In one of her posts last week, Holley asked the question: Do you believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?
She then shared some of the male celebrities that had been crushes of hers, and how her crushes differed from those of her mother and grandmother. You can see the post by clicking on the link above.
The sociologist in me got excited about this and wanted to comment about the fact that while we have our natural inclinations about what we like, they are affected by the way we are socialized into what is “beautiful.” If you know me at all, you will understand that I was compelled to go beyond “who floats our boat?” to the deeper question of how does this socialized concept of “beauty” affect us at a deeper level, primarily because of the effect it has on all of us, but particularly on young women. Following is an edited version of my comment to Holley:
I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, our ideas of what we are attracted to do not occur in a vacuum. We are also socialized into what beauty is. It’s one thing when we’re discussing celebrities with our friends and comparing who we find most appealing. It’s quite another, when we look at the darker side of the socialization that pressures women (more so than men) to live up to a standard of beauty that is unrealistic. If advertising and movies can convince young women (and men) that they are inadequate in some way, they will be more enticed to fix these inadequacies through the purchase of cosmetics, surgical procedures, and clothing.
It would be nice to believe that these societal expectations don’t exist, but they do. For example, open any magazine or turn on the TV, and you can’t help but notice how many “opportunities” we’re given to take care of our inadequacies so that we can be beautiful. It wouldn’t take much exposure to this type of propaganda to convince us that we don’t measure up in the beauty department. We can’t help NOT being influenced by such things, because they permeate our lives on a daily basis.
This sense of inadequacy is often in spite of the fact that there is someone (usually a spouse or significant other) who has chosen that person, as a beholder of beauty. It’s a deep subject, and while I’m sure you weren’t looking to make this a deep sociological discussion, it is interesting that what we view as beautiful is often a result of how we are socialized. Similarly, what is defined as beauty varies depending on one’s culture and other background.
On a personal level, I see the effects of this stuff on my students, especially the young women. They have very interesting attitudes about what they will and won’t eat, and are fixated by doing whatever it takes to stay thin. I have no problem with maintaining a healthy weight, but some of the young women who are most concerned about their looks have absolutely beautiful bodies, but they have been brainwashed into thinking they are lacking in some way.
I could ramble on endlessly it appears, so I’ll stop here. Obviously, I think this is a fascinating topic, and I enjoyed the fact that the people we tend to crush on is indeed very personal. It’s just that most of the people we crush on are also marketed to us in one way or another. 🙂
Holley responded and we talked of the possibility of taking this topic a little further. It was never my intention to go into sociological topics in this blog, but sometimes a topic just jumps out and captures my attention, Since others were interested as well, I decided to take the plunge.
A day or two later, I came across an amazing post from a father who was giving advice to his daughter about the dangers of growing up in a society fixated on a warped sense of beauty and sexuality. You can read it here. He invites his daughter to realize that the message she gets from retailers, magazines, and the media is not where real beauty is to be found. He does it in a letter that is truly moving and inspirational. I wish all young women had someone who would share this wisdom with them.
The expectations that society has engrained in us about beauty are not possible, and yet we judge ourselves (and others) by those unrealistic expectations. These larger than life expectations are also on billboards: we can’t get away from them. And yet, many of those images are deliberately distorted. In other words, NO ONE really looks like the image that is posted on that billboard. Take a look at this video:
About a year ago, Dove did an interesting experiment in which women were asked to describe themselves to a forensic artist. Another set of pictures were done by the artist, this time with a stranger describing each of the women. The women were then shown the two pictures: how they saw themselves and how a stranger saw them. The results were striking as you can see in this video.
There are several messages in this video, but one is particularly clear. It’s not just our young women entering adulthood who are affected by distorted expectations of what beauty is. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, particularly when that beholder is conscious of the illusions promoted by the business industry. We all need to stop using these false expectations as a mirror for what we see.
If we remember to look within and trust what we see, we can help ourselves and those around us to see real beauty and not stuff that comes out of bottles, packages, and software programs.