Beauty Standards Through The Ages
By: Jaclyn Kotora, Contributing Writer
Belle, hermosa, bonita, jamila, ilusad, sundara, areumdapda, s̄wy; all meaning beautiful. Like the word, the idea of beauty has many definitions that are constantly shifting. Even now, it seems impossible to keep up with the ever-changing beauty standards of society. Through observations of the representation of females in art throughout history, it is evident that the idea of beauty changed throughout time periods and also depended on culture. What one group may admire, another may repulse. Especially in the past decade, the idea of beauty has been more inclusive than ever before, introducing the LGBTQ+ community and people of different races, cultures, ages, conditions, and shapes into the narrative.
Nowadays, cultures of every era have been chasing the desirable ideal of their age, going about it in many different ways. However, the motivation has relatively remained the same throughout history: to show social status, wealth, health, fertility, and to attract a mate. Robin Givhan and Hannah Reyes describe in a National Geographic essay the different beauty standards and ways of fulfilling them throughout the ages:
Starting off in Ancient Egypt (3100 - 30 B.C.), both sexes wore heavy eye makeup that darkened and contoured their eyelids to ward off eye infections and evil. Curled and braided wigs and hair were also a staple mark of the beauty of that era.
As for people of Classic Maya (A.D. 250-900), an elongated head look was a sign of beauty, as it resembled their maize god, whose head was shaped like an ear of corn. Infant’s heads were actually reshaped through binding boards to the skull to create this look.
Moving into the Tang Dynasty (618-907), women would paint red, black, and yellow beauty marks on their faces in the designs to hide any imperfections. Another ideal of this beauty was to pluck and paint eyebrows in dramatic contours, and for lips to resemble the petals of a flower.
Beauty standards continued to vary into late Medieval Europe (1300-1500) as a high forehead and pale skin and hair were admired. Eyebrows and hairlines were heavily plucked to achieve this look, and often hair was dyed blonde and dressed in a headdress to appear delicate and beautiful.
As for many communities of the Pacific Islands, curves and a larger body size was considered beautiful and appealing to men as it was equated with status, wealth, health, and fertility.
The Qajar Dynasty (1785-1925) admired the enhancement of eyes and brows, using cosmetics to define and enlarge the eyes, while connecting and thickening the eyebrows.
There is no universal definition of beauty. As seen throughout history, the standards of what is deemed as attractive vary significantly depending on the culture and their values. However, unlike past eras where people are inclined to assimilate into the dominant culture and standards, our generation seeks to stand apart from it. Throughout the past decade, a new definition of beauty is being written, one that is extremely individualistic.
Robin Givhan writes in her essay, “The new beauty isn’t defined by hairstyles or body shape, by age or skin color. Beauty is becoming less a matter of aesthetics and more about self-awareness, personal swagger, and individuality. It’s about chiseled arms and false eyelashes and a lineless forehead. But it’s also defined by rounded bellies, shimmering silver hair, and mundane imperfections. Beauty is a millennial strutting around town in leggings, a crop top, and her belly protruding over her waistband. It is a young man swishing down a runway in over-the-knee boots and thigh-grazing shorts. Beauty is political correctness, cultural enlightenment, and social justice.”
In this, Givhan explains the true definition of beauty. Beauty can not be defined by a certain appearance, culture, or gender. Beauty is confidence. It is about being yourself, embracing your features and characteristics, and feeling comfortable with one’s body. Everyone has their own beauty, but only you can make yourself feel beautiful. It’s all about embracing your individual qualities, whether it be through ripped jeans and a t-shirt, or wearing makeup and sweatpants, whatever you feel reflects your identity.
When Allure asked celebrities beauty pros to define beauty, they answered:
“If you stand in Herald Square or Times Square or Grand Central Station at 8:30 in the morning or 5:30 at night, and you watch the variety of people walk by from all walks of life, all ages, and different points of view style-wise, that polyglot diversity is what American beauty is right now.” — Michael Kors, designer
“American beauty right now is confidence in who you are. The most beautiful people embrace and celebrate their uniqueness.” — Jessica Alba, founder of Honest Beauty and the Honest Company
“I don’t believe in one ideal beauty, but I believe in the beauty of diversity, confidence, and bravery. Beauty surrounds me in the people I work and collaborate with every day.” — Zac Posen, designer
“A true American beauty is a person who loves everybody regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. In today’s crazy world, we need more love and less hate. If everyone respects one another, the world would be a much better place.” — Dolly Parton, singer, songwriter, and actress
Although people may be attracted to different characteristics, all these celebrities described beauty as displaying individualism, diversity, and confidence. For me, I believe beauty is all about attitude and mindset--someone who looks and feels comfortable and confident with themselves, and who expresses their true selves in their actions, poise, and appearance.
Beauty is also being expanded beyond gender norms and assumptions, blurring the line between genders. Masculine models proudly wear ball gowns and makeup, while feminine models confidently and aggressively strut down the runway in clothing that doesn’t aim to showcase their hourglass figure or other assets, but instead allows baggier clothes that may make their torso look thicker or shorten their legs.
As beauty standards have shifted throughout history, it has also become more inclusive. Our generation has welcomed people of all differences and has labeled them as beautiful. Stop trying to live up to the ever-expanding beauty standards of society--It’s all a never-ending chase. As seen throughout history, expectations will continue to change, but welcome the new inclusiveness of beauty, and embrace your true self instead of trying to be which you are not. However, it is unrealistic to think that this inclusiveness rids of judgment. As the saying goes, “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.” Not everyone is going to believe that a certain person is beautiful, but just because someone doesn’t find you beautiful, doesn’t mean you are not. As Robin Givhan says, “Modern beauty doesn’t ask us to come to the table without judgment. It simply asks us to come presuming that everyone in attendance has a right to be there.”
Link to cover image: