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When has beauty become a social responsibility?

Irina Alexandra Iles
Guest reporter

When has beauty become a social responsibility?

Our life as human beings is organized in groups which, in turn, form the society. Therefore, our activity evolves within the boundaries of a society and must consent to the terms imposed or, to what we call, the social norms. By using basic logic notions, one should come to the conclusion that, since people constitute the society, they are the ones that set the rules. Fairly true. Another step in this reasoning would be that these guidelines must be set so that every person in the society could meet them at a normal pace and without posessing any kind of supernatural powers. You would think that, based on the principle of humanism, we should nurture  warm-hearted feelings toward our fellows and ourselves and avoid any harmful actions. The logic still stands up, at least at a theoretical level.

But practice was the one that gave me second thoughts. I couldn’t stop wondering where are the flaws that make our 2011 society limp. Who sets the rules and by using what critical reasoning? Although my question would apply to many domains in our lives, I took a glance at a simple, yet fascinating and even philosophical aspect – the concept of beauty. We have been seeking beauty since the very first days of our existence, when the child lightened at the sight of his mother’s warm smile. We then went on to distinguish between beauty and ugliness in terms of comfort/discomfort, happiness/sadness and so on. As a matter of fact, beauty used to be customized according to each of us and our perceptions.

But it seems that today the coordinates within which we define beauty have changed. Our perception has changed. Beauty is no longer a matter of the self, but of the group.  And apparently the melting pot of our values, ideas, standards and attitudes has given birth to a distorted image of what we call beauty. A chemical reaction must have happened on the way and redefined beauty in terms of physical appearance, ideal or perfection.

A friend from Seoul told me that plastic surgeries are no. 1 gift for girls on high school graduation. Although this may not be true on a large scale, it does make you think of what we have become. It seems that a social malady that imposes unattainable limits and standards disregarding the specific needs and capabilities of each individual has emerged.

People as consumers are being exposed today more than ever in history to the images of beauty promoted by the mass media. The omnipresence of these images is correlated with a progressive decrease of what is thought to be the ideal body weight. A chronological analysis of American advertising conducted by Percy and Lautman showed that in 1894 the desired measures for a woman were set at 163 cm and 63 kg; this weight was firstly reduced in 1947, down to 57 kg; in 1970, the feminine model weighed 53 kg at an accepted height of 173 cm.1)  The immediate conclusion is that the socially prescribed shape of a woman continually increases in centimeters and decreases in kilograms.

I ask myself, when has beauty become a matter of centimeters and kilograms? You cannot put a weight on beauty, the same way as you cannot patent the sun. It is unreasonable.

But this does not seem to be the general belief, as a meaningful percent of women consider that mass media’s depicts of beauty and the related images are real and accessible to the average person through magnificent techniques (also suggested by the mighty media). Women world wide have come to believe in biologic oxymorons such as skinny figures, unusual big breasts, but still firm muscles. They disregard the common sense whispering to them that the secret behind that ludicrous perfection is mere graphical editing. What raises even more concern is that women also assume that men are being attracted by the same thread-like body presented by the media and, accordingly, they become even more eager in achieving the perfect figure.

The ultimate deduction is that beauty has become visual and narrow in sense inside a society dominated by images. A direct effect is to treat the idea of “beauty” and the idea of “physical attractiveness” as largely synonymous. The concept of beauty narrowed to  physical appearance has conquered the title of a social value itself, a must-have ingredient for success, love and social acceptance.

The perception of one’s beauty has been demonstrated to be inherently related to the self-esteem of the individual. More specifically, the more an individual is discontented with his or her looks, the lower his or her self-esteem will be. The level of self-esteem has to do with a person’s overall evaluation of his or her own worth. A low self-esteem corresponds to feeling wrong as a person and is responsible for heavy self-criticism, indecision and hypersensitivity to other’s opinion. All these in turn affect the quality of one’s life by diminishing performances in various domains – personal, academic, social. The point to emphasis here is that by accepting the limited ideal of physical appearance, women  deny themselves the right to a normal, balanced life and feel morally obliged and socially constrained to become that heavy advertised thin figure. 

And this endless struggle to attain the socially prescribed beauty has generated a cultural trend between women to never appreciate themselves as beautiful enough on the outside. Their inside qualities have long been forgotten. The contributions of the ear, the intellect, the broader aesthetic faculty or the moral sensibilities are gone.

However, a study commissioned by Dove, a Unilever beauty brand, revealed that women who are more satisfied with their own beauty are significantly more likely than those who are less satisfied to think that non-physical factors, including happiness, confidence, dignity, humor, intelligence and wisdom contribute to making a woman beautiful.2)  This demonstrates that by having a better image about yourself unveils the other attributes you should consider when assessing your value.

We should all be able to talk and think about female beauty in ways that are more authentic, satisfying and empowering. In an idealized world, outside beauty, defined in terms of weight, should by no means constitute an assessment criterion for women. In fact, beauty should be perceived as a physical and psychological harmony of the body and due to the uniqueness of individuals, beauty is not the same. Women must choose health and self fulfillment as a benchmark for their own state of equilibrium and as a shield to counter the deformed shapes intensively promoted by the media channels.  Photoshoped beauty icons should no longer be a reference point. We all agree on that, but reality shows that authentic beauty is a concept lodged in women’s hearts and minds and seldom articulated in popular culture or affirmed in the mass media. As such, it remains unrealized and unclaimed. The challenge for women of today’s society is to recognize that true beauty can be infinitely extended to encompass happiness, kindness, wisdom, dignity, love, authenticity and self-realization and should not be hindered in doing so by no theory or ideology. Today’s woman is challenged to widen the definition of beauty so that everyone can fit.

Pablo Picasso said that every child was an artist, but the problem was how to remain an artist once he grew up. A wise step would be not to twist his imaginary world through unattainble standards that generate frustration and gloominess. It seems to be such a common sense assertion, but still a cherrised memory in nowadays society. Who should take the responsibility? You, me, everybody. We should know beauty when we feel it, not when we see it. Obligation has nothing to do with beauty. You are morally obliged not the hurt your human fellows. So, why hurt yourself by desperately trying to become a person portrayed in a magazine? Is losing your identity for a virtual image a fair trade? Take that make-up off and just be yourself. You are beautiful. 

1)  Percy, L., and M.R. Lautman, ”Advertising, weight loss, and eating disorders”, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum (1994), p. 301-311;

2)  Nancy Etcoff et al., ”The Real Truth about Beauty: A Global Report. Findings of the Global Study on Women, Beauty and Well-Being”, commissioned by Dove, a Unilever Beauty Brand (September, 2004).


Irina Alexandra Iles  irina.iles@gmail.com

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