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.

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14 thoughts on “beauty reflects power”

  1. This is utterly fascinating. I’ve never, ever made this connection, past the less sophisticated “white is popular because white is power,” and it’s so clearly true. It’s not top-down; it’s a reflection of top-down from the bottom-up.

    Thank you for this! I know it will stick in my mind for years.

  2. “It’s not top-down; it’s a reflection of top-down from the bottom-up.”

    Yes! Thanks Rachel for a perfect pointy sentence. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who found this a bit of a revelation.

  3. Maybe this is why the GaGa went blonde. I saw her on youtube the other day before she was famous on MTV’s boiling points and I didn’t recognize her, I had to watch it a couple times. She looked like something off of Jersey Shore before she went blonde, just some typical girl that you’d never ordinarily look at twice. And the few brunettes we have that are up there, are of course Brazilian, like my ultimate favorite Adriana Lima.
    *love the articles, keep them coming!*

  4. “..for instance if China becomes the dominant world economy, it is likely that the beauty ideal will shift towards Asian features.”

    I have no idea what it’s like ten years twenty years or hundred years down the road, but having lived in Asia in the past I find that there is a dual system of beauty ideals: The first is the Northern European features, blonde, pale, tall and thin, that is often prized like a magic unicorn and would mostly only appear in advertisements in non-talking roles.

    The second is a well-defined set of Asian beauty ideals that most asian women conform to in their day-to-day lives. Most asian women don’t try to emulate Lara Stone but they’ll emulate stars like Li Bing Bing or Fan Bing Bing. While the second overlap somewhat with the former, they are still distinct enough to be two separate systems. Both set of systems are accepted and coexist harmoniously for different purposes.

    So to play the devil’s advocate, the shift wouldn’t happen anywhere in the near future for the simple reason that Asian customers still quite enjoy gawking at their magic unicorns. Add to that the legacy of a truncated history of luxury consumption in China (approx. 1949-89), newly wealthy Chinese customers for most part still look up to the West for clues on how to spend and how to shop even if the West is going bankrupt (Of course, you can argue that local celebrities are starting to fill in that function).

    Plus the shift would also depend on Western acceptance of Asian feature because otherwise everyone will be better with the status quo.

    What I personally find bizarre is that a lot of European fashion houses, cosmetic companies are hiring Asian models for their campaign and catwalks to appeal to Asian customers, but the models they ended up picking are often what Westerners considered to be Asian beauty which is a far cry from what Asians considered to be Asian beauty.

    As an Asian looking at these new crop of emerging asian models, they all seem to have this characterless indistinguishable look that, without their amazing figures, they probably won’t even cut it as a C-list D-list celebrities in their home countries (I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but I’m immune to the freshness or exoticism they’re supposed to convey). I sometimes wonder if all these companies are purposely displaying their poor grasp of the Asian set of beauty ideal as a way to remain Western in their asian customer’s eye.

    But what I think would be really ironical is if these Asian models are continued to be vaulted to a higher and higher status in the modelling world, which would equate to certain amount of power, and are eventually embraced by their home countries, then it will be the Europeans who rewrote the definition of Asian beauty…

    … and won’t that be funny?

  5. Yes, Liu Wen is definitely who I had in mind.

    She has those “mono eyelid” or “hidden double lids” that most asian models in the past would have gotten cosmetic surgery to “correct” (I kid you not). So in a way, she’s extremely fortunate to be chosen by Estee Lauder since she definitely not the type Asian cosmetic companies (like Shiseido) would go for.

  6. I’ve often noticed the same thing!

    However, I feel like the Asian ideals of beauty means Asian girls who look “more Caucasian” in features. An example of this is the Vivi models used in Japan. I used to have an issue with the new crop of popular Asian models, until I realized that they have a certain uniqueness about them. You are saying that Asian models are not the Asian ideal of beauty, but not all Caucasian models are the Westernized standard of beauty either. (i.e.. Lindsay Wixon? Stella Tennant?)

    As for the “characterless indistinguishable look”, I find that look is very prominent in Caucasian models as well? I mean I can hardly tell most of the models apart when they are walking down a runway.

