10 Ways the Definition of Beauty Has Changed

woman looks into mirror
Mirror, mirror on the wall -- who's the fairest of them all?
Hemera Technologies/Thinkstock

The Greek myth of Narcissus is meant to be a cautionary tale. The handsome hunter looked into water and fell in love with his own reflection. He was unable to look away from the beauty in the water, and he died there, alone. The lesson for us: Don't obsess over your looks.

And yet, evidence suggests that we have very good reason to worry about our looks. According to scientific research, people deemed beautiful have certain advantages in life. It starts early, when cute babies receive extra attention from caregivers compared to more ordinary looking babies. Beautiful children tend to be teachers' pets, and good looks seem to help us get ahead in the workplace. Economists posit that attractive women earn 4 percent more than their less attractive counterparts, while handsome men make 5 percent more; that means that over a lifetime, a good-looking man could earn $250,000 more than a less attractive one [source: Bennett].


Even if we don't want to turn out like poor Narcissus, most of us usually want to look our best and try to reap those rewards associated with being beautiful. There are tons of products and procedures out there that claim they can help us achieve our goals, too. The problem is, what society considers beautiful has a tendency to change, which means our pursuit of beauty tends to be lifelong and subject to the whims of trendsetters. In this article, we'll look at 10 ways the standard of beauty has changed over the course of history.

10: Thin Is In

If you walk around an art museum, you're likely to see lots of curvy, plump female nudes among the models in the artwork. For many centuries, being thin meant that you were poor -- you didn't have enough food to eat and you spent your days burning off calories in the fields. Being a full-figured man or woman, on the other hand, was a symbol of wealth and beauty.

Beginning in the late 1800s, the word "diet" started to creep in to our vernacular, and at first, dieting advice was only aimed at men because women were expected to be voluptuous [source: Vester]. As the decades went on, a little extra flab became something to be ashamed of, and slender became the figure to strive for. While plenty of critics will point out that pictures of models and celebrities are airbrushed and Barbie has impossible-to-achieve proportions, both men and women seek to be thin, sometimes through extreme methods such as disordered eating, unhealthy amounts of exercise and plastic surgery.


9: Makeup is a Must

two women putting on makeup
Many women don't feel fully dressed without makeup.

Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans loved makeup -- archeologists have found evidence of cosmetics kits containing primitive versions of mascara, foundation and lipstick. However, these early civilizations were exceptions to the rule, as makeup was mostly shunned in the centuries following. If you saw a woman wearing lipstick in the 1800s, for example, you'd think she was either a prostitute or a stage actress (a profession that was usually considered as awful as prostitution). Queen Victoria went so far as to call all makeup vulgar in a public address, and modesty was the defining beauty trend for many years.

But makeup came back in a big way thanks to the introduction of motion pictures. Max Factor is often called the father of makeup because, not only did he formulate products that looked good on the big screen, but he also had the foresight to market them to everyday women. Today, makeup is a billion dollar industry that can adjust to whatever looks happen to be in style -- you can buy everything from bright, bold colors to products that make it look like you're not wearing any makeup at all!


8: Go Golden, Girl

Pale skin ruled as a beauty standard for centuries. Both men and women applied ceruse, a lead-based white paint, to their skins in an effort to look fairer, and some people would paint delicate blue lines on their face to demonstrate their wealth and status, or their "blue blood." Suntans were for members of the lower classes, who had to spend their days outside, working in the fields.

At the turn of the 20th century, however, bronzed skin became the new fashion must-have. Coco Chanel famously got sunburn on a yachting trip, which spurred her acolytes to start spending more time in the sun. Doctors of the day began prescribing sun therapy, which was quickly adopted by the upper classes, as were outdoor sports (the poorer people had moved into factories, so spending time outdoors was no longer seen as déclassé). Even today, when we know about the dangers of the sun's rays and the risks of skin cancer, people continue to lounge in the sun or visit tanning salons in the hopes of achieving bronzed skin.


7: Bye-bye, Blue-eyed Blonde

Christie Brinkley
Uptown girl Christie Brinkley in the 1980s
Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images

In 1991, Allure magazine conducted a survey of men and women living in the United States about what constituted beauty. Respondents claimed that the U.S. beauty ideal was a woman like Christie Brinkley -- a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned model. Twenty years later, in 2011, Allure conducted the same survey, but times had clearly changed: Angeline Jolie, with her dark hair and voluptuous lips was now ranked as the pinnacle of beauty. And when respondents were asked to rank the beauty of anonymous models, both men and women picked non-white models as the most attractive.

The 2011 survey findings also revealed that women of mixed race were considered the most beautiful women in the U.S., leading Allure to claim that the blonde ideal had been "dethroned" [source: Peterson]. Participants in the survey believe that increased diversity in the U.S. has led to this change. Still, it will be interesting to see how these findings reverberate around the world. For a long time, "whiteness" has ruled as a beauty ideal, leading many men and women of different ethnicities to bleach their skin with lightening creams. Even in stories and films, white has become associated with good and black with evil. Will beauty standards continue to open up to embrace different races of women? Time will tell.


6: The Ever-changing Head of Hair

What constitutes beautiful hair is perhaps the most oft-changing beauty definition in history. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the masses would pluck their hairlines, as their monarch did, and employ massive headdresses. Since then, we've seen trends that included short, bobbed hair to long flowing tresses. We'll crimp or perm our hair to get some waves or curls, then go to great lengths to straighten it. Our hair has been piled high in a beehive, bejeweled, braided, teased, spiked, dyed and highlighted. We'll spend hours trying to look like we just fell out of bed, or we'll spend hours on an elaborate style worthy of prom or a wedding. Certain hair colors will go in and out of fashion (though gray tends to remain on the outs, as we fear looking older). Beautiful hair has been a particularly tricky issue for black women. Though some black women opt for hairstyles such as the Afro out of ethnic pride and unity, others have spent thousands of hours and dollars pursuing straightening treatments or weaves.


