultimately finds the peacock’s tail beautiful. This theory applies to us and other animals as well, for we are all aroused by different qualities in other beings, therefore influencing our attraction.
Dutton furthers his argument by relating his previous claims on beauty to Paleolithic art. He claims art is perceived as beautiful since it displays desirable qualities in the artist, including intelligence, motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness, and access to materials. The art crafted during this time was perceived as beautiful and given to the opposite sex as a gift, ultimately helping the artists acquire sexual partners. Since art has been used over time as a form of courtship, this suggests an explanation as to why a majority of people find women who wear makeup more beautiful than without. Makeup is a form of art that requires effort, precision, and attention to detail. Those qualities are most likely to be perceived as attractive. Perhaps this is why makeup trends are adapted and admired so greatly by a huge majority of American society.
In affirmation of this idea that makeup artistry creates a truth of beauty is P.N. Waggett’s philosophy of beauty in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1889–1890). In the reading, Waggett grapples with the idea of what beauty is and brings up the observation that artists create a standard of judging beauty by establishing rules of art to perfect their taste. Waggett’s philosophy may be interpreted and applied to preset day, for makeup artists create a standard of beauty through makeup artistry, like Kardashian and Jenner do. However, Waggett believes artists can only tell us what beauty is but they cannot truly show it, since he defines beauty as something that attracts all, rather than just interests many or few people. While makeup artists may be able to create their own ideas of beauty, it is inevitable that the entire world is not going to hold their ideas as the only truth, although they may conform to these beauty standards anyways since they are what we are exposed to as beautiful. Ultimately, beauty is not the same thing as artistic merit so what the media portrays as beautiful is not necessarily the truth about beauty.
Providing reasoning to the idea that beauty is a natural sensation that is influenced by nurture may be found in Richard Seymour’s TED Talk on his philosophy of beauty, “How Beauty Feels,” (2011) which defines beauty is a sensation that can only be defined by the “limbic system of the beholder”(3:51). Since the “limbic system” means our brain structure, Seymour is saying that the experience of beauty is different for everyone because we all have different brains. Because of this, people develop their own aesthetics and ideas of what beauty means. However, only a select few ideas of beauty are projected to us in the media and enforced as true beauty.
Seymour claims that true beauty is rare to find universally, which he labels as “intrinsic beauty”(12:44). By labeling this experience of beauty, he is setting this type of beauty apart from the unique experience of beauty we each have. With that being said, Seymour is claiming that what media portrays to us as beautiful is not necessarily the truth about beauty, since everyone interprets beauty in their own way. Many times, women internalize the models and actresses glamourized by media as what it means to be truly beautiful, which is why they believe that they aren’t beautiful. However, based off of Seymour’s claim that beauty is in our brain’s possession, what we see in the media may just be one’s person’s idea of beauty that everyone adapts as well because of our over exposure to media.
Overall, the experience of beauty is a natural sensation stimulated by sexual attraction, but our ideas of what is and isn’t beautiful is dictated and influenced by media. At the end of the day, beauty is just an archetype crafted by media that we believe to be true. However, society’s idea of beauty is not the only truth. Like Waggett stated in his philosophy, artists, in this case media, create standards based on their own personal taste, which we judge beauty on. The people who constitute our media are not the only ones who experience beauty, therefore they cannot establish what beauty is. Going back to Seymour’s claim, beauty is a feeling only we can experience. The reason we believe there is only one truth of beauty is because our overexposure to media telling us what is beautiful eventually leads us to believe their truth as the only truth.