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Vivian Diller, Ph.D.

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What Does It Mean to Be 'Beautiful?'

Posted: 07/27/2011 8:16 am

Is blonde and bubbly Jennifer Aniston your ideal of beauty? Or is it sultry Angelina Jolie, the woman Brad Pitt seems to favor? What about Serena Williams, America Ferrera or even Betty White?

According to CNN contributor, Alana Dawson, our beauty icons have become more diverse, a topic she wrote about after visiting the "Beauty CULTure" -- an exhibit of more than 170 images by renowned photographers at the Annenberg Space in L.A. Aimed at getting people to question the influence of society on female beauty, the show left her asking, "What is Beauty and Who Has It?" She concluded that standards of attractiveness are rapidly changing -- "from blonde to brunette, from fair skinned to deep." Americans, she says, are ready to embrace beauty diversity.

Evidence for this trend was raised years ago, when Time magazine's 1993 cover story featured a computer generated image that mixed several ethnicities which they declared was "The New Face of America." Allure magazine offered support for this new trend when their 2011 Beauty Survey found "64 percent of all our respondents think women of mixed race represent the epitome of beauty." Some respondents said they wanted darker skin, fuller lips and curvier bodies. According to Dawson, "that's a far cry from 1991 when most Allure respondents chose blonde haired, blue-eyed Christie Brinkley as the ideal beauty. The all-American look today is much more of a hybrid."

Having just viewed the Beauty CULTure exhibit myself, I left with a very different perspective -- struck less by diversity and more by the ever-narrowing definition of beauty not just in America, but across the globe. I wondered if Dawson noticed how little variety actually graced the magazine covers posted all over the exhibit walls? In fact, when I looked up the recent history of American Vogue Covers , I saw that only 18 percent were non-white, and the average age was just 27, a similar ethnic and age imbalance on display at the Annenberg show.

I also looked more carefully at the actual survey conducted by Allure in 2011. It was designed to revisit the same question that they had asked their readers 20 years ago -- "What is beautiful?" Among the two thousand men and women who responded, the majority said they were eager to see beauty icons who were more like them -- of different color, race, size and age -- a hopeful turn toward diversity. But upon a closer look, the survey reveals less "colorful 'stats.

  • While 73 percent of women said that a curvier body type is more appealing than it had been in 1991, 85 percent still said they wish their own hips were narrower.
  • 93 percent of women said the pressure to look young today is greater than ever before.
  • In the 1991 beauty survey, men said women were at their most beautiful at age 31. In 2011, that ideal age had been reduced to 28.
  • 86 percent of men said that they wanted to weigh less as compared to 97 percent of women.
  • Women listed their top five appealing male attributes as a guy's face, body type, smile, eyes and height (in that order). Men listed a women's face, body type, breasts, smile and butt.

In 2011, Allure also announced that Angelina Jolie had replaced Christie Brinkley as the new face of beauty, proclaiming there was "no longer such a thing as an all-American look." Americans, they said, "have branched out beyond the Barbie-doll ideal and embraced something quite different."

But true contemporary culture tells us a very different story -- as did the "Beauty CULTure." The Annenberg Foundation newsletter introduced the exhibit saying, "As much as beauty can astonish and inspire, it can also corrupt and subvert, rendering all else -- and even itself -- broken and obsolete." Deliberately entitled, "Beauty CULTure," the show revealed all sides of the beauty world -- gorgeous women, but the underbelly as well.

If you happen to go to this fascinating exhibit (which runs through Nov. 27), don't miss the short documentary on view directed by acclaimed filmmaker and photographer, Lauren Greenfield. Narrated in large part by Jamie Lee Curtis -- a pioneer in portraying honest and genuine beauty -- it covers a wide range of topics, including the evolution of beauty in the 20th and 21st centuries and the impact of media on feminine identity. To highlight these themes, it takes you inside the world of beauty competitions, following one mother -- with her curly blond haired, blue eyed, Caucasian daughter -- through their elaborate preparations for a local pageant. Like the reality show, "Toddlers and Tiara," you watch the little girl, both in awe and disgust, as she is rewarded for aspiring toward absurdly narrow standards beauty. Hard to find any trends toward diversity in that video!

One need only look at the current plastic surgery statistics -- a topic I wrote about here in another post -- for evidence of this trend toward the homogenization of beauty. In fact, we are seeing this movement across the globe, with America coming in first regarding surgical and cosmetic procedures, followed by Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Japan and South Korea. More and more women are opting to shape their bodies with liposuction (one of the top five procedures listed by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery), along with breast augmentation, blepharoplasty, rhinoplasty and abdominoplasty. And while statistics show a continual rise in youth defying cosmetic procedures -- not only among aging women, but men as well -- perhaps the most disturbing stat is the growing trend for Asians to surgically alter their faces to appear more Western!

Diversity in beauty? Dawson may have written about what she would have liked to see on view at the exhibit at the Annenburg Space for Photography. And, sure, surveys may reflect politically correct answers to difficult questions about beauty. But we have a long way to go to widen how our culture views women, their bodies and faces. I only hope if the question "What is Beautiful?" is revisited 20 years from now, the answers will be reflected more accurately in the men and women that actually grace our magazine covers.

Whether you have or haven't been to the exhibit Beauty CULTure, what do you see around you: greater diversity or homogenization in beauty?

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Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my websites at www.FaceItTheBook.com and www.VivianDiller.com. Friend me on Facebook (at http://www.facebook.com/Readfaceit) or continue the conversation on Twitter.

 
 
 

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