5: Who Wears Short Shorts? Gals With Shaved Legs

woman in bathtub shaving legs
Bidding adieu to unwanted body hair
Jack Hollingsworth/Thinkstock

While there's evidence that ancient cultures removed their body hair, it wasn't a must-be-done beauty habit until the beginning of the 20th century, simply because women's fashion until that point didn't reveal any skin. But in the early 1900s, sleeveless evening gowns became popular and razor manufacturers realized they needed more customers than just men. Ads began appearing in women's magazines urging ladies to make their underarms as smooth as their face if they really wanted to dazzle in those new sleeveless dresses. The content of the ads was very instructional, indicating that marketers had to educate women on how and why they needed to do this; it took several years before the ads became competitive, pitching one type of razor over another [source: Hansen]. The campaign to get women to shave their legs followed the one about underarms by a few years. In this case, razor manufacturers were aided by the rising hem lines that were coming into style, coupled with a nylon shortage following World War I.

What was a novel idea -- shaving one's legs and armpits -- is now a rite of passage for many young girls going through puberty. But body hair deserves more than one spot on our list, so read on to find out about other hair removal trends.


4: The Hair Down There

The idea that women should shave their underarms and legs came about because of fashion that exposed more skin than ever before. Well, clothes kept getting smaller, and now full female nudity is more common than ever in our society. From skimpy bikinis to the rise of Internet porn to the vast number of movies and television shows that take place in strip clubs, it's no longer very shocking to see lots of skin. And some critics argue that these factors have led to a new standard, in which women remove most or all of their pubic hair. Surveys of Playboy centerfolds reveal that there was plenty of pubic hair in the 1970s and 1980s, but it's been missing in action since the 1990s [source: Featherstone]. Now, for many women, a bikini or Brazilian wax is a necessary beauty expense, though critics debate the virtue of this new standard. Do men who prefer a hairless look down there have a thing for pre-pubescent girls? Should women duplicate a trend that was first observed in pornography, and will it affect their love lives for the better? How young is too young for a bikini wax? No matter your conclusions on these matters, pubic hair seems to have joined the list of types of body hair that most women are desperate to remove.


3: Beauty Is in the Nose of the Beholder

woman putting on perfume
Perfume is often the finishing touch for a lovely lady.

Beauty might seem like a visual aesthetic, but odors and scents also play a big role in the beauty ideal. If a supermodel didn't shower for months at a time, would we still consider her a supermodel? If she showed up at your door smelling like garbage, would you still find her beautiful?

Cleanliness has been compared to godliness, and somewhere along the way, it became an important prerequisite for beauty as well, which would certainly surprise the generations of people who never bathed. People worried that bathing could lead to serious illness, like the plague, or they were concerned that nakedness was sinful and the devil would catch them during their bath. And though perfume has been used throughout history, it became aggressively marketed in the 20th century as an important part of a beautiful person's regimen. Ditto deodorant -- the idea of "body odor" was one cooked up by advertising men who wanted more people to buy deodorant and antiperspirants [source: George Mason University]. Now, most of us crinkle our noses at the idea of letting our natural scents shine through; to be truly beautiful, we try to smell like baby powder, flowers and fruits.


2: Plastic Surgery Gains Acceptance

A few decades ago, plastic surgery was considered the domain of vain socialites, movie stars and centerfold wannabes. But trends show that cosmetic surgery is becoming increasingly sought after and accepted by the general public. In 2010, we spent $10.1 billion on cosmetic procedures, which represented a 1.2 percent increase over the previous year [source: Hendrick]. And for many years now, surveys have not only shown a rise in the number of procedures performed, but also growth in the percentage of people who approve of such procedures [source: Rosen].

Originally, plastic surgery was a medical procedure reserved for soldiers injured in war or people born with severe birth defects. Now, our society is becoming OK with using surgery as a way to transform parts of our bodies that we don't like. While this article deals with beauty trends that change over time, there are certain qualities that will probably always stay ideal -- no one wants to age, for example, and sizeable breasts are almost always in vogue. Plastic surgery allows people to meet those beauty standards, at prices that are becoming lower all the time and in surgeries that are becoming easier to perform and recover from. While some critics bemoan the extreme method of surgery to improve appearance, Botox, facelifts and liposuction will probably be a growing trend for a while.


1: Men are Getting in on the Game

man and woman wearing beauty face masks
Men want spa days, too.
George Doyle/Thinkstock

For a long time, the pursuit of beauty seemed like women's work; we're more apt to describe men as "handsome" or "attractive" rather than "beautiful." Yet the same beauty industries that sell countless products to women are starting to realize that men might have the same insecurities about their looks. In 1997, $2.4 billion was spent on men's grooming products; by 2009, that number was $4.8 billion [source: Newman]. Men, it seems, are becoming more interested in products such as concealer and moisturizers that will keep them looking their best.

And some men shun makeup, but think nothing of going under the knife. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, men underwent 1.1 million cosmetic procedures in 2010, an increase of 2 percent over the previous year [source: Hendrick]. The most common procedure for men: facelifts. Most cosmetic surgeries are still performed on women, but now the ladies may have some male company as they wait in their plastic surgeon's office.

Lots More Information

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