Every now and then, someone tries to make a case for objective beauty–the notion that there is a quasi-scientific way to judge whether a person is attractive or not. They will bang on about facial symmetry and the golden mean . Or they will note early man’s sexual predilections, trumpeting “natural” attraction to youth and child-bearing hips. They (poorly) analyze survey data. In the end, all this so-called objectivity simply serves to uphold white, Western standards of beauty. After witnessing the sturm und drang following a host of allegedly objective pronouncements about beauty, I’m convinced they’re all bunk. Beauty, as we all learned as children, is in the eye of the beholder. It is subjective–always and forever.
The latest minor storm over beauty standards came this week when several news outlets took a contest sponsored by a British chat show seriously. The ITV program , “Lorraine,” pronounced 18-year-old Florence Colgate (above) a perfect, natural beauty and “Britain’s most beautiful face.” American news outlets, including ABC’s “Good Morning America” and the Gawker network online jumped on the story of the lovely Ms. Colgate, touting her “perfect” dimensions. It was no surprise to many that a young, white, blonde and blue-eyed woman would be held up as the face of beauty. This is the (racially-biased) standard, after all, that Western women of all races are judged against. Indeed, one Carmen Lefèvre, from the University of St Andrews perception laboratory in the School of Psychology, gave the game away when she was quoted in The Daily Mail. She said, “Florence has all the classic signs of beauty. She has large eyes, high cheekbones, full lips and a fair complexion.” (Bold mine.)
And that’s the thing. Facial symmetry and other measurable factors may influence what we find attractive, but I’d wager that nurture (societal and personal bias) has more to do what we like than nature. Consider if Florence Colgate’s face possessed the same proportions, yet was a rich, cocoa brown, rather than pale white. What if she wore a teenie weenie afro rather than long, loose blonde hair? What if her face was fatter? Will people still find this young woman beautiful 40 years from now, when her face has wrinkled and perhaps her hair has grayed? Chances are, any of these factors would change our perceptions of her attractiveness. We are a culture that, for now, worships whiteness, thinness and youth–especially for women. Women of color, fat women and older women are generally left out of the beauty paradigm.
But beauty standards change (which should be a big sign that they are subjective). Compare the body types revered during the mid-20th century to the ones championed today. Just last year, Allure magazine declared the “All-American Beauty” dead. When asked to rate a bunch of non-celebrity models, the magazine’s readers chose a Latina woman and a South Asian man as ideals. This week, Beyonce became the second black woman to be named People magazine’s “most beautiful.” Who knows what the future of beauty holds. It’s a safe bet what we find beautiful 20 years from now will be based, in great part, on a host of things more abstract than measured space between brow and hairline.
This discussion should not be a referendum on whether Florence Colgate is attractive or not. Weigh in on beauty standards and whether you think they are objective or subjective.