This week Elizabeth Pearson looks at the shifting standards of beauty of the years, and reassures us that average is attractive.
The instant expert: On beauty standards
THE BASICS What is beauty? Gosh, that's a hard one. Is it a stunning person who compels you to stare enraptured or a kind deed performed by a sincere and good individual? While subjective, beauty is revered and its main tenets appear to be a marriage of harmony with nature and meeting the contemporary ideals of society. Patterns, the golden ratio and (whisper it) averageness all contribute.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN, AVERAGE? MY LOVE IS GORGEOUS. D'YOU HEAR ME? GORGEOUS! Sir Francis Galton, a scientist and (so popular in Victorian times) eugenicist, was researching phrenology. Looking for telltale criminal facial characteristics, he created composite pictures of serious offenders. No deviant criminal characteristics were discovered, but he did notice that the prototypical faces were startlingly handsome compared to those of their real counterparts. This research has been recently revisited and average faces are indeed deemed more attractive. Apparently our brains process symmetrical, median features more easily. Rather depressing, really.
BODY BEAUTIFUL Thirty-five thousand years ago, a lovesick artisan sat down with a tusk of a woolly mammoth and carved a rather voluptuous female, the Venus of Hohle Fels. This oldest representation of a female shows a gal chunky of thigh and generous of proportion, rather at odds with the modern ideal. Nowadays we favour our models to be distinctly different from the woman on the street. These ethereal creatures are 10 per cent taller and 20 per cent slimmer than the norm.
PALE IS INTERESTING Before you get on the rack and try to lengthen your limbs, consider that chasing perfection can be a lethal business and plenty of vain types have died before you. Pale was king for many years as it separated the upper socio-economic classes from their field-working contemporaries. This quest killed many - from ancient Greeks and Romans through to the Elizabethans - as men and women painted their face with water-soluble lead paint or powder to lighten their skin, poisoning the wearer. With the introduction of air travel, Europeans and Americans wanted to boast about their trip to the Côte d'Azur or Palm Beach, so the social concept of the aspirational tan was born in the West.
MANLY MEN In the ancient world, men relied on their feet for transport. If they were in battle, armour was lightweight, and the healthiest male specimens of the time reflected that. They were long limbed with a balanced physique and low body fat, as shown by the statue of Hermes with Dionysius. As the Middle Ages dawned, the male ideal grew muscular (heavy armour and strong shoulders were needed for jousting), and then effete over the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (when, ahem, they wore corsets). Thankfully, that nonsense is now over and a reassuringly tall, triangular shape gets the female heart beating that little bit faster.
WHAT A HEAVY BURDEN TO BEAR As if being gorgeous isn't enough, it turns out that as creatures we are very generous. We attribute all sorts of positive qualities to those blessed with beauty (whose features we now know to be average). Actors, rock stars and politicians are forgiven all. Beauty equals trustworthiness, cleverness, kindness and honesty, don't you know? If all that was misapplied, well, fortunately it equals forgiveness, too.
BECAUSE I'M WORTH IT Living in modern times, we are bombarded every day by images of glorious people as media pervade our every waking hour. Honestly, it could make one insecure. But luckily, if it does, there is a multibillion-dollar industry helping us to feel better. We can dye our hair, lift our faces and suck out the fat. What Mother Nature gave us is the only the starting block, darling, if these airbrushed lovelies are to be believed.
Beauty in literature
Almost everyone knows John Keats's lines about beauty - "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever" and "Beauty is truth, truth beauty". Here are seven more quotes on the subject:
- "It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness." - Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), The Kreutzer Sonata
- "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" - Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (1855-1897), Molly Bawn
- "Beauty is all very well at first sight, but who ever looks at it when it has been in the house three days?" - George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Man and Superman
- "Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror." - Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), The Prophet
- "Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold." - William Shakespeare (1564-1616), As You Like It
- "Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all." - André Breton (1896-1966), Nadja
- "Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time." - Albert Camus (1913-1960), Notebooks