November 9, 2011
beauty reflects power
Why is there a narrow, singular beauty ideal? Why are the current dominant attributes of beauty always about being very thin, very blonde, and very young? Flip through any magazine on any subject and the beauty ideal stares back at you. The highest earning models, the biggest pop stars, past and future, almost always conform to the ideal. There is an argument that it is a top-down dictation from the beauty industry, but if you look at consumer-driven sites like lookbook or tumblr, the same ideal is still rewarded with the most hypes and hits. Chicken or egg – is the public brainwashed or is the industry just delivering what the public wants to see?
Walk down the street and you’ll see that many women make significant efforts to approximate the beauty ideal in their own appearance – most of the blondes you see are bottle-blondes, everywhere you hear women endlessly discussing weight and how to lose it, and cosmetic surgery to cheat aging has become commonplace. Just as we are losing diversity in other aspects of culture, the beauty ideal is less diverse than it ever was. Worldwide, people of all races and cultures are buying into bleach.
Why is this kind of beauty above all others in fashion? My theory is that it reflects an idealized image of whoever is perceived to hold the most power. In this case, Northern European features have been internationally dominant ever since the Renaissance and the period of colonization that followed. Fashion is innately hierarchical – it functions on the premise that human beings want to be admired by their peers. Wealth and influence, therefore, are what dictates the mainstream beauty ideal. In times where the wealthy are fat, so is the beauty ideal. If a certain race is powerful in a particular place or time, their features will be considered more beautiful. It’s a totally unfair system – just like all the other systems our society currently functions on.
Various missions to promote diversity in beauty ideals are well-intentioned but likely futile unless they address the root source of the beauty ideal. Even then, aiming to change widespread notions of beauty is on a par with reversing income disparity. What will change the beauty ideal will be massive shifts in power structures – for instance if China becomes the dominant world economy, it is likely that the beauty ideal will shift towards Asian features. More mature-appearing female models become more popular if older women hold a greater amount of wealth – this trend happened both in the 1950s and the 1980s. Darker-skinned models benefit more from visibly powerful cultural indicators like the Obamas and Oprah than they do from polite bourgeois notions of political correctness.
There is a beauty feedback loop in place – an ouroboros forms when models like the ones above, who by genetic accident reflect the beauty ideal become some of the highest-paid women in the world. You could even say that there is a beauty bubble – perhaps it will pop.