We tend to think that the current trend of beauty is the ultimate standard, from which we judge ourselves and others. If we just look a little wider and further back, this could not be further from the truth.
I grew up a tomboy, constantly getting into scrapes and fights. As my shoe size increased, my mother tried her best to get rid of my freckles, considered blemishes for those who idealised fair, smooth skin as a sign of beauty. Sunscreens and vanishing creams did not work due to my love of the outdoors and pure laziness in following any regime. When I shopped for beauty products the sales ladies would gasp at my spotted face in horror.
I don’t remember when youthful oblivion metamorphosed into awkward self-consciousness. When do we start judging ourselves, and by whose standards? The first persons we seek to please maybe our parents. After which comes the influence of peer pressure, schoolmates, friends, celebrities and models in fashion magazines.
The excuses for self-reproach are endless.
Looking through time and transversely across cultures, we realize that the perceptions and standards of beauty are diverse and changing. We find that many of these beauty traits or practices had pragmatic origins or were means of signifying social hierarchies. What is behind these manifestations of beauty?
Change through the ages
Slender silhouettes and smoky-eyed ancient Egyptian women have left their mark in today’s world of fashion. Minerals were ground up to make beauty products. They wore wigs and hair extensions. The heavy lining of kohl around the eyes also had a practical application: it helped reduce glare from the harsh desert sun. A shaved head lessened the chance of getting head lice. Wigs and other beauty rituals were symbols of status or seen to have ‘magical’ capabilities.
Cleopatra, immortalized as an icon of beauty, was not exceptionally attractive according to historians. She had a nose too large and lips too thin. However, her voice, intelligence, and stimulating personality were bewitching.
We know how the ancient Greeks perceived beauty through the idealised forms left behind in their chiselled muscular sculptures. Physical beauty for men and women was held in high esteem, a corporeal reflection of a beautiful mind. In fact, it was more admired in men than women and celebrated in male beauty contests.
The Rubenesque curvaceous female figure with a rounded stomach was considered sexy. It was not the only depiction of fair, plump and full-figured women extolled in history: the ancient Greeks and Victorian English women had similar standards for beauty. These traits signified a life of prosperity and abundance as well as child-bearing hips alluding to fertility. Being thin had connotations of poverty or ill health.
Until the advent of the industrial revolution, having a well-stocked larder was an everyday struggle except for the wealthy and powerful. Technology dramatically increased food production and allowed it to be stored. This decreased prices and increased accessibility.
Footbinding for girls had been all the rage in China since the Song Dynasty, especially among the elite as a status symbol. This was only phased out in the early 20th century. It was said it made women walk in a dainty, swaying manner that was appreciated by men, and hence increased their prospects for a good marriage. Severe forms of binding included breaking all the toes except the large toe and curling them under the foot. In practice, these physical limitations also increased their dependency on men and meant that physical labour was not part of their daily chores.
It may be hard to think of enduring such pain for the sake of beauty, but in Victorian England, wearing whalebone or steel-framed corsets to shape an exaggeratedly tiny waist was also a common practice even if it damaged women’s bodies. The tighter the bodice and the more restrictive the movements, the higher the social ranking.
Happy to be me
The colour of our complexion is one of the most striking attributes on which we are judged and it depends on your definition of a carefree life. Leisure time spent drinking cocktails on a white sandy beach cultivates a glowing tan. Not needing to break into a sweat under the hot sun with a chauffeur at your disposal keeps your skin fair.
When I moved to, and travelled more widely, in Europe, my freckles still attracted attention — but as an attractive and unique feature not as a blemish. Beauty is subjective as it tends to reflect what is important to society, the environment and time we live in.
Going along with the flow may not always be right for your body. We can start by considering the reasons and meaning behind popular trends and traits defining beauty. We do not have control over where and when we are born or raised. However, we can influence how we value ourselves, how we react and feel.
We tend to want what is rare, or what we cannot have. Women with straight hair will perm it; those with curly hair spend hours straightening it.
Listen to your body: Is it happy?
Do you feel good?
Pause and listen to your subconscious self-talk. Are you positive and assertive because that is what others expect you to be? Are you self-disparaging or drawn to negative criticism of others? Understanding ourselves and what we value is the first step to a good life.
Most cages are the ones we build around ourselves. So the good news is that we hold the power to set ourselves free.