What is Beauty?

Elizabeth B. Pearce

Although the famous saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” originated in the 3rd centruy BC and was revived in its current form by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in 1878, it can also be said that society, and the media in particular, create and reinforce stereotypical ideas of beauty.

Beauty is a social construct. It is based on societally agreed upon ideas that have been ingrained into our systems over time and have been accepted as the norm(al) visual representation. These ideas of beauty slowly become embedded into our minds on a micro level, and affect the way we operate. There is a bi-directional relationship with societal forces including media, marketing, businesses, government and other institutions. These forces influence  youth affect appearance, cosmetics, behavior and clothing. The media, of which 90% is controlled  by four media conglomerates who are predominantly White middle-class and wealthy males,[1]  are responsible for creating and reinforcing preferences and biases which reinforce the dominant culture’s idea of beauty.

Western society has identified particular aspects of physical appearance as being beautiful, or desirable.  People with these characteristics are favored and featured. This is known as the halo effect, in which additional favorable characteristics are associated with “attractiveness”.  One example of this effect applies to academia.  While it is acknowledged that the face’s physical appearance may indicate important characteristics such as physical health, it has also been found that it is used inaccurately to predict a person’s academic performance.  Using the faces of university students, researchers learned that subjects inaccurately attributed competence and intelligence to more attractive faces.[2] This can have long term implications for success in education, as other research has found that teachers’ expectations of learners can have a positive or negative effect on their learning.[3]

Another example from academia describes how gender, perceived attractiveness, and age intersect to affect how students’ perception of physical appearance moderate their experience of the actual behavior of faculty. When students rated the perceived qualities of instructors based on appearance in a 2014 study, women’s age and attractiveness were linked (older women were judged to be less attractive). Less attractiveness correlated with judgments students made about prospective faculty; that those less attractive (and older) were also less likely to be organized and/or have rapport with their students, illustrating the halo effect.[4]

There have been some insightful analyses of attractiveness and facial symmetry related to pay and job attainment in sports.  The most well-known relates to “quarterback-face”.  Using computer measurements, economists found that while taking into account career statistics, experience, pro Bowl appearances, and draft position, one standard deviation of symmetry of facial structure led to an eight percent increase in pay.[5] This holds true for starting quarterbacks in the National Football League (NFL), and even more strongly for back-up quarterbacks.

Beauty can and does change from place to place, from culture to culture, and from person to person.   It is demonstrated via society’s products, patterns, trends, wants and desires. It is influenced biologically, by pheromones and natural physical attractions. This shows us that it is a social construction.  The threat to family well-being is when that socially constructed idea is assigned different value or worth, based on physical appearance. Bullying, fewer academic opportunities, and loss of employment can all be linked to the idealized conception of beauty.  The halo effect can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where those who fit the social construction of attractiveness, are perceived as being more valuable members of society, which then may lead to preferential treatment and more life chances, thereby increasing the person’s likelihood of succeeding.[6]

So what does this mean for us, the readers and writers of this text?  It means that we need to be aware and pay attention to what we might call our “intuition” or “gut” feelings about who is deserving of the benefit of the doubt, or of an extra opportunity. Sometimes those instinctual feelings are masking some preference for attractiveness and/or an implicit bias. We can teach our children, students, peers, and colleagues the same. By making this topic discussable, we can work toward achieving equity in education, employment and experience.

Beauty, Art, and Identity

The dominant culture is powerful.  Finding ways to fit in is important and sometimes people go to extremes to fit into what is deemed desirable. For example, in the film ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, the movie rewards Rachel Chu for mimicking European beauty standards. She  is preparing for a big wedding, and has a friend who comments how they need to get her eyelids taped, which is a popular method for East Asian and Asian Americans to remove their monolids and appear more caucasion. In this movie, whiteness is provided as the aesthetic for beauty standards, particularly Euro-American standards. The continual reinforcement of one kind of beauty creates tension and conflict for families between this ideal, their own culture, and individuality.

Four images of women with body art.
Fig. 8.21. Examples of body art.

