Beauty is an abstract idea, something that everyone interprets differently. Definitions of physical beauty change across cultures and over time. Plato’s theory on beauty, however, claims that beauty is actually objective: invisible, eternal, and unchanging – and those who understand it simply shape-shift to participate in its form.
Over time, physical beauty has been overwhelmingly measured, sometimes literally, by waves of popular characteristics: youthfulness, physical symmetry, body ratios, hair length. Throughout history, perceived beauty has affected the choices and behaviors of mostly women – as history has been overarchingly written by the views of privileged, white men. The texts we read and the paintings we look at, from the Bible to medieval times, and all the way up until the mid 20th century, are in majority, produced by men. Currently, men continue to find themselves in the majority of power positions, as CEOs of companies, high-ranking government officials, police officers, news producers. Men, put simply, have written history, and in turn, have written the guidebook as to what beauty is.
Women, throughout time, have been objectified, meaning they have been recognized by their physical beauty first, instead of their intelligence, behaviors, skills, or other attributes. Objectification is everywhere in western cultures and quickly turns into sexual objectification, where women are seen as not only objects but objects simply for the sexual desires of men. Sadly, often women are forced to participate in their own objectification, whether for monetary gain, social acceptance by others, or for other reasons. Examples of this behavior include women working at Hooters, women participating in beauty competitions, or women modeling for marketing campaigns and advertisements. Kim Kardashian promoting her own sex tape, Playboy models splaying across centerfolds, and women being told to “keep up appearances” in daily life, are all examples of how the male gaze has promoted and defined society’s parameters for what beauty is, and how women are to maintain it.
In contrast, perhaps it is not the views of men in high power that have defined beauty standards. Perhaps Plato is right. What if, instead of thinking of beauty as a physical attribute, we examine beauty as a feeling – a connection to something bigger than our bodily selves. Maybe this is what society is after. Maybe this is what people mean when they reference “inner beauty”. When we hug, kiss, touch, or orgasm, our bodies release a hormone called “Oxytocin”, frequently referred to as ‘the Cuddle Hormone’. This hormone can make people feel deeply connected to one another, it can make another person appear more attractive, and research shows that it also decreases levels of stress and anxiety. Beauty can, yes, be viewed as simply the way someone looks or the way someone maintains their appearance; but, if we look at this through a biological lens, beauty is also a visual signal reflecting the internal health of a person or animal. Charles Darwin is credited with birthing ideas of natural selection and sexual selection, which explain how some animals have evolved with colorful ornaments to attract strong, healthy mates in hopes to produce the best offspring. Beauty, in this sense, is all about subconsciously choosing someone for reproductive success – to ensure that a partner has no biological defects. Maybe this is simply why beauty falls onto the plates of women in society: because they have the ability to reproduce, they must attract the smartest, healthiest, most well-rounded mate. In biology, this idea is known as “female choice”, and it is seen in hundreds of species. Maybe women actually have the power here. Maybe females are the definers of beauty.
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Nardelli, Francesco, “Female Adornment in Humans and Animals” www.researchgate.net/publication/272818125_Female_adornment_in_humans_and_animals, 2015/02/25, 2019/10/29
Jabr, Ferris, “How Beauty Is Marking Scientists Rethink Evolution”, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/magazine/beauty-evolution-animal.html, 2019/1/9, 2019/10/29
Santos-Longhurst, Adrienne, “Why is Oxytocin Known as the “Love Hormone?”, www.healthline.com/health/love-hormone, 2018/8/30, 2019/10/29
Pappas, Nickolas, ”Plato’s Aesthetics”, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-aesthetics/ ,2008/6/27, 2019/10/29