Viewing History Skeptically, Part 2: Beauty

Joan Jacobs Brumberg's "The Body Project"One of the first things one learns in a college-level history or sociology course is that the ways we define and think about various human attributes and qualities—sexual orientation, mental illness, gender, race, virginity—are never static. They vary geographically and temporally, and even though it may seem that the way we currently conceptualize a particular aspect of human experience is the “right” one, the one that’s accurate and supported by the research evidence, that’s pretty much what people always think.

This is what I discussed in a previous post, where I promised to write some followups about specific examples of this sort of thing. So here we go!

Beauty is a good example of shifting cultural attitudes—not only in the sense that beauty standards have changed over the decades, but also in terms of what meaning and significance we attribute to beauty as a quality. In her book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg discusses these shifting meanings. Brumberg notes in her chapter on skincare that in the 19th century, acne and other facial blemishes were considered a sign of moral or spiritual impurity. In fact, many people believed that people got blemishes as a result of masturbating, having “promiscuous” sex, or simply having “impure” thoughts. She writes, “In the nineteenth century, young women were commonly taught that the face was a ‘window on the soul’ and that facial blemishes indicated a life that was out of balance.”

By the mid-20th century, however, Americans had already started to think of beauty very differently. Brumberg writes of perceptions of acne in the postwar period:

Although acne did not kill, it could ruin a young person’s life. By undermining self-confidence and creating extreme psychological distress, acne could generate a breakdown in social functioning. Acne was considered dangerous because it could foster an “inferiority complex,” an idea that began to achieve wide popularity among educated Americans.

Facial blemishes were no longer considered a sign of inner weakness or impurity; they were a potentially dangerous blow to a young person’s self-esteem. They were something to be dealt with swiftly, before they could cause any serious damage:

In magazines popular with the educated middle class, parents were urged to monitor teenagers’ complexions and to take a teenager to a dermatologist as soon as any eruptions appeared: “Even the mildest attack is best dealt with under the guidance of an understanding medical counselor.” Those parents who took a more acquiescent view were guilty of neglect: “Ignoring acne or depending upon its being outgrown is foolish, almost wicked.”

Whereas worrying about one’s appearance and trying to correct it was once viewed as improper for young women, it was now considered acceptable and even productive. Even state health departments issues pamphlets urging young people to make sure that they are “as attractive as nature intended you to be.” It was understood that beauty was an important and necessary quality to have, not only because it opened doors for people but because it was just another aspect of health and wellbeing.

Today, our views on beauty seem much more rife with contradictions. Obviously beauty is still important. Women (and, to a lesser but growing extent, men) are still encouraged and expected to spend money, time, and energy on improving their appearance. We know from research that the halo effect exists, and that lends a certain practicality to what was once viewed as a frivolous pursuit—trying to be beautiful.

At the same time, though, we insist that beauty “doesn’t matter,” that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern middle-class parent immediately rushing their child to the dermatologist at the first sign of pimples; it seems that they would be more likely to encourage the child to remember that “beauty is only skin deep” and that one’s “real friends” would never make fun of them for their acne. (Of course, I grew up with no-nonsense immigrant parents who rejected most forms of conformity, so maybe my experience was different.) Nowadays, costly medical interventions to improve teenagers’ looks are more associated with the upper class than the middle class, and we tend to poke fun (or shudder in disgust) at parents who take their children to get plastic surgery and put them on expensive weight loss programs.

It appears that our culture has outwardly rejected—or is in the process of trying to reject, amid much cognitive dissonance—the idea that beauty is a good way to judge people, that it reveals anything about them other than how they happen to look thanks to genetics or their environment. No longer do we consider beauty a sign of purity and spiritual wellbeing, as in the Victorian era, or of health and social success, as in the postwar years.

Of course, that’s just outwardly. Although we’re loath to admit it, beauty still matters, and people still judge others by their appearance, and we still subscribe to the notion that anyone can be beautiful if they just try hard enough (which generally involves investing a sufficient amount of money). While people are likely to tell you that beauty is a superficial thing that shouldn’t matter, their actions suggest otherwise.

An interesting contrast to this is Brazil, where plastic surgery, or plástica, is generally covered by the state healthcare system. As anthropologist Alexander Edmonds describes, many in Brazil believe that beauty is a “right” that everyone deserves, not just those who can afford it. One surgeon says:

In the past the public health system only paid for reconstructive surgery. And surgeons thought cosmetic operations were vanity. But plástica has psychological effects, for the poor as well as the rich. We were able to show this and so it was gradually accepted as having a social purpose. We operate on the poor who have the chance to improve their appearance and it’s a necessity not a vanity.

Brazilians, too, have been influenced by Alfred Adler’s concept of the “inferiority complex,” and in this sense the meaning of beauty in that context is similar to that in postwar America, although with a few differences. Like Americans in the 1950s, many Brazilians believe that improving one’s appearance is an important form of healthcare that heightens self-esteem and confidence. It’s not a matter of vanity.

However, unlike Americans, Brazilians (at least the ones profiled in Edmonds’ study) believe that self-esteem is important for the poor as well as for those who are better-off. In the United States people tend to scoff at the idea that people living in poverty need (let alone deserve) entertainment, pleasure, or really anything other than what they need to survive, and in the postwar years the focus on adolescents’ appearance seemed to be confined to the middle and upper class. But in Brazil it’s accepted as a “right”–a right to be beautiful.

Looking at how Americans in the past viewed beauty, as well as how people in other cultures view it, exposes the contradictions in our own thinking about it. Our outward dismissal of beauty as vain and unimportant clashes with our actual behavior, which suggests that beauty is quite important. This tension probably emerged because we have abandoned our earlier justifications for valuing beauty, such as the Victorian view of beauty as a sign of morality and the postwar view of beauty as a vital component of health. Now that we know that beauty has nothing to do with morality and relatively little to do with health, we’re forced to declare that it “doesn’t matter.” But, of course, it does.