by Michael Sones
Over the past three decades the popular magazine Psychology Today has conducted several surveys on how people feel about the appearance of their bodies. The changing results make for interesting reading. The dramatic changes in American culture have significantly altered peoples’ perceptions of themselves. In 1972 twenty-three percent of American women were dissatisfied with their appearance but by 1997 that figure had risen to fifty-six percent. In 1972 fifteen percent of men were dissatisfied with their appearance but by 1997 that figure had risen to forty-three percent. Thirty-eight percent of men are now dissatisfied with the size of their chests compared to the thirty-four percent of women dissatisfied with their breasts. Men are getting pectoral implants. Millions of women have had surgery to change the shape of their breasts or increase their size.
Images of Beauty are everywhere. Pictures of handsome men and beautiful women grace the pages of glossy magazines, television, billboards, consumer products and the Internet. In the developed world the preoccupation with the body and with Beauty is intensifying and the Beauty Industry, despite nearly thirty years of feminism, is a multi-billion dollar a year business.
In the United Kingdom visit any newsagent and you will find dozens of magazines on various aspects of style, fashion and health. There are several magazines just devoted to the topic of hairstyles and hair care. Men’s magazines tell men how to get flat stomachs and bulging biceps. Images of slim, ultra fit models seem to be everywhere and vast numbers of women are preoccupied with their weight. Yet despite this preoccupation with beauty and despite the well publicized health risks over a third of Americans are obese. The English are fast catching up. But yet, while one third are obese, for others anorexia nervosa is a serious and potentially fatal mental health problem.
The images of beauty everywhere are not the average man or woman. Few ordinary people can aspire to look like the images of the exceptional beauties the media present us with. The models, actors, and actresses are selected from the thousands who apply. They are statistically exceptional in their appearance. Then professional stylists and make-up artists spend hours doing their hair and make-up. They spend hours in the gym. However, in films, soaps, and sitcoms they are often placed in ordinary situations so that we all feel that they are our competition. However, as Cindy Crawford says, “Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.” A survey of 5,000 women in the UK by Real magazine published in November 2002 has some rather depressing statistics. 91% of women were unhappy with their hips and thighs and 60% were depressed by their body image. 84% of those who were normal weight wished they were lighter. Only 3% of women were happy with their bodies.
To suggest that we can either have something very beautiful and desirable if we purchase a car or look very beautiful and desirable if we use a certain hair conditioner and eye-makeup sells products very effectively. This is because it touches upon some very deep-rooted anxieties in human psychology and offers an answer to them. Feminists have blamed men and a patriarchal society. Socialists have blamed capitalists and the advertising industry. What is really going on? Why are both men and women more preoccupied, more anxious, about being beautiful these days than ever before?
To be beautiful is presented as being the answer to a problem. The developed countries of the world are going through a period of great turbulence. Just as the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s led to great changes in society so too is the Information Revolution of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And it is happening fast.
For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Civilization and cities are only a few thousand years old. Just as our bodies evolved over those countless millennia in order to adapt and survive so did our psychologies. The reasons why it is so important for women to be beautiful and men to be strong and handsome are deeply ingrained in the human psyche and are the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.
At Beautyworlds.com we think that the increasing preoccupation with Beauty is linked with many of the great cultural and social changes of the past three decades. Anxieties about Beauty resonate deeply in human psychology. Men don’t cause women to want to be beautiful nor does capitalism or the advertising industries. Cultural and social conditions can heighten these anxieties and being beautiful can be felt to be the solution. And, fundamentally, this has to do with the biological purpose of Beauty.