Whether we admit it or not, we all are concerned about our physical appearance. Being attractive is an important issue for most people – and for many good reasons. Statistics show that having the right look has many advantages in society.
Beauty Ideals Influence Many Aspects of Our Lives
According to the Social Issues Research Center (SIRC), a non-profit institute specializing in global socio-cultural trends, attractive children are more popular with classmates and teachers and on average do better in school. Attractive applicants have better job opportunities and get promoted faster. One study found that in America taller men earned about $600 more per inch than their shorter peers. Attractive people are convicted of crimes less often or receive shorter prison sentences. The list goes on and on. So, it is not at all surprising that good looks play such a big role in our lives.
When you ask people what characteristics make someone attractive, most will say that a good-looking person is slender and fit. This applies to both sexes but in particular to women. Slimness and beauty are so much identified with one another that it seems almost natural to think this way. Historically speaking, it is not. In fact, today’s beauty ideals are relatively new.
Prior to the 20th century, attractive women were quite curvy. A classical Renaissance painting, titled “Three Graces” by Raffael (1505), reflects the beauty ideal of that time. By our standards, those ladies look rather overweight. The same goes for the so-called “Rubens figures,” named after the famous Dutch artist’s many paintings of nude, fleshy women.
Historians have pointed out that for our ancestors being well fed was a sign of wealth and status because only the well-off could afford an abundance of food, while the poor had little to eat and looked thin and haggard. Today, the situation is reversed: Weight problems mostly affect the lower class, while the upper crust spends millions on diets and fitness programs to stay slim and look youthful.
It is quite fascinating to see how the perception of attractiveness has changed over time. One common denominator, however, seems that beauty ideals were never attainable for most people because they were so unrealistic. Especially women have nearly always faced the impossible: Whether the fashion of the day called for a classical “hourglass” figure (equal size of hip and bust, narrow waist), an athletic look (muscular, tight pelvis, big bust) or “Barbie” type body (slim, big bust, tight pelvis, long legs), the vast majority of women was never able to measure up.
Today’s demands seem higher than ever. “Thanks to the media, we have become accustomed to extremely rigid and uniform standards of beauty,” says Kate Fox who writes for SIRC. “The current media ideal of thinness for women is achievable by less than 5 percent of the female population.” Because TV ads, billboards, magazines, etc. bombard us with images of beautiful people all the time, “they make exceptional good looks seem real, normal and attainable,” she says. But that’s an illusion and it makes people terribly insecure about their appearance.
And even attractive folks can be insecure about their looks and feel pressed to maintain or enhance what nature has given them. Studies have shown that beauty and self-esteem don’t always correlate.
Statistically, women tend to be more critical of their appearance than men. Most females don’t seem to be satisfied with what they see in the mirror, at least not without makeup. Men have a better self-image and even tend to over-estimate their attractiveness. Gay men are more concerned about how they look than straight men, but lesbians seem to be less worried than heterosexual women, according to the SIRC study.
What’s considered beautiful may differ from country to country and culture to culture, but increasingly there is a global trend to follow the Western standards. In one study that involved young women from around the world, almost all participants named celebrities from Hollywood as their role models for attractiveness. Being skinny, tall, with long hair and perfect teeth and elegantly dressed in Western-style clothing ranked highest on the list of beauty ideals. “The ideals of the ‘beauty culture’ in the industrialized world are rapidly spreading through the remotest areas, affecting the way of life and the sensibility of all, regardless of skin, religious beliefs, or cultural heritage,” says Julian Robinson, fashion designer and author of “The Quest for Human Beauty” (W. W. Norton & Co Inc., 1998).
The downside is that people who don’t live up to these standards (the vast majority) are judged – and often judge themselves – as a failure. For example, prejudices against overweight people can cause especially women to develop very low self-esteem, which can leave them socially isolated and emotionally depressed. These problems are not generated by the weight problems themselves but by the widely accepted association of beauty and thinness. Struggling with weight issues from a health perspective can be hard enough. Having a social stigma attached to it makes it much worse.
While we cannot ignore the cultural standards around us, we can decide for ourselves how we respond to them. The attraction to physical beauty will always be part of our socio-cultural landscape with implications on status, acceptance and suitability as a mate. But that doesn’t mean we have to surrender to it like an oppressive force that prevents us from accepting ourselves as we are in every shape or form.