Driven by Madison Avenue and fashion runways around the world, the concept of beauty is an ever-evolving thing possessed of neither a steady form nor a truly constant definition. To me, the only constants about it are nebulous ones in that beauty is said to be pleasing to the eye or in the eye of the beholder. However, facets of beauty change frequently and often differ per ethnic group, and the concept blurs even further when social dynamics inevitably come into play.
To the left is a picture of legendary actress/writer Mae West. Born in 1893 as Mary Jane West in Brooklyn, New York, she was one of American cinema's earliest sex symbols, a blonde tigress who exuded a raw sexual presence as had never been seen before on the silver screen. She gained fame--and notoriety--not only for her looks, but from what she wore, what she said, what she wrote, and the unforgettable way in which she spoke her most memorable lines with an almost feline purr. She was bold. She was sensuous. She was dynamic. Yet despite her fame, despite her flirtatious screen persona, despite all that Mae West brought to Hollywood and all that she was, would the great Mae West be seen as the most physically beautiful living woman today?
Over time, the commonly accepted image of female beauty has ranged from the Rubenesque to the waif-like. Historically, women’s beauty has been a thing of slimmer and slimmer appearances, making the desirability of the shapes of such era-specific lovelies as Mae West and even Marilyn Monroe relatively unwelcome among those women who slavishly follow fashion tends today. And while West's and Monroe's fuller figures captured the nation's attention many decades ago, those same full figures today would land them somewhere in the limbo between regular and plus-size modeling. Neither Monroe nor West were waifs like Kate Moss, or Moss’ predecessor, Twiggy. Their bodies weren’t as toned as today's Pilates-crazed models and actresses, and without that toning to use as contrast, their curves would fail to generate any true level of attention, and their fuller legs would also be seen as an unforgivable no-no. Take models of the recent past such as Tyra Banks, Claudia Schiffer and Carmen Electra--they made sure their ample endowments were reflected off decidedly toned and slender physiques. There are exceptions to the above, of course. Christina Hendricks ("Joan Holloway" on Mad Men) being one of them, but even she makes sure to have a stomach of some visible firmness to further highlight her large upper regions.
All of the above is not to say that West and Monroe (left), were they somehow transported through time and space from their respective heydays to current times, couldn’t adapt to the current standard and regain their previous levels of fame and male worship. Conceptually, I believe that West, the naughty girl from Brooklyn who grew up to be an actress and writer, and Norma Jeane Mortenson, the brunette country-girl-next-door who changed herself to become the male fantasy of a past generation called Marilyn Monroe, could adapt to today’s beauty ideal. However, the fact that Mae West and Marilyn Monroe would probably have to adapt to another beauty standard to regain their past success is a most striking thing.
And driving most new images of female beauty is a fashion industry composed mostly of men, a machine that fosters feelings of insecurity and jealousy among women. Influential female designers include the likes of Vera Wang, Donna Karan, and even Shoshonna Lonstein Gruss, but consider how many more influential male designers exist. With that done, think of how little a man’s suit has changed over time from the early 1900’s to the present day. While the bowlers and top-hats of yesteryear are mostly gone (the bowler was briefly resurrected as a form of hip-hop fashion wear a few years back), the only real changes outside of the fabrics used and the general cut are the size of the lapels and the length of the jacket! For men, the basic jacket and pants combination has been an almost constant thing in appearance since the early 20th century. It is a consistency that underscores the absolute volatility of women’s fashion in which women are damned fortunate if a style from last year would be acceptable today. And finally, if two men, or twenty men, all came to a given event wearing similar dark suits, then nothing amiss would be noted. Now picture the same event, but substitute those involved with two or twenty women in a similar dress. Watch the fights, catty looks, and other behavior that is nothing but the displayed continuance of medieval social attitudes kept alive by those forces benefiting from the often-harmful women’s beauty dynamic.
I’m raising four girls, the oldest of whom is eighteen, and I’ve seen advertising affect their self-image. I've seen each of them primping in front of mirrors well before reaching the age of thirteen! What did any of them know about fashion, about beauty, about anything at their young ages? The answer: Absolutely nothing but what various men in dark suits sitting in corporate boardrooms tell them what they should know about fashion and beauty. It’s wrong, and I try to correct them on this and so many other things, but thanks to negative factors like advertising and a gender-based society, my girls are well on the path to becoming followers of the many beauty and fashion trends to come. As for my two sons, they're into the Ultimate Fighting Championship and WWE sports entertainment (UFC and WWE both feature such obvious testosterone-attractants as fighting, girls in skimpy clothes, and yes…more fighting), but the overall media effort has no blatant effect on their sense of self in non-ethnic matters. (The media, race, and ethnicity is a different topic.) As for my girls, they were bombarded with Barbie (and similar) commercials that showed female dolls as sexpot models, doctors, lawyers, and so on. The key thing to the advertiser was to relay to impressionable young girls the need to be "pretty", the need to have long flowing hair, the need to be rail thin, and the need to have a department store for a wardrobe.
I know correcting the above will take decades, if not centuries, to achieve. I will be long gone by the time the women's beauty dynamic gains a relatively static nature equivalent to the male standards of handsomeness and fashion. My girls will probably be gone as well, as will be their children. It is upsetting to know that we humans have advanced to where we can literally reach for the stars, but as a society, we still retain the need to exert control over significant portions of the population (by gender, race, and ethnicity) through slanted imagery and the retention of primitive mindsets.
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