The concept of feminine “beauty” has varied greatly throughout the centuries. Just look at a few pictures to see the difference.
Characteristics of beauty have been not only different, but even conflicting. Take, for example, the preference for pale skin prior to the 1900s, and the preference for tanned skin from the 1940s onward. Or think of the difference in weight appeal. Centuries ago, beautiful women were expected to be fairly heavyset. Even in the 1920s, women were encouraged to put on pounds to be considered attractive.
Compare this with today’s expectation that requires a woman to be border-line anorexic to be “beautiful”. To be upheld as a model of beauty today, in addition to having barely any skin on your bones, you’re also expected to have barely any clothes on your body. I’ll spare you a picture – I’m sure you’ve seen plenty already.
When did this happen? When did immodesty and objectification of the woman become the standard of beauty?
Although today’s secular image of beauty seems to have snuck up on us in the last few decades, the change was already underway at the turn of the century. Yes, the models were a healthy weight and dressed “modestly”, not showing “everything” like today. But the focus was already on the body.
Beauty was no longer a question of features, but of bodily attraction – so called, “sex appeal.”
Could there be a link between a decades-long excessive promotion of widespread sex appeal and a significant increase in sexual promiscuity? I believe the link is obvious. I don’t think we should go to the opposite side of telling girls to they have to wear ankle-length skirts, overly loose tops and high collars to avoid tempting a man at all cost – this is the other extreme, but boils down to the same fallacy: objectifying the woman (incidentally, this brings up another problem by confusing a woman’s responsibility to be modest with a man’s responsibility to control his thoughts and feelings).
The constant push to have a “perfect” body to be attractive is teaching girls from day one to use their body as an object of attraction. No focus on who they are and their value as a person. Take a look at stars today – they can do/say anything or nothing and will still be popular because they really aren’t looked at as persons. We don’t judge our stars by what they contribute to society or the values they are passing on; we judge them as an object. Are they well dressed? Do they have a good figure? Are they “pretty”? No wonder we have 10 year olds running around on a diet and wearing makeup. Society is screaming at them that their body, as an object is most important. Maybe their parents are challenging them to do their best at school, to discover their talents and think through their views on life, but society sure isn’t. If a girl wants to be accepted socially, she listens to society.
90% of anorexia and bulimia cases are female. Coincidental? By no means. The tendency to these eating disorders is directly linked with the push to over-sexualize beauty… and today, sexual appeal is linked with excessive thinness.
What message are we sending girls today? If they watch the TV and listen to music, which most of them do, the message received is that they need to starve their bodies to keep them slimmed down, wear anything (= nothing), and do anything (being modest, exercising moderation, etc. are portrayed as childish at best, if not plain idiotic). Is this really the message we want the girls in our society to be getting? Do we really want another generation starving themselves, with at least 1 in 5 cases of eating disorders ending up fatal? Do we really want another generation feeling that they are worth the sum value of their body parts? Do we really want another generation feeling that they have to objectify themselves and allow themselves to be used and abused to be “popular”, “cool” and “beautiful”? Isn’t it time to admit that we, as a society, made a mistake, rather than running ourselves deeper into it? Yes, it’s hard to say “we were wrong”, especially when we hold ourselves up as the model of everything, but isn’t it better to say it now than face the even worse consequences that are coming?
I said that the sexualizing of beauty began in the early 1900s. At least, that’s when it became overt. But there was already a problem with the concept of beauty that began long before that… For centuries, being beautiful has involved changing yourself, covering up for flaws, adding features, and completely changing features (hair color, etc.). Message received: YOU are not enough. You have to change something – hair color, hair style, eyebrows, lip color, complexion, etc. etc. etc. You can’t just be yourself and be considered beautiful by society. You have to change yourself and look a certain way. You have to “fix” yourself.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with using cosmetics. If you have fun changing your looks slightly with makeup, there’s no problem with it. But if you hate looking at yourself in the mirror without makeup and avoid having anyone else see you without makeup because you just don’t “cut the image” on your own, it is a problem.
If we go back to the ancient Greeks, we find where the word “beauty” came from and can return to its original concept. “Beauty” came from the Greek word “ὡραῖος” (hōraios). Beauty, at that time, had a couple of different meanings. One dealt with the aesthetical side of beauty, and referred to purity and symmetry of form. In terms of feminine beauty, the Greeks valued their natural features; they used cosmetics to enhance their natural features, not to cover flaws or try to change and disguise their fundamental features. Simplicity was the order of the day. Note how warped our concepts of cosmetology and the sexualizing of beauty have become compared with the expectations of beauty in Ancient Greece.
The Greeks also had another dimension to the word beauty. It meant “being in one’s hour”, or being the way you should be at the time. It meant BEING the true you, not hiding the true you. Youth was not considered to be more beautiful than old age. It was considered beautiful when a youth looked youthful and when someone old looked their own age; for someone old to try looking young worked against beauty, not in favor of it. So beauty had a much broader meaning that took into account one’s age and state in life (compare that to the number of “57-year-old-woman-looks-20″ ads we see today). It did not refer strictly to aesthetics, never mind the narrow vision of aesthetics we have developed today that only looks at sex appeal and manipulation of one’s body. In ancient Greece, beauty involved taking good, healthy care of yourself as you are, with your particular features and your particular needs, in whatever age or state of life you may be.
A message for every girl and young woman today:
Be beautiful. Be Greek. YOU are enough. YOU are beautiful. No. I’m not joining the “everyone is beautiful, it’s all relative” camp. I believe there are true standards of beauty. The Greeks knew this. But instead of trying to live up to standards you don’t meet, find the ones you do have and accentuate those. The Greeks knew this too. Furthermore, so far we have been talking mainly about aesthetical beauty. I do not believe everyone is physically beautiful. But I believe one of the greatest mistakes society has ever made is limiting the concept of “beauty” to physical beauty, a clear step to objectification of the woman. Some people have more naturally beautiful features than others. Be happy for them. If you are one of them, be happy for yourself, but if you aren’t, don’t feel bad. That’s only one dimension of beauty, and regardless of what the TV and billboards are screaming at you, it isn’t the most important one.
Man is much more than body. A person has a mind, a soul, a heart. Beauty stems from all of those places. Everyone is called to be beautiful. No one I have ever met has an ugly heart, or at least, no one started out that way; everyone can have beautiful feelings. Some people are more intelligent than others, but everyone can have beautiful thoughts. So, yes, everyone can be beautiful. Beauty is in your control. Want to be beautiful; try to be beautiful… but not by changing your body into something it isn’t, or allowing society to make a sexual, objectified spectacle of woman. Be beautiful in your mind, heart and soul. And if anyone tells you that you have to change who you are and be less than who you are to be beautiful, turn off the TV and computer, and surround yourself with friends and family that know and appreciate you for who you are.