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How Standards of Beauty Change with Time and Culture


Beauty ultimately is in the eye of the beholder, though cultural standards of beauty change over time. With the rise of the mass media over the 20th and 21st centuries, the degree of concern people have about their looks has grown, resulting in obsessions for some people. For example, because we are exposed to billboards, magazines, television, and computer imagery constantly, we tend to think of exceptional good looks as somehow the norm, even though the standards of beauty we’re exposed to are unattainable by most people.

What a culture considers “beautiful” changes as times change, too, often corresponding to the way looks correlate with wealth. For example, during eras when food was scarce, excess flesh was seen as a sign of wealth and therefore of beauty. However, today, with fattening food cheap and plentiful, being thin is a sign of someone who has the time to eat right and exercise, and therefore is a sign of wealth, with obesity looked upon as a sign of lower economic status.

The fickleness of fashion is another consideration when it comes to beauty standards. In the 1920s, the androgynous look among women, with short hair, and clothing that did not emphasize womanly curves, was all the rage. But in other eras, such as the 1950s and 1960s, curves were coveted, and the classic hourglass figure was highly prized. In the 1980s, women wore mannish suits with padded shoulders, again de-emphasizing curves, but these soon became passé, and women once again celebrated their womanly figures.

While the standards of beauty have been more harshly applied to women throughout history, men feel pressure to look good, too, perhaps now more than ever. The ads and images we’re bombarded with constantly show men with chiseled features and perfectly sculpted bodies – a look that most men do not have the time to pursue. Today’s relatively high standard of living also contributes to insecurity over looks, because we simply have the luxury of worrying about how we look rather than being focused on survival, the way the human race had to be for thousands of years.

When psychologists have analyzed attractiveness, they have found a few constants. For example, people with more symmetrical features are considered more attractive than those whose features are off-kilter. Also, people whose features are more representative of the average in terms of size and shape of eyes, nose, and mouth, are considered more attractive. Psychologists have determined that men are most naturally attracted to women whose ratio of waist measurement to hip measurement is around 0.7. Women consider men most attractive if their waist to hip ratio is around 0.9.

But when all these factors are taken into account, there is still a lot about attractiveness that is inexplicable. Women and men fall in love with people based on far more than just their looks. A look through the wedding announcements in any major newspaper shows that average-looking people and even relatively unattractive people of both genders regularly fall in love and marry. So while beauty may be an evolutionary signal of fertility, in the modern world, it is only one of many factors in what makes a person interesting, worthwhile, and valuable to humankind.