The eye of the collective beholder may be changing for the better. At least, this is the first-glance appearance of new analysis of how beauty has changed over the past 30 years. It found there is more diversity in age and ethnicity when it comes to what we consider beautiful.
While facial symmetry (believed to be a sign of a strong immune system) is a universally standard measure of attractiveness, ideal body shape, skin colour, size of eyes, lips, noses and even jawlines have all morphed and morphed again over time.
We’ve moved from desiring sensuous Botticelli bodies to fleshier Ruben figures, from the lean lines and broader shoulders of wartime-era women, back to the softer Monroe-esque shapes of the 1950s and the androgynous and childlike Twiggys of the 60s, from heroin-chic of the 90s to stronger being sexier in the 2000s.
Our aesthetic tastes are influenced by culture and pop culture alike, leading to stark differences between countries as much as differences over between eras.
“Darwin thought that there were few universals of physical beauty because there was much variance in appearance and preference across human groups,” says John Manning of the University of Liverpool in England.
Manning has previously explained this, giving examples of Chinese men who used to prefer women with small feet, fetishised ankles in Shakespearean England and coveted large lip disks in some African tribal cultures.
As our highly connected world simultaneously expands and becomes smaller, our tastes for beauty appear to be adapting.
In the new study, researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine compared 50 celebrities from the 1990 list of People magazine’s “World’s Most Beautiful” list with 135 celebrities from the 2017 list. The 1990 cover featured a 32-year-old Michelle Pfieffer, while the 2017 cover featured a 49-year-old Julia Roberts.
In the 2017 list, darker skin represented nearly 30 per cent of people on the list compared with only 12 per cent on the 1990 list. The average age increased from 33.2 in 1990 to 38.9 in 2017 and the proportion of celebrities of non-white races also increased from 24 per cent in 1990 to 40 per cent in 2017.
“In today’s multicultural society, we may be seeing standards of beauty evolving to mirror society,” says lead authorNeelam Vashi, an assistant professor of dermatology and director of the Boston University Centre for Ethnic Skin. “Today, the internet and highly connected world has increased exposure to different cultures. This along with the mass media has possibly contributed to shifts in beauty ideals.”
Vashi says that our ideals reflect our societal values and his research highlights that “beauty is ever-changing and not just a static principle”.
“What our society deemed beautiful in 1990 may no longer exactly represent the characteristics that we find beautiful today,” he says.
And what we find beautiful has implications beyond being admired. “Those who are more beautiful being able to get jobs easier, go out on more dates. They are even more often attributed qualities such as likeability and intelligence,” Vashi says.
“The study and concept of beauty are quite fascinating. It has many facets and simply put, we have found that there are both biological/innate indicators and also subjective aspects. Preferences for beauty are both a combination of a basic cognitive process and also a learned process.
“What is interesting and what our article speaks to is this subjective, learned process. Individuality, culture, history all are important to the study of beauty and when we look at different cultures, historical periods, we see different and shifting ideals. Essentially, we can see the ideals of a particular culture at that point in time.”
While our collective eye is changing to include more diversity, whether it is changing enough and whether it reflects well on our culture is debateable.
We have increasing cultural diversity and are increasing in age as a society, which seems to be reflected in our ideals of beauty. But, we are less tolerant when we are confronted with things that challenge our perceptions – and perhaps this is also reflected in our attitudes to beauty.
In a society that values physical fitness as attractive – a veritable rarity in an increasingly sedentary and overweight world – we think we have the right to publicly shame people if they do not adhere to our perception of beauty.
So although our changing perception of beauty suggests we are becoming more progressive and more liberal in our views, we still have a way to go for our attitudes about beauty reflect a culture that is beautiful.