Expanding What We Think Is Beautiful

In the comments to our last post, Stef asks, “And can people (of any age) relearn what they think is beautiful — change it or add to it? If so how can we encourage people to learn to find more realistic, more diverse images of people beautiful?”

And Guy Thomas answers: “I certainly think my ideas about what is beautiful have changed or at least expanded. … I think familiarity helps expand our appreciation of beauty. Once you see enough people in wheelchairs that you can notice anything besides the wheelchair. You can start noticing how one has nice hair or beautiful eyes or pretty ebony skin etc.”

Obviously, we both believe, with Guy, that people can relearn their definitions of beauty–and power, and desirability, and strength–that’s why we do this work.

We live in a time where the mass-market definitions of beauty are contracting: getting ever thinner, ever more buffed, ever younger, ever less plausible. At the same time, various communities and subcultures are expanding their range for “beautiful,” while other groups are successfully defending age-old traditional standards. In some progressive circles in the United States, aging women are now represented much more frequently as sexy than we were thirty years ago. Meanwhile, in many segments of the African-American and Latino communities, the power and sexiness of fat in both men and women is and has always been appreciated, in a way that is not true in the larger society.

As we said in our first post, “you can talk and write about body image until you’re blue in the face, but if you aren’t showing images, you aren’t doing squat.” This is why we’re committed to books, because books are tangible, intimate, and lasting in a way that gallery shows are not. People share our books with friends; they end up in therapists’ offices, university libraries, and all kinds of helpful places. And this is also why we’d like to use this blog to create a reference library of photographic (and other) images that help us expand our range of beauty.

Here are two places to start: early 20th-century Germany and (thanks to Luke McGuff for the pointer!) contemporary China. Where would you go next?

2 thoughts on “Expanding What We Think Is Beautiful

  1. When I was a kid, I went through a period of reading all of the fairytale books I could find. One of the books I read was Russian Fairy Tales, which included a story that described three beautiful girls. It had an accompanying picture that depicted the girls as fat. (I was surprised at this at the time, and my mother told me that there was a time when people thought fat was beautiful, but that’s a whole other post.)

    If you can find this book somewhere, it might be a good source.

  2. Some Different Definitions of Beauty

    In Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (written in about 1849), several young men were discussing whether they would be willing to marry an ugly girl.

    Here’s the passage:

    ‘Would you take an old woman?’

    ‘I’d rather break stones on the road.’

    ‘So would I. Would you take an ugly one?’

    ‘Bah! I hate ugliness and delight in beauty. My eyes and heart, Yorke, take pleasure in a sweet, young, fair face, as they are repelled by a grim, rugged, meagre one. Soft delicate lines and hues please, harsh ones prejudice me. I won’t have an ugly wife.’

    ‘Not if she were rich?’

    ‘Not if she were dressed in gems. I could not love – I could not fancy – I could not endure her. My taste must have satisfaction, or disgust would break; out in despotism, or worse – freeze to utter iciness.’

    ‘What! Bob, if you married an honest good-natured, and wealthy lass, though a little hard-favoured, couldn’t you put up with the high cheek-bones, the rather wide mouth, and reddish hair?’

    ‘I’ll never try, I tell you. Grace at least I will have, and youth and symmetry – yes, and what I call beauty.’

    High cheekbones, wide mouth, red hair–all sounds like beauty to me. And in these days, they are beauty. Sarah Bernhardt was mocked and caricatured because she was tall and skinny in an age when the 200-pound Lillian Russell was a beauty.

    And Psyche, the White Rock soda icon, started out in the 1890s as 5’4″ and 140 pounds. Now she’s 5’8″ and 118.

    Our idea of beauty is growing more extreme in some ways–further and further than the average woman (who is about 5’4″ and 143 pounds).

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