Beauty has always been one of society’s great obsessions. Since the Ancient Greeks, humans have struggled with an overvaluation of aesthetic appeal. In today’s media-saturated world where we are bombarded by images of what we should look like and what we fail to look like, it is worse than ever.
On a scientific level, it can be argued that there is an evolutionary reason behind our preference for attractive people. Fitter, taller, stronger people have a greater chance of survival. It is natural we are attracted to them in order to give our offspring the best chances of living and continuing the species. However, the extremes to which we have taken the idea of beauty, and the exclusivity of the features which we deem beautiful today are a far cry from traits which carry inherent evolutionary benefit. Conversely, they are having a huge and harmful effect particularly on girls and women.
Especially for women, the emphasis on physical attractiveness is detrimental to mental (and sometimes by extension, physical) health. The effects of the media on young girls’ development has been well-documented, and has led to a rise in eating disorders, early sexualization, low self esteem and depression.
A much more insidious side effect is our own unwitting digestion of the idea of beauty as a woman’s single most defining feature. Recent examples in pop culture of the extent to which we’ve assimilated this message into our underlying estimation of a person’s worth are both striking and disturbing.
Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, while praised by many, came under fire because of a short film in which women described themselves to an artist, who drew them based on their descriptions. After, they were made to meet other women who had participated, and these women then described each other to the same artist. All women were presented with the two renderings, and unsurprisingly, the pictures based on another woman’s description were far more flattering than images drawn based on the women’s own descriptions of themselves.
Dove’s message was simple: you are your worst critic. Immediately, it was lauded by women across the web and shared through social media – but after an initial ecstatic surge, some where quick to point out a disturbing undertone to the ad. As one blogger explains:
“Brave, strong, smart? Not enough. You have to be beautiful. And “beautiful” means something very specific, and very physical. — It doesn’t matter what other merits a woman posses, if she is not conventionally attractive, she is essentially worthless….And my primary problem with this Dove ad is that it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. — All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are.”
Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls presents another example; her character Hannah has a short-lived fling with a man played by the handsome Patrick Wilson. The audience’s vitriol towards the storyline was noted and commented upon by many. The furor was not caused by the sexual content or short-lived nature of the relationship, but mainly by the suggestion that a character as plain as Hannah could ever catch the interest, sexually or otherwise, of someone who looked like Wilson. The very idea of a beautiful man being within reach of a woman deemed less attractive became borderline offensive to some viewers.
Men too are affected. Dustin Hoffman teared up in an interview when discussing something that women have known for years. He was discussing his role in the comedy Tootsie, in which, after dressing up as an unattractive woman, he found himself largely ignored. Speaking to AFI, he explained that he had said to his wife:
“I said I have to make this picture, and she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out.’ She says, ‘What are you saying?’ And I said, ‘There’s too many interesting women I have … not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.'”
When our obsession with beauty is pointed out as obviously as it is in the cases of Dunham’s and Hoffman’s, people are eager to offer their support. Wilson himself was stunned by the reaction to the episode. Dunham responded by rightly pointing out, “There’s so many forms of human capital, and they’re not all looks.”, while Wilson’s wife got involved on twitter, angrily stating, “His wife is a size 10 muffin top and he does her just fine.” As for Hoffman, his video went viral, with well over 2 million views and many applauding him for vocalizing a very real problem.
If we haven’t already, we are breeding a society that equates external appearance with intrinsic value, a dangerous assumption. If we’re to allow our young girls to value themselves for the traits we want to encourage: strength, courage, dignity, kindness – it is going to take a thorough examination of the messages we send to them, and a serious overhaul of our own assumptions and values.
Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Luc Viatour. Image listed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike.