The Essence of Beauty Ideals

Victoria Beckham: an emblem of beauty diversity!

In general, I rather like Linda Wells and what she's done with Allure--it's not my favorite magazine but I also think that they give interesting treatment to topics that I'm interested in. That said, I'm not sure what to think of this interview with her about the shifting beauty ideal. It's hard to tell how much is her and how much is the reporter, but there seems to be a self-congratulatory tone here--not exactly self-congratulatory of Allure, but of Americans for having come so far, baby. Call the press: Americans are capable of finding women who aren't blond-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned beautiful! (Is this news to anyone?)

Wells takes the route of acknowledging that a broader range of beauty ideals doesn't mean that we actually find more women beautiful, but rather that people who embody any particular beauty ideal are indeed "younger, thinner, and prettier" than the average woman. By its nature, a beauty ideal is exclusionary. But what gets lost here is that the reason we look at certain people as beauty ideals is that they possess a quality that appears to be both wholly natural yet simultaneously unattainable by the majority of us, no matter what artificial routes we take. She has that star quality that we often translate to mean beautiful; it's that quality that makes her special, not the idea that she's something that the rest of us need to strive for. Hell, if we're going to insist upon looking at any woman first for her appearance, we may as well appreciate those looks in their own merit instead of as a template for the rest of us.

The beauty ideal is not the same thing as the essence of beauty. I'm not even saying this in a you-go-girl way; I'm saying it in a practical way. I don't think for two seconds that the fact that America has apparently opened its mind to different beauty ideals means that we've actually shifted what we think of as beautiful. (I'd argue that most people detect and react to beauty based on their own internal meters, not on something based on what's essentially in fashion, but that's a different post.) I suspect what it's done is simply created more "categories" of women, taking what could ostensibly be a simple appreciation of beauty and forcing it to the top of a pyramid, with, say, Penelope Cruz at the top of one, Christina Hendricks  atop another, and Gwyneth Paltrow reigning over her own raw, vegan perch.

I remember what Rosie Molinary said about Latina stereotypes: That for Latina women there's one sort of representative from each country, so if you're Mexican but don't look like Salma Hayek, it's like you're not the "best" Mexican. (Which is funny, because her father is Lebanese.) I think that's particularly true for women of color, but I think it applies across the board too, which is why we're so fascinated with celebrity lookalikes. Kate Winslet—yes, I'm trotting her out, despite my wish not to Kate-Winslet-as-verb anybody—was such a breath of fresh air for women because she looked a little bit more like the average woman than other celebrities (except, of course, she doesn't; Kate Winslet is as ordinary as I am Portuguese). But it's not like I really felt better about my body once she came on the scene; it was more like, Oh, great, now I need to be a fucking Kate Winslet type? (Honestly, this is part of what irks me about "real women have curves": Besides implying that thin women are impostors, there's also a particular way in which it's acceptable to be curvy. Why else did that false meme about Marilyn Monroe being a size 16 circulate for years? My body will never resemble hers any more than it would resemble Gwyneth Paltrow's.)

I don't have a problem with us as a culture looking toward beautiful women and appreciating them as just that. (I remember once realizing that I'd spent 20 minutes doing nothing other than looking at photographs of Lindsay Lohan.) But I'm wary of saying that we've somehow made progress simply because beauty ideals other than Linda Evangelista exist.