  7. Sandy,

    I think in some cases that Asian ideals of beauty can mean Asian girls who look “more Caucasian” but I never find it to be a satisfying explanation. If you take Fan Bing Bing as an example, you can argue she has “Caucasian features” because of her big eyes and tall nose, but when you looked at the Western media coverage of her at Cannes earlier this year, none of the real caucasians seems to get why she’s the most popular actress in China (plus her over-the-top dresses didn’t help). I think what Asians would regard as “Caucasian features” on Asian women are sometimes still within the framework of an Asian interpretation of beauty that completely elude the western audience.

    On top of that, there are still a lot of models, actress and singer that would be categorized as exemplifying the classical asian beauty ideal that again the western audience don’t get. Taiwanese model Lin Chiling, as big as she is in Asia, was barely noticed when she walked for Lanvin in Paris. Chinese actress Liu Yifei comes to mind lately as someone only a Chinese would find breathtakingly lovely. The same could be said for Lee Young Ae from Korea and Yu Aoi from Japan.

    I don’t think the Westernized standard of beauty is a fixed goalpost either especially if look back at the Eastern European wave of the last decade and the decade before that… but this could be another post for Danielle to deal with ; )

    And I don’t disagree that caucasian models can also have that “characterless indistinguishable look”. I think some designers would consciously make their models look alike to highlight the clothing and not the person, and maybe the same thing is happening with the Asian models. It was just a personal reaction that it literally freaks me out when I can’t tell Asian people apart… it’s the fear I’m becoming like that Dave Chappelle joke.

  8. This post isn’t about exceptions – there are many because modeling also rewards outstanding personalities and unusual beauties. Unfortunately, those exceptions are never among the highest-paid models (except in the case of entrepreneurial-hybrid models like Tyra Banks).

    One of the downsides of the homogenous beauty ideal is the “indistinguishable” quality of the majority of working models. The paradox is that in order to achieve outstanding career success, the pressure is to appear within the confines of the ideal (even somewhat unusual beauties like Wixson are still blonde, tall and thin) but by doing so most models (and actresses, and ordinary people) end up blending together.

    I think it’s interesting that the Asian ideal mirrors the Caucasian ideal in that regard – the standard of beauty Elle shows examples of is so… standard-looking. Whereas when “ethnic” models in the west are chosen, it seems like they are often chosen to vividly contrast against the ideal – Alex Wek or Liu Wen are both great examples of this.

    Elle – I think this is a post that you need to write – you have a lot more authority on this topic than I do! Please post – I’ll link!

  9. I must say I disagree on the models thing.
    From those that illustrate this post, I think only one would be considered traditionally beautiful (bottom row, middle); Cindy could pass as cute in her younger days, and Karlie as next-door-pretty, at best).

    The rest?
    Not by a long shot.
    I don’t want to use the words most non-fashion people would use to describe Giselle’s, Kate’s and Lara’s faces. [Nothing vulgar, to be clear.]

    The rest of the models?
    Even more so.

    I’m all about Iekeliene Stange’s face, but I don’t think most people would be, blond and white or not.

    The only model that comes to mind as conforming to traditional beauty standard is Adriana Lima, and she’s a brunette (and Megan Fox, not Cate Blanchette, or Michelle Williams). + She is not a high fashion model, like the ones in the picture.
    Actually, she’s the one who sells the traditional, most widely available things.

    I do agree with the article overall, tho 😀 .

  10. And I must say we (my… culture? My brain is too tired to find the right word right now) didn’t care much about the German/Norwegian/Polish/Czech descent American pale blondes even when America was much stronger than it is now.

    Oh, and it’s so strange – before I read your last comment, Danielle, I wanted to remark how, to me, most prominent models of African descent conform to the traditional ideal of beauty more than the European ones (Chanel Iman vs. Sasha Pivovarova, Liya Kebede vs. Carmen Kass, Naomi vs. Linda Evangelista).
    I have no big theory behind our differing perceptions, it was just interesting.

    And while I do think there is a “let’s conform” bit in a lot of blonde dye-jobs, I’d like to give Beyoncé the possibility she went blonde… just because she likes the colour. Or she thinks it lights up her face. I might be wrong, but she strikes me as someone who examines her actions.

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