For an industry that loves to break with tradition, upend rules, and challenge cultural conventions, the fashion world rarely compromises on its one hard and fast criterion: all models must be the same. With minor exceptions, the models chosen for the runway are carbon copies of one another. Frequently European, facially symmetrical and size-zero, models are the least diverse constituent of the business.
The New York Times’ Fashion Review recently highlighted the shift from the 1960’s Twiggy standards of beauty towards the more rounded figure. Even so, such a change is not praise-worthy. The fashion world embraces diversity in fashion, but refuses to embrace the diversity of human physicality. Our cultural standards have merely been restructured, not improved.
In an effort to fight these standards, French parliamentarian Valérie Boyer created a stir last year by proposing new legislation requiring labels on all retouched photographs. Bruce Crumley of Time Magazine encapsulates Boyer’s rationale:
[Boyer] feels that the idealized beauty in such photos is giving people false expectations of how the world should look — and how they should look as well. Because digitally enhanced photos are often used in mass-marketing campaigns for everything from soft drinks to luxury cars to travel packages, Boyer says the images are gradually leading to a standardization of what is considered beautiful — and by extension, what isn’t.
The “standardization” Crumley refers to is the same that has been around since the influence of the Greeks and Romans. In Ancient Greek culture, beauty, in both men and women, was of utmost importance. Greek sculptors attempted to represent what they believed to be the universal ideal in the figures they shaped; the 10-year war in The Iliad was fought over because of “fair-tressed Helen of Troy.” They highly esteemed beauty because they intuitively regarded objects with symmetry or pleasing proportions as beautiful. In devising what they believed was the universal ideal, they were preoccupied with beauty as part of their study of the metaphysical.
Western culture has largely inherited this view of beauty, with some modifications and without a desire to study metaphysics. In a time of plastic surgery, fashion and digital retouching, these standards are not merely part of an unattainable ideal represented in art, but are standards we now continually seek to achieve.
Standards of beauty today dictate expectations for women, men, children and ethnic minority groups across the board. 17th Century author Aphra Behn appealed to this standard in her description of her fictional character Oroonoko, who was attractive for his adherence to European ideals:
His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome.
The growing number of ethnic minority groups represented in fashion magazines gives off the dubious image that diversity is becoming the norm; and we sometimes believe this trend is ushering in a more civilized and compassionate age. In reality, as it has always been, models are still expected to reach the assumed “higher universal ideal” made requisite by our culture; putting pressure on black women to hide the natural texture of their hair and using makeup to enhance the largeness of Asian eyes.
But few of us stop to consider the possibility that the higher ideal transcends racial and cultural borders. While we may all agree that attributes such as clear skin and balanced features are more attractive, there is something inherently beautiful in human appearance, not merely those appearances that fit a single race or culture’s “standard of beauty.” This inclusive universal beauty is difficult to quantify, and yet, arguably, fits the “universal standard” better, because it embraces—rather than rejects—what is natural.
As Boyer pointed out, our culture’s standards of beauty have far reaching implications for consumers. A recreation of the Clark Doll Experiment (the test starts at 3:23), by high school student Kiri Davis, is just one example of how our narrow assessment of beauty negatively impacts individual and communal identity and value.
We are inundated with the message that everyone can be attractive, so long as we buy the right products, hire the right consultants and wear haute couture. Ours is a culture with the implicit maxim “we too can be as gods.” But our obsession takes a toll on who we think we are and leads us to prejudice, alienating other human beings we do not consider “classically beautiful.”
There are influential leaders like politician Boyer, model Crystal Renn, and comedian Chris Rock, who are actively seeking ways to poke holes in these standards. We must also seek to embrace diversity in order to fight the tyranny of mainstream standards of beauty.
Photo by Peter Duhon. ‘