Art and beauty matter.  Make-up and facepaint reflect both culture and idealized beauty standards. Native American men use face paint to identify themselves, align with hopes and dreams, demonstrate their honor, and before battle. Paints came from a variety of natural materials and held significance related to color and pattern.[7] Drag families that form with various familiar family roles use costumes and make-up to express identity, role, and representation.[8] Tattoos and piercings have a long history of affiliation with beauty and expression and have only grown in recent decades in importance related to identity.  And yet there are questions and concerns related to employment when one has tattoos; bias against tattoo-users is a worry. The complexity of how each person and family member sees oneself, influenced by the societal norms that favor certain appearances continue to affect functionality of both families and society.

Diversity in culture can inspire people to express and reinforce their own identities whether or not they are in the dominant group. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the wildly popular Broadway musical and film, Hamilton: An American Musical (aka Hamilton), talks about his love of theater as an adolescent, but the limited view he had of his own expressive abilities until he saw Rent, the 1996 rock musical with music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson. Hamilton premiered in 2015 and has won both critical and popular acclaim, including multiple Drama Desk and Tony awards, sold out performances on Broadway and with three national tours, ended only by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air in June 2020, Miranda said,

Really, the only thing I saw that really gave me permission to write musicals was “Rent,” which was an incredibly diverse cast. And I went from being a fan of musicals to writing musicals when I saw that show because it was the thing that gave me permission…it was contemporary, and it had Latino actors and Black actors. And it told me you’re allowed to write what you know into a show. No other musical had told me that…

…So it was truly the first contemporary musical I’d seen and and, I think, got me from being a kid who was in school musicals and loved them but just thought they were written by other people, like, by, like, old White people on the Upper East Side, to giving me permission. And it’s been gratifying to see how these shows, “Heights” and “Hamilton” in particular, like, not only provide employment but also provide, like, permission and amplification of a lot of other voices.[9]

Miranda’s statement demonstrates explicitly the importance of diverse voices being created, produced, and publicized. Identity and art are intertwined and influence individuals and families in their development, structure, and daily lives.

Conclusion

Visual culture influences family, in both the public function of caregiving and private function of emotional bonds we share with one another. Equity in access to and representation of visual culture will foster the ability of every individual and family to meet their potential. Art brings families together and simultaneously displays how we view the family at any point in time. It helps us notice the socially constructed nature of the family, and of our ideas of beauty.  It can be a tool that is used for expression and to foster change.Visual representations depict ideas that we may not be able to put into words.  After all, we are humanly wired to do this; to understand, categorize, to express, and to make sense of meaning. Visual Culture creates the avenue for both our own creativity and for us to better understand the world.

 

Colorful art depicting science, numbers and alphabet.
Fig. 8.22. “The Learning Child” by Gilbert Ibañez

 

Licenses and Attributions

Open Content, Shared Previously

Figure 8.20. “native american dancer c” by alandberning. License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. “several piercings” by Sara Marx. License: CC BY 2.0. “celtic Cross” by scorpion1985x. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0“face painting” by clickclique. Licensed: CC BY-NC 2.0

Figure 8.21. “The Learning Child” by Gilbert Ibañez. License: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

 


  1. Wikipedia. (n.d.). Media conglomerate. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_conglomerate
  2. Talamas, S. N., Mavor, K. I., & Perrett, D. I. (2016). Blinded by beauty: Attractiveness bias and accurate perceptions of academic performance. PLOS ONE, 11(2), e0148284. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0148284
  3. Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. F. (1968). Teacher expectations for the disadvantaged. Scientific American, 218(4), 19–23.
  4. Wilson, J. H., Beyer, D., & Monteiro, H. (2014). Professor age affects student ratings: Halo effect for younger teachers. College Teaching, 62(1), 20–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2013.825574
  5. Berri, D. J. (2008, September 16). Do pretty-boy quarterbacks make more money? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/14/sports/playmagazine/0914play-FBALL-QBS.html
  6. Wikipedia. (n.d.). Physical attractiveness. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_attractiveness
  7. Gowder, P. (2011, July 21). Face painting traditions & meanings. PowWows.com. https://www.powwows.com/face-painting-traditions-among-men-of-the-plains/
  8. National Center for Transgender Equality. (2017, April 28). Understanding drag. https://transequality.org/issues/resources/understanding-drag
  9. Miranda, L-M. (2020, June 29). 'Hamilton' creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. (T. Gross, Interviewer) [podcast]. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/29/884691708/hamilton-creator-lin-manuel-miranda

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Contemporary Families: An Equity Lens by Elizabeth B. Pearce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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